Matt Lee is one of those lucky people who call Charleston home. He and his bespectacled brother, Ted, grew up in one of the city’s fabled homes along Rainbow Row, fishing in its waters for crabs and shrimp, and learning the names of the edible flora and fauna of their region. Food talk—especially about oysters—rolls off Matt Lee's tongue like poetry, interwoven with his childhood and the locations and histories of the ingredients that make up Lowcountry cuisine. He lives to eat, rather than eats to live; he is the kind of guy who always keeps an oyster knife handy just in case an oyster opportunity presents itself. He and his brother are verified repositories for Charlestonian and Lowcountry culinary knowledge and history, as evidenced by their multiple, award winning cookbooks, among them, The Lee Bros. Southern Cookbook and their latest, The Lee Bros. Charleston Kitchen.
Say you are at a restaurant and there are six different types of oysters; what are the three that you are going to order?
I tend to be pretty fiercely loyal to the East Coast oyster. Whether they're Blue Point or from Folly Beach down here [in South Carolina], they can have very different flavor profiles, but ultimately the minerality, the salinity, and the fun factor of the East Coast oyster trumps others from round the world.
For those of us who are unfamiliar with oyster-speak, can you explain to us what people mean when they talk about an oyster’s meroir?
Meroir is a construct from the world of wine appreciation; it describes the aspects of climate and specific location that comes through in the flavor of foods. Oysters are great example of that terroir idea - meroir is the term for seafood. That’s what’s so cool about the oyster, especially on the East Coast; everything is about the controlled environments they grow up in. The same oysters, I mean the very same species, are raised in particular ways depending on location. Unlike the other animals we eat, oysters don’t get up and run around so you can be pretty sure that an oyster harvested in Chesapeake Bay and one North of Boston are going to taste and feel different because they grew up in different places. Around here in Charleston, the meroir is defined by the nutrient-rich mud – what we call the plough mud - that is the predominant material of the marsh. It’s so super-rich that farmers used it as fertilizer back in the 19th century. Plough mud is inky black, the texture of dense chocolate pudding, and it’s the buffer that surrounds the peninsula of Charleston, the nether-region between the ocean and the rivers and estuaries and dry land. It has a distinctive mineral tang. It smells a bit like rust, like sulfur. You need to draw on wine appreciation terms to describe its nuances. Anyhow, if you get near low tide sometimes you can smell the plough mud. That is, to me, the hallmark of the flavor of the oysters that grow here. It’s rich, earthy, and awesome in combination with the salty kick of the ocean. And they are quite salty here. We are right on the Atlantic Ocean, there’s very little influence from fresh water rivers, since fresh water is far up river from here. The great thing though about oysters, though, is that you don’t need to know a ton about them to enjoy them.
Can you take us through a season of oysters?
The oyster has its own reproductive season and that is part of the reason for harvesting during the “R months,” all of which are in the fall or winter. Oysters spawn in the summer and deplete their reserves of energy and fat. The oysters in the summer tend to be a bit more waterlogged than a meaty oyster, they're not as tasty, but they tend to be meatier in the winter. People can get oysters year round but they still tend to favor the colder months. Part of that is due to flavor and texture. When the oysters get a break you get a meatier oyster.
If you could have oysters one way for the rest of your life, how would you prefer them? Raw, steamed, roasted, fried?
I like them every which way – I even like them baked with distracting flavors on top, cheese and craziness like that sometimes. But the unadulterated, pure raw oyster is the signature experience. I float them right out of the shell. The only garnish might be a little squeeze of lemon or pepper vinegar, but eight times out of ten, they don’t have anything on them. I just toss them back. It doesn’t make sense to risk overshadowing oysters with hot sauce and weird other things. A close second would be roasted and warm, but definitely not overcooked. A run-of-the-mill weekend oyster roast might not even be roasted oysters. They may be boiled in a convenience contraption powered by propane that causes them to overcook into small little nubbins. That is such a sad waste of everyone’s time and effort. If they are properly roasted over wood, or even just over a grill, warmed up, if you can slightly concentrate their flavor until they just open their shells, that’s a very pleasant way to have them, especially if the weather is cold.
Could you school those of us who have never been to an oyster roast or eaten them prepared that way?
Yes, very easy to describe. You build a wood fire, you set a sheet of steel over it, usually by propping up four corners of cinder blocks and creating a really hot griddle. That smoke is swirling all around you, and it smells like good fire. Then you shovel raw oysters, a whole bunch of them, into the middle of the griddle. Immediately put a towel or burlap sack that has been dipped in seawater over it, and it steams and hisses and pops. Basically the oysters half-steam and half-roast in their shells, in this wet environment, until they crack open just a little bit. Then pull off the towel and shovel them onto a plywood table. That’s it. Go at it with your oyster knife and hand towel, add a can of beer and maybe some lemon wedges. The perfume and the flavor of the smoke doesn’t come into direct contact with the oysters, but it does infuse the oysters and seeps into your fingers and your hair and everything else, and just perfumes the whole experience. There's a level of excitement and flavor that you can’t get by burning a bunch of propane and steaming them in a stainless steel contraption.
Out of all the various seafood, it seems like oysters don’t seem to fry up very well, but you did include a fried oyster recipe in your latest cookbook, The Lee Bros. Charleston Kitchen. Your focus seems to be on the oyster and not so much on the fried, so the batter is very delicate.
