I had the chance to break
bread tortillas with the Lee Bros. on Friday. I'd followed their work for some time, had corresponded with them for oyster intel, but their tour in support of the The Lee Bros. Southern Cookbook caused our paths to cross for the first time.* As a disclaimer, I should say that they are almost preternaturally nice, shockingly polite to one another and relentlessly positive in general, which would make it hard to say bad things about them. I met them at a bookshop, and we convoyed to a taqueria. I had Ted in my car while Matt drove the laden-with-cases-of-books-shrimp-pot-and-other-implements Impala. Matt overshot. Repeatedly. Cell calls, short and frequent were exchanged. And yet as we sat down to our tacos and posole, not a hint of manslaughter in the air.
Over lunch, we talked about the vagaries of a Cantab and a Lord Jeff, born in the north, transplanted to Charleston, and now living in New York, making a go as southern food authorities. As the jacket photo reveals, they are not getting high on their own supply, and are not in the market for a rascal. The two of them put together could seesaw comfortably opposite many leading culinary lights, north or south. They speak with neither the peculiar Charleston accent, nor a more general Culpepperian drawl. I asked how they addressed those challenges in marketing the book, and they made it clear that they make no pretense of trying to fool anyone. This is a laudable approach, but like the prose of Raymond Carver, it is probably harder than it looks. Southern food in various guises is a popular idiom, both north and south of the sweet tea line. However, it seems to be about where Asian food was a decade ago, in its fetishization of authenticity. It is unlikely, say, that a food editor would hunt up an appropriately sepia intern to tag along for a trip to an ambitious new Indian place, but writing on southern food, especially BBQ, routinely invoke the authority of real southerners - like "a cadre of North Carolinians, including a couple who routinely have barbecue FedExed to their West Village walk up."
In this way of thinking, identity can easily trump ingredients and technique, and, cooking in a southern idiom often becomes a performance, leading to the culinary trainwreck that is Paula Deen.** Instead of calling DI/DO writers "honey," the Lees are DI/DO writers themselves. Tradition is a crucial ingredient in culinary culture, but so is imagination -- the Lee Bros. New Ambrosia, for instance, takes a buffet-table liability and makes it into a genuinely appealing dish. If you will be attending a wedding in the south, or a wedding with a southern constituency, bundle the Lee Bros. book with Charleston Receipts, and you will have the best of the old and the new.
*If their tour comes near you, ask to see the custom country ham suitcase.