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The Lee Bros. come full circle in their culinary adventures, gathering ingredients and cooking up a seafood-centric dinner for the local family who first taught them to fish and crab
In the summer of 1978, our parents—New Yorkers on vacation at Seabrook Island—bonded with Charlestonians Rutledge and Kathleen Young as they watched over their respective kids splashing around in the surf. And what followed was a campaign of hospitality on the Youngs’ part—fishing trips in a Boston Whaler in the creeks off Bohicket behind Camp St. Christopher and outings to catch blue crabs from a dock on Captain Sam’s Creek—that convinced our parents they needed to leave the Big Apple (granted, rather rotten and withering at that time) and decamp for Charleston permanently.
We’ve known the Youngs and their sons, Simons and Rutledge, for most of our lives now. We were on the same baseball teams at the Hazel Parker Playground in the early ’80s, and our families co-owned an old Sunfish sailboat kept at the Youngs’ cottage at Seabrook. And Simons and Rutledge’s late grandmother, Liz Young—legendary Charleston tour guide, former president of the Preservation Society, and lifetime trustee of Historic Charleston Foundation—was our own grandmother’s landlady for nearly 15 years, when our dear Gran lived in the kitchen house behind Mrs. Young’s Meeting Street home.
Back in spring 2011, when we were developing the recipes for our new cookbook, The Lee Bros. Charleston Kitchen, we heard that Rutledge and Kathleen were looking for a tenant for the dependency behind their own house, a few blocks away on Tradd. We needed a place to rent that had a kitchen big enough for three people to work in but modest enough to resemble one in a typical home. Simons, now an accomplished architect in town, had just finished a stunning back-to-the-studs renovation of the carriage house, and we considered renting it before realizing that it was way too new and pristine for the kind of wear-and-tear that goes on in our test kitchen. But we told Kathleen and Rutledge that we’d love to throw a party there to celebrate the cookbook, once it was printed, and properly thank them for their part in introducing us to Charleston’s abundant seafood.
On a recent summer day, we did just that. The Youngs, of course, were our hosts as well as guests of honor. We also invited Anne and Ben Moïse, the author and former game warden who shared legendary stories and a drink recipe from his and the Magwood family’s “Mullet Hunt and Rock & Rye Festival” gatherings in the 1970s and ’80s in our book. Happily the Moïses are now part of the extended Young clan, as their daughter, Sarah, married Simons. Those two, along with three-year-old son Ben, were there, too.
As a tribute to this neighborhood where our family settled upon moving to Charleston, we designed a menu that would highlight as many ingredients as possible from our own backyard. So we began with kumquat sparklers—refreshing cocktails of sparkling white wine mixed with a tablespoon of gin that we’d infused all spring with the intense, tangerine-like flavor of fresh kumquats, which we picked from a large tree in the Church Street garden of our friend Cathy Forrester. For snacks, we made the spiced pecan recipe from our first book with nuts from the fall harvest of a tree just outside our office window, off Chalmers Street. And we served up a bowl of stone crab claws that had been pulled from the Stono River by Fred Dockery the day before. We dipped them in warm butter melted with bay leaves stripped from a friend’s front yard on Ashley Avenue; the vanilla-and-nutmeg-like flavor was a perfect complement to the sweet and briny claw meat.
For an appetizer, we made a classic Charleston okra soup—tomato-based, with a beef bone, of course—but the main event was a whole sheepshead (also from the Stono River between Folly Island and Kiawah) baked in a herby salt crust to keep its sweet white flesh moist. Our friend and sometime kitchen collaborator Maya Morrill had sourced the fish in a way that seems so Charleston. She’d been headed to Crosby’s to look for a large sheepshead when a fisherman called her to say he’d just caught five. We took the largest of the five and packed it in a slurry of kosher salt and rosemary from the Youngs’ garden. For side dishes, we made a shaved asparagus and radish salad, simply dressed, and an easy shrimp creole over Carolina Gold rice.
We raised a toast to the Youngs, for not only providing us an exquisite kitchen to work in and the dream venue for a meal celebrating summer, but also for steering our parents in the right direction, to this magical foodscape we call home.