You’d think that if anyone knew anything about Charleston’s cuisine and food history, it would be the Lee brothers.
Award-winning cookbook authors Ted and Matt Lee have claimed this Southern port city as their hometown since the ages of 8 and 10. After moving to the Northeast for college and work, they launched their mail order business, the Lee Bros. Boiled Peanut Catalogue, because they missed such foods from home as sorghum, grits and, of course, boiled peanuts.
And they have celebrated Southern food in their two previous award-winning cookbooks, “The Lee Bros. Southern Cookbook,” and “The Lee Bros. Simple Fresh Southern.”
But they discovered plenty of things they never knew about their hometown while researching their latest cookbook, “The Lee Bros. Charleston Kitchen.”
Who knew, for instance, that the country’s most famous community cookbook, “Charleston Receipts,” had a precursor from the Charleston Junior League?
“Charleston Receipts,” published in 1950, received major write-ups in the New York Herald Tribune, National Geographic and Harper’s Bazaar. New York department store B. Altman and Co. even made it the centerpiece of a huge window display featuring Spanish moss, wrought-iron gates, sweetgrass baskets and many copies of the book.
Two years earlier, two junior members of the Charleston Junior League had written a red-covered volume called “Charleston Recipes.” The Lee Brothers interviewed people who suspect the little-known collection was so successful that it caught the attention of more senior League members and led to the later volume.
“I think it was like a trial balloon,” Matt Lee, 43, said in a phone interview with his brother, Ted, 41. “It’s part of the story that hasn’t been aired much recently.”
In our interview, the brothers shared more of their new discoveries about Charleston — discoveries highlighted in essays sprinkled throughout their new book.
Ted Lee said they learned the history behind Backman Seafood, a roadside seafood store on nearby James Island. In the 1960s, the owner was a widow named Susie Backman, a black woman who owned three 45-foot-long trawlers (one was named Scotch & Soda) and ran a thriving shrimping business. She was profiled in a 1965 issue of Ebony magazine in an article titled “Queen of Shrimpers.” A photo of a stylish Backman appears in the cookbook: She’s wearing cat-eyed sunglasses and her bejeweled fingers are fixing a fishing net.
And then there are the dishes no longer being served in Charleston restaurants or homes that the brothers discovered in old cookbooks. One was a dessert called syllabub, a wine-infused whipped cream popular in the 1800s; peach leather, which vanished a generation ago from Charleston kitchens; and deep-fried salsify “oysters,” a cousin of carrot that was a common crop in the mid-1800s.
About these revelations, Ted Lee said: “We’re constantly discovering more about a place we thought we knew well.”
Syllabub with Rosemary-glazed Figs
The Lee brothers write that this is a simple, decadent dessert ” came to Charleston with English settlers in 1700s, and was a fashionable dessert among well-to-do families in the Lowcountry until the early 20th century. From “The Lee Bros. Charleston Kitchen,” by Matt Lee and Ted Lee (Clarkson Potter, 2013).
½ cup Sercial Madeira or Amontillado sherry
Peel of ½ lemon
1 tablespoon fresh lemon juice
½ cup plus 1 ½ tablespoons sugar, divided
¼ cup water
1 cup heavy cream, cold
2 (3-inch) long sprigs rosemary
4 ounces fresh figs, about 4 large, stemmed and quartered
Make the syllabub: Put sherry, lemon peel, lemon juice, 1 ½ tablespoons sugar and a pinch of kosher salt in a large bowl and whisk until the sugar is dissolved, about a minute. Let stand in the fridge, about 1 hour.
Make the rosemary-glazed figs: Heat remaining ½ cup sugar and water in a small saucepan over medium heat, stirring until the sugar dissolves. Add the rosemary and a pinch of kosher salt, stir for 30 seconds to dissolve the sugar and bruise the rosemary, and turn off the heat. Cover and let cool to room temperature, about 20 minutes.
Put figs in a small bowl, drizzle 2 to 3 tablespoons of the rosemary syrup over them, and toss gently to coat. (If the figs are less than ripe, let them stand in the syrup for 30 minutes to sweeten.) Reserve the remaining syrup for another use, such as sweetening lemonade.
Remove lemon peel from the wine mixture. Pour the cream into the wine and whisk by hand until the cream is thick and holds its shape, about 2 minutes. Divide the syllabub among four wine glasses or sundae cups and spoon the rosemary-glazed figs over each serving.
Dinner at the Optimist: Lee Brothers
7 p.m. Tuesday (March 26). Dinner and signing. $65; does not include cost of book “Lee Bros. Charleston Kitchen”($35). The Optimist Fish Camp & Oyster Bar, 914 Howell Mill Road, Atlanta. 404-477-6260, theoptimistrestaurant.com, www.acappellabooks.com/event/lee-brothers-book-signing.