The Lee Bros. Southern Cookbook

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I first came across the witty genius of the Lee Bros. in Cornbread Nation 1. In “A Sweet and Soulful South Carolina Tour”, a piece originally published in Travel + Leisure, the brothers discuss a trip across South Carolina sampling the foods of the different regions of the state. They also discuss their efforts to bring peace and love (and boiled peanuts) to humanity through The Lee Bros. Boiled Peanuts Catalog.

For twelve years now, the brothers have crafted their catalog to bring Southern specialties and gifts to the world. From manufactured treats like Moon Pies, Cheerwine and Sun Drop sodas to more homemade type items like scuppernong jelly, country ham, and, of course, boiled peanuts, the catalog brings the joy of Southern food to the entire country. Now the Lee brothers have used their talents to create a cookbook, The Lee Bros. Southern Cookbook: Stories and Recipes for Southerners and Would-be Southerners.

With the advent of the internet, the role of cookbooks is changing. Recently, Mama Squirrel and I decided to embark on a culinary adventure and tried to cook a beef heart. We didn’t go to our bookshelves for a recipe, we went to the internet. Thanks to Google, we have a massive, indexed collection of recipes from around the world at hand. We were able to choose the recipe that sounded best to us without having to search through our trove of books. With this type of resource available, to be really useful, cookbooks need to fill one of two roles.

The first role is that of teacher. A good cookbook like the restored Joy of Cooking or the inimitable Complete Techniques by Jacques Pepin can give the reader the foundations for excellent cooking and a basis for culinary ideas of his or her own. Even with all of the information available on the internet, a book is so much easier to refer to when you’re up to your elbows in flour and aren’t sure how many eggs you need to add. It takes a lot of canned air to get flour out of a keyboard.

The second role is that of family friend. Books are not likely to go away anytime soon because of their tactile nature. We like to turn pages while we’re sitting in a comfy chair. We like that fact that we can open a book anywhere and all of that content is available without having to look for a wireless signal. Books, and the stories they tell us, are there for us anywhere, at any time. A good, friendly cookbook like the one the Lee Bros. have given us makes us feel like we’re sitting down for a chat with a friend of the family. If it’s about your part of the world, there are reminiscences of things you are familiar with and personalities you can identify with. If you are a traveler, there are glimpses into another way of life. And of course there are the treasured family recipes.

I am a lifelong Southerner, but this cookbook reminds me that there is so much more to Southern cuisine than what I know from my little corner. Of course there are the classics like hoppin’ John from South Carolina and gumbo from Louisiana and fried green tomatoes from anywhere with a tomato vine and a sack of corn meal.

But there are also other regional items that I never knew about that make me feel like even more of a part of the South. One example that I’m looking forward to trying soon is kilt (killed) lettuce and ramps. Ramps were barely in my peripheral vision when I lived in east Tennessee and aren’t common in Memphis, although now they seem to be a darling ingredient on Iron Chef and in fine restaurants everywhere. In this dish, the greens of ramps (or scallions, in a pinch) are mixed with lettuce which is then wilted in a warm, bacon-based dressing.

To truly do justice to this cookbook, we need to follow a few recipes and write about the results. The only problem with that is where to begin. There are so many good ideas that we’re looking forward to cooking and tasting.

But like I said, it’s more than the tasty recipes. The Lee Bros. are have traveled the South collecting items for their catalog. In addition to their own family stories they bring us memories of folks like Gordon Huskey, a master of “country winemaking” who practiced his art with ingredients from the typical muscadines to the unusual corncobs. While we won’t be trying to make our own corncob wine anytime soon, it’s wonderful to read about.

The Lee Bros. invite you in and make you a friend of the family. Good food and good stories make this the best cookbook we are likely to see this year.

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