Matt and Ted Lee remember the pungent smell of boiled peanut shells souring on the floor of the aging red Toyota that took them on trips to the beach when they were teenagers in Charleston, South Carolina, in the early 1980s. "You boil the peanuts at home, or buy them from a roadside stand," says Matt, "and you eat them on your trip and throw the shells on the floor."
"Boiled peanuts are wonderful," adds Ted, 31. "And they're just about everywhere." Except, the Lees realized, in New York City.
It was this insight—that it was pretty much impossible to find a good boiled peanut, or even a bad one, in Manhattan—that came to Matt in 1994 as he soaked in a bathtub in the Lower East Side apartment he shared with his brother. Matt, now 33, was then contemplating failed careers as a restaurateur and as a Clinton press aide. (Working in Little Rock was fun, says Matt, but he "couldn't hack Washington.") He hunted down some raw peanuts at the Hunts Point Market in the Bronx, boiled them up and started hawking them to bars and restaurants.
Boiled peanuts are raw peanuts cooked in their shells in salted water for many hours. The shells turn soggy, and the peanuts take on a fresh, legumey flavor and texture more reminiscent of, say, a salty kidney bean than a traditional roasted goober. Boiled peanuts are the snack of choice in Alabama, northern Florida, the Carolinas and Georgia (the "epicenter," says Ted) and are an acquired taste. The Lees acquired it almost immediately as preteens, when their parents—their dad, William, is a gastroenterologist, their mom, Elizabeth, a school administrator—moved the family from New York City to Charleston, South Carolina.
For a while there, it looked as if Matt was going to have to add "failed boiled peanut salesman" to his résumé. New Yorkers, as they say, do not know from boiled peanuts. But just when the legumes were looking their soggiest, homesick Southern friends began asking for them. Matt enlisted his brother (then an editorial assistant at a publishing house) in the cause and stitched up a 4- by 5-inch Lee Bros. Boiled Peanuts Catalogue ("Your Secret Source for Authentic Southern Foods and Cookware") on an ancient Singer sewing machine. Then the brothers drove a sample of boiled peanuts the 92 blocks from their Ludlow Street apartment to the Upper West Side digs of Florence Fabricant, who writes the Food Notes column for the New York Times. "She hated them," says Matt. "But she understood them." More important, she wrote about them, reporting that the brothers were hawking their quirky offering as the "snack of the 90's." The day her story appeared, the Lees received 100 telephone calls, all requesting the now high-profile peanuts.
Since that fateful day eight years ago, the pair have spent much of their time on the road, tracking down suppliers of such delicacies as pickled ramps (wild onions), canned creecy greens (dryland watercress), poke salet (the young leaves of the poke weed) and Cheerwine soda, and shipping them to displaced Southerners as far away as Saudi Arabia, where an American diplomat once ordered 48 cans of boiled peanuts.
Dan Huntley, who writes about food for The Charlotte Observer in North Carolina, describes the Lees as "food-centric dudes...who look like skinny Buddy Hollys and could just as easily have been existentialist poets or front men for the Sex Kittens." Like the writers Jane and Michael Stern who preceded them in searching out America's culinary byways for their 1977 Roadfood, the Lees roam supermarket aisles, drive the countryside and pillage friends' pantries looking for what Matt calls "the zeitgeist of Southern food." In Tennessee, a Mennonite family provided them with pure sorghum (the syrup from sorghum grass). In Georgia, a newspaper item about a seed-saving ophthalmologist led them to a grower of true Carolina Gold rice. In North Carolina, they tracked down an 18th-century gristmill for authentic grits and cornmeal.
The Lees split their time between Manhattan and Charleston, but call the latter home, and revere the history that surrounds them there, the language of the landscape and the architecture. The brothers rent a one-room office in the Confederate Home & College, a redbrick Greek Revival with a lush courtyard dominated by a towering live oak. (The building housed Civil War widows and orphans.)
In addition to writing articles about buttermilk biscuits and okra for the New York Times and various food magazines, the brothers are working on a cookbook featuring recipes for hoppin' john, cheese straws, corncob wine and brown oyster stew. "This will not be merely a Southern cookbook," says Maria Guarnaschelli, their editor. "This will be the Lee brothers, taking us on a tour of the South."
And the Lees' South knows no restrictions. They are equally at home at Po' Pigs Bo-B-Q, an eatery tucked next to a gas station on Highway 174 near Edisto, and the elegant Charleston Place Hotel, where the brothers peruse a menu featuring "Local Burlill Duck and Vidalia Hash Pie" ($24). At the Piggly Wiggly grocery, in a considerably less tony part of town, they happily examine packages of pigs trotters (feet) and stock up on Duke's mayonnaise, considered by connoisseurs to be without significant competition.
Their favorite food source, though, just might be the Sassard family compound in Mount Pleasant, South Carolina. The Sassards—Dupre, his wife, Gertrude, their son, Allen, and daughter-in-law Dayna—have been pickling foods (okra, ramps, peaches, Jerusalem artichokes) and preserving (figs, pumpkin chips, berries) since Dupre's late mother, Edna, began the business in the small white clapboard house in 1917. Matt fondly recalls the customer who ordered "four of everything the Sassards produce and had it shipped to her castle in Scotland."
It was the brothers who spurred the family to bottle the syrup left over from the making of fig preserves. The Lees are currently trying to persuade the Sassards to make a watermelon rind preserve and to pickle figs. "They are a lot of trouble," says Mrs. Sassard with a sigh, referring to the figs, and suggesting, with a smile, that she could be talking about the Lees as well.
High on the brothers' wish list is a pig farmer who still feeds his animals chestnuts (to produce tasty country hams) and a maker of scuppernong preserves. "Scuppernongs are these big, jammy grapes with thick, tough skins," explains Matt. "We always used to eat them on the way to the beach, and throw the skins on the floor of the car." "There's an idea," says Ted. "Maybe we should do a catalog offering only foods we throw on the floor of the car."