It's easy to be charmed by the Lee Bros. Just a few pages into one of their books, and you're fantasizing about being invited to an oyster roast in Charleston, sitting on a porch with a glass of Muscadine Sangria. It's easy to get hooked, to start dreaming about shrimp popovers and grapefruit chess pie, to start plotting meals centered around Frogmore Soup.
Suffice it to say, we're big fans of Ted and Matt Lee's books. As SE Managing Editor Jamie Feldmar explains, "The Lee Brothers advocate for really legit Southern food, but they're not dogmatic about it. I'm not from the South so sometimes cooking that food can be really intimidating—it's so steeped in tradition and it's not my tradition, per se—but their book makes it welcoming."
It turns out that the Lee Bros. are avid cookbook collectors, with shelves full of old 19th century 'receipt books' and Southern-cooking classics as well as recently-published sources of cooking inspiration. I recently got the chance to chat with Ted Lee about their favorites. Here's what he had to say.
How many cookbooks do you own, and what do you use them for?
Between Matt's and my offices in Charleston and New York, we're just above 1,000 volumes now and we use them every which way! The sublime thing about cookbooks is that while they're primarily written to instruct (and they are wonderful when they excel at that), let's not underestimate how much pleasure they can give readers as a source for both inspiration and aspiration.
There are amazing cookbooks—the 19th century ones, especially, like Phineas Thornton's Southern Gardener and Receipt Book or Sarah Rutledge's The Carolina Housewife—that you'd never cook from in 2014, but that inspire so many great ideas in the kitchen! And there are also books that we almost never cook from, but that we're passionate about, because they're so gorgeous and they show home cooks like us news from another planet (el Bulli, Noma).
And then there are the books that are superb companions, that we read over and over just to spend time with the author (the same way you'd re-read a novel or see a movie again to spend time with an appealing cast of characters). A great recent example for me is Christina Tosi's Momofuku Milk Bar cookbook. Personally, I'm not the kind of baker she is—I don't have the sugar-cereal-riffic sweet tooth for that kind of dessert—and I may not ever make a recipe in her book. But I give the Milk Bar cookbook as a gift to friends all the time because Tosi's voice is so compelling and funny and the writing is so good, you feel like you're there in the production kitchen, working alongside this hilarious and dedicated woman (without actually having to punch the clock and do the work!). I hope I get the chance meet her in person some day.
If your house were burning down, which cookbook would take with you as you ran out the door?
American Cooking: Southern Style by Eugene Walter. Seems like a crazy choice because it's far from our most valuable book (you can snag one off eBay from time to time for the price of a nice bottle of wine). But there's a hallowedness about the book's photos and recipes, and a monumentality in the breadth and reach of its documentation of Southern foodways, that make it seem like a sculpture, and irreplaceable.
What cookbooks do you think no cook should live without and why?
We grew up in a kitchen where The New York Times Cookbook and The Joy of Cooking were bibles and there's a reason for that. The instruction is so on-point, a child could follow most of the recipes and end up with a great result. The first recipe Matt and I cooked together was when we were 12 and 14. It was Crème Caramel from The Joy of Cooking. We had no supervision from our parents because they were out of town for the weekend. And we aced it. It was magic.
What are your favorite resources and cookbooks for cooking Southern food?
We tend to use Bill Neal and Edna Lewis as touchstones for Southern cooking. For us, they're the ones that got all of us over the mid-century, processed-foods hump and redefined Southern food on its own terms. Everything that's come since has followed from them. Seek out Bill Neal's Southern Cooking. For Edna Lewis, The Taste of Country Cooking is the bedrock.
What are your favorite cookbooks for baking?
Between our collections of Rose Levy Beranbaum and Dorie Greenspan, we've got baking locked down! Rose Levy Beranbaum's Pie and Pastry Bible will help you become a tarts and pies ninja, and for Dorie, Baking From My Home To Yours.
What cookbooks changed the way you cook?
I feel like every great cookbook we own has changed our perspective on cooking, shaken up our routine. I remember in 1997, a friend gave me a paperback copy of Evan Kleiman and Viana LaPlace's Cucina Fresca when I was headed out to Iowa City for graduate school and I thought: Wait, am I really gonna cook fresh, Cal-Mediterranean in the Heartland? But I found you could!
Nowadays, I think of how many times I make ramen in a month. I don't think I'd made ramen once before David Chang's cookbook came out. Good cookbooks are like good music or good fiction or good art or good theater—they become enmeshed in your life and they change you. That's why we continue to devour cookbooks, to be constantly inspired to learn new things, to shake up our routines, to see old things in a new light.
A guy grazing by our signing table at a recent event said to his wife: Why do you need a new cookbook? The answer to his question is that nobody needs a new cookbook—not to live and breathe on this Earth. But by the same token, nobody really needs to ever hear a new song, read a new novel, or see a new piece of art in order to survive. But who the f*ck would choose such an existence?