It started nearly 10 years ago, when we left our native Charleston, South Carolina, to attend colleges in the Northeast. Sure, New England's fall colors were dazzling, but not enough to distract us from the fundamental questions that came to mind whenever our stomachs growled: Where are the briny boiled peanuts?The lemony fig preserves over hot biscuits?The watermelon-rind pickles?The Goo Goo Clusters?
We sent home for care packages but soon exhausted our parents' patience and budget—two children in college was bad enough, they said. We joked that upon graduating we'd become mail-order grocers to expatriate Southerners.
Then, five years ago, we both found ourselves in New York City, suffering post-collegiate doldrums. Ted was on the run from two years in book publishing that felt like 20. Matthew was using his art history degree to fetch iced lattes for a talent agent. And we were still hungry. So, with the printer Ted had been given for graduation, paper we hand-cut from shopping bags, and Matthew's 1952 Singer sewing machine to bind the pages, we put out the first issue of The Lee Bros. Boiled Peanuts Catalogue. Passport-sized and personal, it's an insider's sourcebook for authentic Southern foods, especially roadside staples: the sometimes homely, always earnest and boldly flavored condiments, candies, and canned items found at fewer and fewer country stores, farm stands, and grange fairs.
We've been hustling to keep up with orders ever since. To us, there's nothing more satisfying than sending Southern treats to people in far-flung places. Tell a Minnesotan who thought she'd never taste anything like her grandmother's pickled peaches that two quart jars will be on her doorstep the next day, and you've made a friend, okay, a customer, for life. Perhaps the best part of our job, though, is the research—exploring South Carolina, rooting out undiscovered delicacies, touching base with suppliers, and finding material for our book, tentatively titled Endangered Foods. In it we hope to spotlight some of our favorite things to eat, such as cane syrup (especially in its purest state, as produced by farmer Robert Layfield of St. Matthews, South Carolina); canvasback duck, a particularly tasty species; and the state's famed Carolina Gold rice, recently saved from extinction by Savannah ophthalmologist Richard Shulze.
Our home region, the coastal low country, is rich with the bounty of the sea, salt marsh, and farm. But one of our favorite areas to explore is the rich, mysterious, and underappreciated interior, the up-country of South Carolina, where roads trace old cowpaths through tobacco fields, and you can pass six sensational barbecue stands in less than an hour. Last fall we set out on a road trip for business and pleasure. Here's how it went.
We always want car snacks, so on the way out of town we stopped at our favorite boiled-peanut stand, Harry's, on Johns Island, 15 miles south of Charleston. There we bought a couple of pounds of this hot, wet delicacy—simply raw peanuts boiled in salt water. People in South Carolina, Georgia, and northern Florida adore the beanlike taste. Aside from their addictive flavor and beguiling aroma, boiled peanuts are associated with a particular outdoorsy, take-life-as-it-comes, often anti-commercial attitude that is endangered in the New South, with its Wal-Marts, nationally televised golf classics, and gated communities. We're convinced that boiled peanuts still have an important cultural role to play, crossing both racial and social lines and reminding us that the best things in life can come in slippery, messy packages.
Eating a boiled peanut is a bit like eating lobster; it releases its brininess when you crack it open, so have some napkins or a towel on hand to mop up. Just about the only way to get boiled peanuts is by spotting a roadside vendor. So if you ever see a sign for HOT BOIL'D P-NUT or the like, hit the brakes. And if the opportunity never arises—or, better yet, if you develop an addiction—we're always happy to take an order.
IT'S DIFFICULT TO SAY WHERE, EXACTLY, THE UPSTATE BEGINS. As children, we thought it was anything 15 miles beyond Charleston. There's a point on rural Highway 52, about 11/2 hours northeast of Charleston, where you notice that the sand-swept roadsides have given way to thicker stands of pine and broader vistas of open, leafy tobacco and scrubby cotton fields. In another hour and a half you're in prime tobacco country, and the air is rich with the heady fragrance of the fields and curing warehouses. Several times we got stuck behind trucks piled high with tobacco bales shedding leaf fragments right and left.
A spunky network of small towns in this tobacco corridor have banded together to turn their brick downtowns and long history of tobacco farming into a draw for road trippers. Latta has a bright, diverse collection of galleries on a revitalized Main Street (don't miss Eddie Watson's Different Strokes gallery or RJK Frames & Things café and art store). The town of Mullins recently opened the Tobacco & Farm Life Museum in a restored train depot. We were surprised to find ourselves so intrigued by the displays of planting and harvesting implements, gorgeous archival photos, and a six-foot-tall wax tobacco plant in full flower. But after all the luxurious smells in Mullins, what we really wanted was to taste the "sweet scotch" snuffs we kept spotting on convenience store shelves. We chose three brands in beautifully labeled tins, Peach, Rainbow, and Tube Rose. We thought snuff was sniffed, until we read the warning: "This product may cause lip cancer." Peach's label claims it's "sweet as a peach," but we thought it tasted just like licorice. Rainbow reminded us of berry drink mix. And Tube Rose had a flowery sweetness, more lavender than tuberose. Yuck!
Another, much smaller, industry in this part of the state is the bottling of Blenheim ginger ale. A classic South Carolina beverage, it has a hot chili-pepper and ginger flavor, and the clean body of soda made with cane sugar (as opposed to the corn-based sweeteners found in big-time sodas). Blenheim also recently revived three vintage fruit flavors in lurid colors: Bee Gee Strawberry, Grape, and Orange. We can't get enough of them.
Blenheim is bottled in the shadow of South of the Border, a noisy, tacky Mexican-themed pit stop in the town of Hamer, right where South Carolina meets North Carolina. It's a complex of six restaurants, two pools, a miniature-golf course, and 14 gift shops stocked with things like bawdy hats, plastic dog doo, and bamboo back-scratchers. We bypassed the rest and headed straight to Pedro's Country Store, the only place within miles where you'll find ice-cold bottles of Blenheim.
For total immersion in a Southern-deluxe Victorian fantasy, we stayed at Latta's Abingdon Manor, a stately 1905 yellow brick mansion with an Oriental-carpeted porch. It's a hoot. We passed through 12-foot-tall cypress doors into a hall so lofty it reminded us of Grand Central station. The design similarities end there. The manor's bracingly air-conditioned anterooms and parlors are chock-full of mirrors and 19th-century knickknackery. Patty Griffey, co-owner and decorating genius, led us upstairs to the Red Room, a decadent chamber with crimson walls, brass fixtures, and other full-blooded flourishes. We detected her sassy humor at work: a Japanese geisha doll was propped on the bed, and reposing on the mantel was a dime-store bust of Michelangelo's David looking as if he'd dipped into the champagne that Patty puts out for guests.