Cookbook Review: Simple Fresh Southern by Matt Lee and Ted Lee: Sibling Rivalry

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Photograph: Helen Rosner / Eat Me Daily

The misleading thing about sophomore slump, as a concept, is that it focuses on the downturn. That's not to say that the theory doesn't hold water: with that first creative excursion you've had your whole life to come up with you're going to say, it's fresh and new and untainted by focus groups or fan expectations. But when it comes to second acts, you don't get the luxury of another few decades to develop your point of view and — even worse — comparisons to your first outing are inevitable. Taken on their own, however, ignoring whatever fireworks and freshness elevated their predecessors, a great many sophomore projects are in fact quite wonderful. Just not, often, as wonderful.

When brothers Matt and Ted Lee published The Lee Bros. Southern Cookbook (Amazon) in 2007, it hit like an atom bomb. The world fell in love with these charming, loquacious southern brothers — their recipes, their storytelling, their passion, their accessible, adorable, semi-sexy dweebiness. The book was a phenomenon, selling like crazy and sweeping the awards, and the brothers' status as darlings of the culinary world seemed locked in. How, then, to follow up such complete, multi-market success? Enter the sophomore slump: I don't think anyone is going to say that The Lee Bros. Simple Fresh Southern: Knockout Dishes with Down-Home Flavor (Amazon) is nearly as good as their first book. But taken on its own, it's not half bad.

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Photograph: Helen Rosner / Eat Me Daily

The story behind the recipe

The twist in Simple Fresh Southern, as the title indicates, is that the southern food in question is both simple and fresh. That's not to imply that the Lees have cherrypicked only those authentic recipes that are light on both effort and cream; rather, they've run through their arsenal of classics and twisted and tweaked them to read more contemporary and sit more lightly on the palate. (Or, to look at it cynically, they've yankified and arugulafied preparations that might otherwise have turned off the average home cook in 39 of the fifty states. Expand that fan base!)

But the Lees' infectious exuberance for their subject matter helps me to get past what, at times, feels like a calculated act of brand extension. The book gets off to a strong — and surprising — start, with the brothers providing a candid look into their process of recipe development. I've always found it odd that this glimpse behind the curtain is such a rarity in cookbooks, and the Lees' blithe transparency makes for hands down the most compelling five paragraphs of the book. For the brothers, the process of developing their dishes starts with other recipes as jumping-off points: "We're inspired by southern traditions and ingredients, and often by our library of southern cookbooks," they write, and go on to explicate the process by which inspiration gives way to a finished product.

The starting point for this particular example of recipe creation is "Shrimp-Deviled Egg Casserole," a 1960s-era béchamel-and-Chinese-noodles monstrosity so truly horrific in its description that I forgive the brothers (and their editor) their flagrant use of the interrobang ("Wild, right?!"). Out of this morass they pull the essential threads of flavor, hard-cooked eggs and shrimp and devilish mustard, and reformat the combination into the pared-down, chicly retro-modern Shrimp and Deviled-Egg Salad Rolls, sprinkled with bacon and spritzed with lemon.

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Photograph: Helen Rosner / Eat Me Daily

Absurd midcentury preparations, updated

As the salad rolls suggest, the Lees' love for absurd mid-century preparations and unglamorous southern classics underscores the vast majority of the recipes on offer. These come through with varying degrees of success. Some old saws of the southern kitchen don't elevate so easily: stuff like the hyper-buttery Lee Bros. Shrimp Pate or the Pimento-Cheese Potato Gratin veer dangerously close to Paula Deen territory. But the book is at its brightest when the Lees free themselves from the trappings of southernness, riffing on established flavor pairings with surprisingly successful flourishes: the subtly unfolding flavors in Braised Carrots with Tarragon and Lime; the Easy Ambrosia, whose two cups of parsley add a southeast Asian note to the old great-aunt standby of coconut and citrus.

Fittingly for a cookbook that advertises its simplicity, notes and sidebars are scattered across the pages, clarifying techniques and demystifying ingredients for the nervous home cook. But also throughout runs a curious self-awareness. Besides illuminating their process of innovation, in the introduction the Lees also preempt the sorts of questions that (ahem) a probing cookbook critic might rhetorically ask and examine in the course of writing her review: they define the title, word by word — what's "simple"? What's "fresh"? What's "southern"? — and exhort their readers to really pay attention to the headnotes and sidebars.

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Photograph: Helen Rosner / Eat Me Daily

Stuck in the shadow

If you take that advice, you'll then notice how frequently the brothers reference their first book, and not just abstractly — the pages are littered with conversational callbacks to specific d, page spans, and recipe counts. If, as I was, you're reading with The Lee Bros. Southern Cookbook within arm's reach, this is merely distracting. But if you're not, it'll probably get irritating, and fast. It's an odd move, considering how blatantly Simple Fresh Southern appears to be courting a new wave of Matt and Ted fans.

It's this shadow of the first Lee Bros. cookbook that's the big thing bringing down Simple Fresh Southern. It is, for all its quirks and occasional misfires, a truly lovely cookbook with an engaging voice and a strong identity. Even more, it has a clear goal: extracting the heart of southern cooking and integrating it into more accessible recipes. And it comes closer to reaching its goal than plenty of other books towards which readers might be more forgiving, thanks to their lack of such a near-perfect sibling volume so fresh in our memory. But comparisons are inevitable — we know what greatness Matt and Ted Lee are capable of producing. Maybe they'll get it again on the third try.

Helen Rosner

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