It seems that Southern culinary heirlooms are more and more in the public eye these days, as chefs and cookbook authors like Sean Brock, John Besh, and Matt and Ted Lee sing the praises of their historic local foodways. It’s enough to make you want to hop on a plane and taste for yourself.
But if you can’t, can you replicate the experience with a good cookbook? “The Lee Bros. Charleston Kitchen,” gorgeously produced and lovingly assembled by the longtime food writers, tries to answer that question, which is both yes and no. Many recipes call for red field peas or chainey briar or sorghum molasses or shellfish from the Tidewater region, and these will have you scrambling online to figure out what some of them are. Others can be attempted with a less site-specific portfolio of ingredients, particularly as summer fills the farmstands of the Northeast.
Our testing begins in a heat wave, so I fortify myself with a Hugo cocktail (named for the 1989 hurricane, which hit Charleston hard). On a sweltering afternoon, quaffing a Hugo is like getting socked on the nose with a cold, limey, gingery punch, but in a nice way.
Savory benne (“benne” is Southern for “sesame”) wafers are buttery and almost too perfect for wolfing down with a cold one. I give myself that before-dinner stomachache I’m always warning the kids about. A dollop of cold shrimp butter baked right into shrimp popovers makes the end product taste a bit like a lobster roll, minus the meaty chunks. It’s a heftier popover than some might prefer. But then again, it’s a popover, which means you’ll eat it anyway.
A great many recipes revolve, unapologetically, around bacon. Long-cooked green beans are pillowy and accommodating grandmother beans with soft and streaky bacon nestled within. I felt like eating it straight out of the pot, in a flowered apron.
Brussels sprouts with “benne” and bacon travel halfway to Asia by way of vinegar and sesame oil, and then come to a screeching, porky halt before getting to the soy. It’s one of those conversion dishes you save to spring on people who think they don’t like Brussels sprouts.
If a pristine salad is your idea of the perfect meal, don’t make dirty rice. It’s full of sausage, chicken liver, and bacon, and ridiculously rich, rolling in aromatics and red pepper flakes. You need some greens to offset it, and the Lees suggest a side of collards cooked with four peppers. Knowing how pork and collards usually get along, we were surprised to find no bacon among the greens. What they did have was smoked paprika, a common substitute that some find satisfying.
Shrimp and grits in the Lees’ first cookbook, seven years ago, was for a long time my favorite, but their new one gives it a run for its money. It’s a bit more polished-looking, the shrimp halved lengthwise so their corkscrew curls pick up bacony, tomato-y puree. But it has the same graceful economy, a stock from the shells flavoring and moistening the whole.
Firm-fleshed mahi gets a cornmeal crust, which buttermilk helps make stick. For tartar sauce, you put together quick Jerusalem artichoke pickles, worth it for the pinball interplay of crust and vinegar, cream and earthy crunch. A pilau (just a Southern pilaf, really) may be the least interesting thing we tested, but the tomato glaze that adorns the chicken and rice lingers winningly on the tongue. In an unexpected pairing of asparagus and grapefruit, the sharp citrus makes the asparagus taste somehow more buttery beneath its perfect film of char.
As is probably clear by now, the Lees are not in the business of abstinence, and a Huguenot torte for dessert is toothachingly sweet and generously studded with pecans (though whipped cream tempered with buttermilk refines the tone a little).
Physically, “The Lee Bros. Charleston Kitchen” may be the best argument I’ve seen all year for buying a hard copy rather than an e-book. The photography is astounding, the pace unhurried, the anecdotes mouthwatering. Even better, the time estimates for each recipe are correct. Once or twice I even found myself with a couple of extra minutes to sit down with my Hugo and page through the pictures, which instantly whisked me South through 10 degrees of latitude. I didn’t regret not springing for airfare to Charleston, and neither will you.