Ted Lee ’93 (left) and his brother, Matt, are in it for the food.
Reviewed by John Thorne ’65
To look at the cover of this book is to ask, “What can these two skinny white guys know about Southern cooking?” Quite a lot, it turns out, but that doesn’t mean the photo is misleading. Despite the suggestion of the old manse in those tall, white columns and of Southern gentility in the cut flowers and white linens, the picture directs our attention to Matt and Ted Lee themselves, radiating the confident smiles of two successful entrepreneurs. In fact, the photo would make a fitting cover for an issue of Entrepreneur. But it seems an odd choice for a cookbook. What gives?
In 1994, Matt and Ted Lee were recent college graduates (Matt, Harvard; Ted, Amherst), sharing a tenement walkup in Manhattan’s Lower East Side and struggling with the torments of entry-level employment. One day a craving for boiled peanuts overcame them, and by the time they had tracked down a supply of raw peanuts in the shell, salt-brined them (eight hours), boiled them (five hours) and cooled them down (one hour), their apartment reeked of “hay, sweet potatoes and tea,” and opportunity had come knocking at the door.
“Lee Bros. Boiled Peanuts” wasn’t exactly an instant hit. Roasting peanuts brings them closer to the “nut” part of their name, but boiling them confirms that they’re “peas.” Boiled peanuts have a soft texture and a grassy, bean-y flavor slugged up with salt. Rare is the Yankee who gets beyond the first few nibbles. Still, one thing led to another: some choice publicity, a catalog of Southern foods, some writing gigs at The New York Times, a popular radio show and now this book—which was on a lot of pick-of-the-year lists this winter. Amazon.com named it the best cookbook of 2006.
That cover photograph helps explain why. The Lee brothers don’t look like Southerners (indeed, they were born in New York), just young and hip, and that signals right away that this isn’t your usual Southern cookbook. These two come to this cooking purely as enthusiasts. They’re not in the least obsessed with that region’s foodways or culinary history; they have none of the reverence for tradition so often woven into cookbooks written by true Southerners. Nope, they’re just here for the food.
The first chapter is devoted to drinks, many of them alcoholic. This is a good move, and not only because mixed drinks are hot these days. It sets the tone for what follows, the verbal equivalent of having a drink pressed into your hand—a Jack and ginger, say, or some Johns Island bourbon-laced iced tea—the moment you come in the door. The charm of this book is how much like a very good party it is, hosted by two laid-back guys who regale you with stories while they keep your glass topped up and your plate heaped with delicious food.
One way to judge a cookbook is by how many recipes in it you genuinely want to try. The Lee brothers excel in this department. I liked their way with many Southern standards, like fried green tomatoes, chicken bog (a sort of casserole), buttermilk-spiked chicken-fried steak and pickled peaches. Many of their own creations have the same appeal, including the “luau-style” (collard-wrapped) barbecued pork shoulder and the summer corn soup with butterbean dumplings, formed from a purée of those silky-textured legumes, fresh-picked and seasoned with lemon and mint.
All this is fine, as far as it goes—and at a dinner party, that’s far enough. As long as the drinks and food are good, my host can regale me with tales of his culinary adventures and attempt to impress me with his superior take on almost every Southern dish there is. But I want a little more from food writing, such as a coherent point of view and insights that leave me with something to chew on after I put down the book. The Lee brothers too often write in sound bites, setting up straw men in order to gleefully dismember them, helping themselves to snippets of history and lore when these serve their purpose, while ignoring (or dissing) those that don’t.
After asserting the primary role of field peas in hoppin’ John, the authors then scuttle the dish’s proud simplicity by adding a can of crushed tomatoes. They describe sweet potato pie as “leaden and dull” in order to set off their own buttermilk sweet potato chiffon-style pie, which is just plain wrong. There are enough other instances like this to make you suspect that the authors, for all their show of empathy, don’t really grasp the fact that Southern cooking at its best reflects the collective genius of a multitude of cooks—black and white, rich and poor, city and country.
The Lee brothers remark early on that “the long held perception that Southern food is a pinch-of-this, pinch-of-that cuisine inspired only by poverty and hardship—that it is all about lard—is history,” a statement that is both foolish and trite. Who has ever written (or believed) that Southern cooking has been inspired only by poverty and hardship? On the other hand, if you can’t discern the flavor of those things in any number of its dishes, you can hardly taste the soul of Southern cooking at all.
Thorne is the author of four collections of culinary essays, among them Outlaw Cook, which won the Julia Child Award. His next book, Mouth Wide Open, will be published in the fall. He lives in Northampton, Mass., where he produces his food letter, Simple Cooking.