It's very difficult to fry oysters. It’s not my favorite way to have them but we felt that we needed to do justice to the Lowcountry tradition of frying oysters in our book. Compared to shrimp, oysters are not the best things for frying because they are basically liquid and freeform, amorphous. So you do need some dredge to give them a structure. The best fried oysters I’ve ever had are usually done around Charleston. They walk that fine line between giving it structure and not overshadowing the oyster and overcooking it.
Where do you go in Charleston for fried oysters, or any oysters for that matter?
There are two great places. One is in Mt. Pleasant in this old fishing village on Shem Creek. It’s one of the last commercial fisheries, called the Wreck of the Richard and Charlene. They stick very closely to the very traditional, modest dredge of Low Country-style and they apply that to oysters, shrimp, and sometimes to scallops. The shrimp and oysters come right out of the creeks, from rivers, and from offshore. They are just incomparable. Another great place is called Bowens Island where you can experience that wood-fired oyster roast in a restaurant setting.
Can you give us a quick primer on Lowcountry cuisine? What defines it? What’s distinctive about it?
The Lowcountry is the region in the coastal plain of South Carolina, some people would say into Georgia, that includes the islands and this heady mix of the influence of the oceans, the estuaries, and the seafood found there, plus the interesting cultural mix of the people that settled here. Native Americans roasted oysters in a way very similar to the way I’ve already described, to the African influence through the slave trade, to the French Huguenots, to the Scotch-Irish, to the cosmopolitan influences of the world via the sailing trade since Charleston was such a huge port and anchored the Lowcountry. But the sea envelops both you and the food. Almost everything here is an island. The water just surrounds you in every way. In fact, on our way to school, on one of the city's major streets at high tide, full moon, we’d drive through four inches of salt water, look out the car window and see fish swimming by. We would shrimp with a cast net, and crab right off the end of our street, right in downtown Charleston. People still do today. I keep my shrimp net in my office down here for high shrimp season because it’s so close. The sea is our connection to the world. It’s the highway that leads us to so many things and that has brought so many things to the South, including camellias and ginger lilies and all of the semi-tropical flowers that we associate with Charleston. They came here from China, for the most part, and other parts of Asia, very early on.
On the subject of the area’s history and food history, The Charleston Kitchen includes early Charlestonian cookbooks, those early recipes you can't find anymore.
What makes Charleston such a hot food destination is its track record, and written record, which very few places in the South have. There might be 10 or 15 proper cookbooks from before the Civil War printed in the whole United States. More than half are from the South as a region, of which two to three are specifically from the Lowcountry. In the process of researching the new cookbook, we turned up a pre-revolutionary cookbook manuscript, hand-written, in the archives at Middleton Place Plantation
. It was so rare to find that. These days, 20,000 cookbooks are printed every year, but the cookbook, as a printed thing, is a relatively recent idea. We go back to The Carolina Housewife
by Sarah Rutledge, and to Phineas Thornton, who wrote cookbooks that weren’t actually billed as such. Some of them were just housekeeping tomes. But they contained some amazing recipes and amazing sources of inspiration for contemporary recipe developers like me and Ted. Cooking was so diverse, and the ingredients were so different in various time periods, whether it was the 1980s or the 1880s or the 1780s.
Can you speak to your relationship with the farmers and fisherman around your region?
The heart of urban Charleston is just 15-20 minutes to the fishermen of Shem Creek, the working commercial fisheries, and the farms on John’s Island. There are a lot of independent watermen who are multidisciplinary, meaning that in certain seasons they treat their boats like a crab boat, but at other times they might drag a net for shrimp or pull conch. They play the seasons to their advantage and they sell directly to consumers or directly to the seafood markets. We learned a lot from going out on their boats, learning what to look for. But we’ve also taught the fishermen a little bit, just by being the ignoramuses that we are. For example, we pulled a crab trap that was covered in three different varieties of seaweed and we asked them the stupid question, “which is edible?’ and they said, “Gosh I don’t know if any of them are edible, I’ve never thought about it.” Then we did a little research and we figured out that one of them is very edible and a hot commodity. So the dialogue goes on between the consumers, the farmers, the chefs—everyone has a role to play in moving the cuisine forward.
Where do you like to eat oysters, not only in Charleston, but also throughout the US?
An oyster craving is liable to hit at any moment, and you can satisfy it in the big cities, where you find that perfect brasserie experience, the oysters are all shucked for you and presented on ice, and you have a bottle of Chablis available. There is something perfect about that—especially if someone else is picking up the tab. But for us, the natural environment for oyster is out in a field somewhere, preferably overlooking a creek or a sunset. The Lowcountry oyster experience is not a luxury. You can get a bushel of the local oyster for 22 dollars. Add a few sticks of wood and a sheet of rusty steel and you’re in business. Or nothing at all if you want to eat them raw. There is something really special about it not being special; that you aren’t watching two dollars or three dollars walk away every time you slurp an oyster. It’s a democratic experience, you invite all your friends and you provide the oysters; and everyone can eat their fill.
The Lee Bros. Charleston Kitchen
Un Kyong Ho grew up in Cincinnati, OH and now lives in Cary, NC; Follow her
on Twitter (@unkyong53).
Photo Credit: Squire Fox Photographer
& Lee Bros