Matt Lee is strolling up Ashley Avenue from Colonial Lake when a bicyclist and his dog whoosh past. “Hey, I like your peanuts!” the man calls out, and Lee acknowledges him with thanks. But Lee is preoccupied; he's casing the street.
Moments earlier, he had spied a gangly rosemary bush growing close to the sidewalk. With a furtive glance around and a guilty smile, he reached through the wrought-iron fence and snapped off a spiky stem of the herb, crushing the leaves with his fingers and inhaling the piney aroma.
They are purveyors of Southern food, nationally known food writers, cookbook authors, television figures and trumpeters of Lowcountry cuisine. And they, brothers Matt Lee and Ted Lee, are petty thieves.
Not that anybody much minds, at least in downtown Charleston, where they grew up on Rainbow Row. The Lees know many of the people from which they lift jewels of food, primarily fruits and nuts and perennial herbs that are tucked away in back or side yards, but also irresistibly available in the public domain.
Like the “chicken” mushrooms, actually a type of bracket fungi, found growing in the live oak trees in a park north of the Charleston Museum. “I'm not supposed to tell you that,” Lee says of this secret spot. “It's the only wild mushroom besides chanterelles that I have the confidence to pick and eat.”
Finding mulberries, loquats and kumquats and the like in their midst as teens laid the foundation for the Lees' livelihood as adults. Those discoveries tuned their tastebuds to things they otherwise might not have eaten. They also plugged the brothers into what they call an “underground economy” in which friends trade sources with great glee – “I'll tell you where a huge fig tree is, you tell me where you found your persimmons!”
“Holy City Foraging” is one of the many aspects of Lowcountry living that they relate in their newly published cookbook, “The Lee Bros. Charleston Kitchen.” Threaded with a narrative both personal and historical — one that offers a delicious insider's perspective — its 100 recipes are a treasure trove of familiar ingredients.
Among the 240 pages are comfort foods such as smothered pork chops and fried chicken, “tribute” dishes that include Henry's Cheese Spread, classics like Shrimp Supreme from “Charleston Receipts” and those that reach deep into Charleston's culinary past, such as syllabub, a dessert of whipped cream and Madeira that dates back to the 1700s.
There are recipes, too, that bear the Lees' signature twists, including Smoked Egg Salad Toasts, Sweet Potatoes With Sorghum Marshmallows and Grapefruit Chess Pie. In the Drinks chapter, those with a thirst for inventiveness will delight to the likes of Muscadine Sangria, Loquat Manhattan and Kumquat-Chile Bloody Mary.
All along, there are stories. The brothers recount the well-publicized 1951 visit of New York Herald Tribune food editor Clementine Paddleford, the start of G&M Cafe on Broad Street, the Magwood family of shrimpers. And even the rogue guinea fowl of Lamboll Street (no recipe included).
“Here, Charleston is the star,” says Matt, describing the difference between this cookbook and the previous two. “This is the first cookbook without us on the cover. We just wanted to express Charleston in cookbook form as best and as vividly as we could.”
To that end, he says, they did “a ton of interviews” and buried themselves in research, such as digging into the archives at Middleton Place. There they uncovered convincing evidence that the “Tomato Sauce” recipe found in Sarah Rutledge's 1847 cookbook “The Carolina Housewife” came from Paolina Middleton, the Italian woman who wed Rutledge's cousin Arthur Middleton in 1841.
Matt, 43, and Ted, 41, always write in the royal “we” voice, but the brothers are very distinct personalities.
As home cooks, “Matt is a much more intuitive chef, he's a farmers market buyer. He likes to go and see what's there and get inspired,” says Ted, who lives in New York with his wife, an artist. “I much prefer to have a shopping list. I may depart from it but usually I don't. I'm like the one that goes to six different markets to find the right shrimp. … I'm a recipe follower.”
“He loves the comfort of a script and a script throws me off,” adds Matt, chiming in on a conversation taking place by speaker phone in their no-frills office —warmed only by a space heater — in the Confederate Home on Broad Street. Matt lives full-time in Charleston with his wife and two young sons.
Despite Americans' time-crunched lives, both see the interest in home cooking on the rise, although playing out differently than in the past.
“In the past five years, I think home cooks are more interested in sources,” Ted says. “Where you get it has become part of the conversation.”
Compared to the era of “Charleston Receipts,” adds Matt, a greater variety of people are cooking, from elderly men to kids. “They really didn't cook that often back then.”
It's not just putting food on the table these days; cooking is considered a form of entertainment, Matt says. “An alternative to going to the movies on Friday night ... getting messy in the kitchen.”
With the growth of Charleston's restaurant industry, are the city's chefs becoming the new standard-bearers of the cuisine?
The Lowcountry has nothing to fear from that expansion, Ted maintains. Most importantly, the chefs are employing local sources of fresh ingredients, although sometimes in new ways. Yet culinary traditions like oyster roasts and tea rooms remain strong among the resident population.
“Charleston is not just a sophisticated restaurant town but a sophisticated home cooking town,” Matt says.
The brothers also are heartened by the emergence of young independent farmers in the area in recent years. “We can only assume the best,” Matt says. “That they will mature, get winnowed out by experience; the hardiest will survive, flourish and become the next generation of farmers.” While the will is there, he says, the real question is whether there will be real estate affordable for anyone to farm.
The shrimping industry, another backbone of culinary tradition, is in a more precarious situation, they say. It's dependent on the price of gas, but there also may be an unexplained biological component, Matt says. In shrimping's heyday, there were 350 boats or so working the Carolina coast, and now there might be 65. “And now there is less shrimp than there was then.”
At the same time, other fisheries show promise for the future, they learned while writing the book. Mahi, for one, is exceptionally sustainable because of its fast growth and maturity. “I happen to love it, and it's available here,” Matt says. The book includes a recipe for Cornmeal-Crusted Mahi With Jerusalem Artichoke Tartar Sauce.
As for another future, the foraging of food and the sharing of it among neighbors, the Lees see no signs of that abating. It continues not only as part of Holy City hospitality, but for practical reasons, too.
“The thing is, if you have one of those trees, whether it's a pecan tree in a good year or a kumquat, you need to get rid of that stuff or it's going to be garbage on your lawn,” Matt says. “You don't get a choice. You give it away or find a happy home for it.”
Reach Teresa Taylor at 937-4668.