That ever-changing character, they noted, offers exciting possibilities for food.
“The greatest days for Southern food are ahead,” said Ted Lee. “A lot of people think we’ve got to look back. We don’t feel that way. The history of Southern food didn’t end in 1947. It’s an evolving, breathing organ.”
Lately, the Lee Bros. are excited to find commonalities between Southern flavors and those from pantries around the globe. They cited the semblance between classical Korean cuisine and Charleston low-country cooking. “There are hundreds of connections: okra, love of oysters, shellfish, rice, cabbage, collards,” said Matt Lee. “You smack your head and think: Why not attempt some low-country sushi or collard kimchee? It’s fun to play around with this stuff.”
And play they do, whether with their food travels or kitchen expeditions that have led to award-winning cookbooks like "The Lee Bros. Southern Cookbook," "The Lee Bros. Simple Fresh Southern" or the 2013 release "The Lee Bros. Charleston Kitchen."
The duo, who founded The Lee Bros. Boiled Peanuts Catalogue, a mail-order catalog for Southern pantry staples like stone-ground grits, fig preserves and boiled peanuts, said that while the rest of the country has more recently become smitten with Southern cuisine, sometimes Southerners themselves forget how special are the flavors in their own backyards.
They recalled how, in 1999, they pitched Southern food travel stories to a local Charleston paper and never heard back. However, when they sent the same ideas on the reprisal of lard, shrimp burgers and grinding grits on a mill to The New York Times, the behemoth daily paper immediately contacted them. “They were like, ‘Who are you people? We want all of this stuff,’ ” recalled Ted Lee. “The people who know this culture are taking it for granted. Sorghum molasses, the revolution in fresh grains — we’ve taken it for granted.”
Among the topics in Southern food culture that the brothers are not taking for granted right now is the rise of heirloom grains — facilitated by farmers who are custom-growing and custom-milling single-origin wheat and skilled bakers who are turning it into artisanal loaves.
While the Lee Bros. will touch on these topics during their lecture at the Atlanta History Center, during their visit to this city, they will save time and stomach space to visit some of their favorite Atlanta eateries. "We are so impressed by how far ahead of every place else it is culinarily," said Matt Lee. "Atlanta is a most dynamic city — and that's not to mention Buford Highway, where there are three generations of Koreans cooking in the kitchen. We can't find that in Charleston. That mixture of new immigrant cuisine, James Beard restaurants and fun concept dining; Atlanta has so many ways into food and for so many different moods and cravings."
The siblings’ shared enthusiasm for dining, cooking, travel and food history has led to the pair being closely identified with each other. They are the Lee Bros., after all. Yet they note that they do have different personalities, especially in the kitchen.
“When I am cooking, I decide what recipes I am going to cook, write a shopping list, go to places to track down ingredients, then get in the kitchen and cook from recipes,” said Ted Lee. “Matt is an intuitive cook. If he is doing a dinner party for six people, he will go to the market and get inspired. I am a rule follower. A list-maker and cross-things off-er, and I am a really messy cook.”
“He is the worst,” chimed in his brother. “But you can be sure Ted is going to clean it up that night. I would prefer to enjoy the night without the terrible chore of cleaning up.”