Having grown up on Charleston's famed Rainbow Row, tying drop lines to catch blue crabs at ages 7 and 9, brothers Matt and Ted Lee know better than most that there is more to the Holy City's culinary landscape than its recently red-hot restaurant scene.
It was that landscape and its cast of characters, which range from award-winning chefs to equally skilled but less written-about homecooks to crabbers to commercial fishermen and farmers, that the Lee Brothers were looking to highlight in their new cookbook "Charleston Kitchen."
"This was definitely the most personal thing we've ever done," Ted said. "Charleston is ... the place we know best. We know it really well, and (it) has been so much a part of our lives and yet we found ourselves constantly discovering new things about Charleston that we didn't know."
Matt and Ted are scheduled to appear Wednesday at the University of South Carolina Beaufort's Lunch with Author Series to discuss "Charleston Kitchen" and Lowcountry cuisine. The luncheon will be held at the Colleton River Plantation Clubhouse in Bluffton. Tickets are $42.
To research the new cookbook, Matt and Ted immersed themselves in Charleston's food scene, determined to document the history, people and local ingredients that have helped shape the region's distinct cuisine.
That journey put them in the kitchens of some of Charleston's hottest restaurants, on commercial fishing boats and on the back of a U.S. Foods truck as it made deliveries. It's even taken them to a place one doesn't ordinarily associate with food.
"We spent some time with a woman who manages food for a local funeral home," Matt said. "She brings the food to the families whose loved ones have just passed away so she spends a lot of her time thinking about food. To get her perspective on the importance of food and the comfort it can provide people was really valuable."
In addition to compiling an exhaustive bibliography of some of the most influential pieces of writing on Charleston food and commissioning maps of the city's culinary landmarks for walking tours, there was, of course, the food to consider.
Matt and Ted spent hours in the kitchen testing and tweaking the book's more than 100 recipes they felt represented the Lowcountry's past and present.
"We would test and retest and we thought we were just about done and then we added something at the 11th hour -- a recipe for peach leather," Matt said. "Peach leather isn't something that is that difficult to make necessarily but you do need a recipe."
Recipes for local favorites like Hoppin' John, Frogmore Stew and Ambrosia, a salad of canned tangerine segments, canned pineapple chunks, mini-marshmallows, shredded coconut, and mayonnaise commonly found in Southern cafeterias, are also contained in the book.
The book has drawn rave reviews from local luminaries like novelist Pat Conroy who called it "a work of art" and Southern food experts like John T. Edge, director of the Southern Foodways Alliance, who said it is "back gate passkey to life on America's most storied peninsula, where mulberry trees sag with fruit, waters course with roe-engorged shad, and pots bob with greens and neck bones."
Though the Lee Brothers have long been familiar with Charleston's charms and culinary traditions, the rest of the world seems to be catching on.
In recent years, the Holy City has emerged as one of the nation's top culinary and tourist destinations, a reputation gained, in part, because of recognition from national magazines like "Conde Naste Traveler," which named Charleston the No. 1 city in America last year.
But Matt and Ted say their hometown is far from an overnight sensation.
"I don't think there was one particular turning point," Ted said. "I think this is the culmination of a lot of little moments. Whether it's a restaurant serving blue cheese grits for the first time. That had never been done before or Mike Lata (chef/partner at FIG and The Ordinary) installing a stone mill in his restaurant because he didn't think the grits he was getting were fresh enough. There have been so many moments like that in the history of food in the Holy City.
"And that's what our book is all about."
Follow reporter Patrick Donohue at twitter.com/IPBGPatrick .
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