That old adage "there's no place like home" is just a throwaway saying to some — and a famous movie quote to most. For Matt and Ted Lee, however, it has become a bit of a business model.
The Brothers Lee, you see, began their upward culinary journey as two boiled-peanut-loving South Carolinians who were peanut-less (well, of the boiled variety, at least) after moving to New York City. That sparked the idea: If we're craving our favorite hometown snack, surely there must be other transplanted Southerners across the country with a hankering for the sold-on-the-side-of-the-road delicacy. And so began the mail-order boiled peanuts business (BoiledPeanuts.com) — and the brothers' burgeoning career as purveyors, cookbook authors and de facto voices and keepers of Southern tradition and cuisine.
When a Craving Creates Your Career
"We certainly never set out to do what we're doing," Matt says of their stumbled-upon careers, talking on a phone from Austin, Texas, where he and Ted are currently promoting their third and newest cookbook, The Lee Bros. Charleston Kitchen.
The duo didn’t have a serious plan when they launched their boiled peanuts project. Matt says it was something they were trying on, "like a performance art piece. We're not businessmen by training; we're not entrepreneurs either. More like academics. We are as probing and geeky and at times historically concerned and accurate as an academic would be. That's what we can actually bring to this pursuit of Southern food, but at the same time, for it to continue to exist, it has to adapt to the new landscape."
The Lee brothers follow-up ventures have followed a more traditional path — publishing — and the brothers have achieved serious acclaim. Their first cookbook, The Lee Bros. Southern Cookbook, debuted in 2007 and earned two James Beard Awards: Best American Cookbook and Cookbook of the Year. Their second, The Lee Bros. Simple Fresh Southern, hit shelves in 2009. But Matt says that the Charleston Kitchen is "perhaps our most personal, and the cookbook we were born to write, because it delves so deep and wide into the home cooking and food traditions of our hometown."
Focusing on Ingredients
The current national obsession with simple food with superior flavor means that foodies are more likely to be interested in traditional Southern food. "People now increasingly are excited about ingredients and quality… They're engaged in that discussion to a degree we haven't seen in a long time, if ever," Matt says.
Take grits, for example. "It's just corn," Matt explains of the oh-so-Southern staple. "It's a humble, simple, timeless ingredient, but it can be the most magical ingredient in your pantry if you seek it out, find the one whose story you like, understand the way it was created and visit the mill where it was ground. It can inflame your passion about food to whatever degree you prefer."
And then, Matt recommends, you should make those grits your own. The Lees, for example, have spiked grits with a palmful of smoked paprika to create something homey, yet surprising.
The Expansion of Southern Cuisine
The food and restaurant world always has trends that come and go, be it an obsession over an ingredient (see currently: pork belly, burrata, Brussels sprouts) or a type of cuisine. Southern food is currently hip right now, thanks to the Lees and culinary powerhouses like Sean Brock and Edward Lee (no relation).
“Everything grows in the South,” explains Matt, “so from a food perspective, the range of ingredients, their availability… it's no wonder people are really hot on Southern cooking.”
Matt is optimistic this appreciation will continue to grow. "Some people in the South wonder if it's just a trend, and will attention drift elsewhere. But that gets me saying: 'Did attention drift elsewhere from Italian food?' Not really, it's now just part of the language. I'm hopeful the same applies with Southern food."
Coca-Cola, another Southern staple, has certainly made its way around the world — and found a home in the hearts of the Lee brothers. "We are long-time Coke fans. It's our go-to soft drink..."
Drinking it is just one aspect of their curiosity, though.
"We’ve been trying to reverse-engineer the formula and deduce what goes into it,” Matt admits.
As they yearn to unfurl the mysteries of all things edible from their beloved region, Matt and Ted have turned their attention to a new product, which they hope takes off like boiled peanuts: pure sorghum syrup.
What is it? It’s basically molasses made from sorghum cane in a remarkably arduous process akin to that of maple syrup production. The sorghum the Lee brothers sell on their website is made by a Mennonite family in Tennessee. Matt declares that the product "just has this wonderful juice in it, which when you boil it down and concentrate it, turns into this red-colored really full-flavored syrup. It puts to shame whatever crap you've been putting on your pancakes. Sorghum syrup on buttered biscuits or incorporated in place of corn syrup in your pecan pie recipe, it's just transformative."