Cookbook authors Matt Lee and Ted Lee invite you to try their favorite holiday tradition: a Lowcountry crab party with friends.
Writer Julia Rutland
1 of 11Photographer Tara Sgroi
It’s late November in the Lowcountry. A briny ocean aroma always fills the air, but it’s tempered now with an earthy fragrance of fallen leaves. The trees aren’t all bare, though―live oak leaves still cling to branches, and steadfast marsh grasses blush gold and crimson. “Fall is the best time of year for food,” says Matt Lee, coauthor with brother Ted of The Lee Bros. Southern Cookbook and The Lee Bros. Simple Fresh Southern. “There’s not a better time to be cooking in the South. Crabs are large, oysters are back in season, and there’s a last harvest of warm-weather crops.”
2 of 11Photographer Tara Sgroi
Thanksgiving is a traditional, formal affair for the Lees and their whole family. The next day is all about leftovers, but by Saturday, it’s time for another kind of feast. For 20-plus years, Matt and Ted have made a November pilgrimage to the Johns Island, South Carolina, home that novelist Josephine Humphreys shares with her husband, Tom. Although the brothers spend some of the year in New York City, Ted says, “My spiritual home is Charleston. Here is where we go to cook.”
3 of 11Photographer Tara Sgroi
Guests meander in for the daylong affair. Because there is always something good to talk about in South Carolina, there’s always something good to write about, and this party has drawn a creative crowd: Josephine (author of Rich in Love), Dottie Frank (Return to Sullivans Island), Patti Callahan Henry (Losing the Moon), Mary Alice Monroe (Last Light Over Carolina), and Nathalie Dupree (Shrimp and Grits Cookbook).
4 of 11Photographer Tara Sgroi
The menu features a Lowcountry bounty, including hot boiled blue crabs caught in the Stono River, upstream about 6 miles as the crow flies. Then there’s Dirty Rice―Matt and Ted’s must-have side dish―along with zesty carrot slaw, hearty hominy stew, and plum upside-down cake prepared in a cast-iron skillet.
5 of 11Photographer Tara Sgroi
Later, more of Matt and Ted’s friends drop in, but there’s still plenty of food and samples of Tom’s house wine, made from last year’s grape harvest. Standing around the makeshift plywood table, they roll up their sleeves and cheerfully dive into a pile of cooked crabs.
6 of 11Photographer Tara Sgroi
Bring all the creekside spirit of a crab crack indoors, if you have a long table covered with plenty of newspapers and friends keen on eating well! It’s not unusual for Ted and Matt to order upwards of 200 live blue crabs for their crab crack parties. Because you have to cook the crabs in batches, we’ve scaled the recipe down to 12, so you can prepare them easily on a cooktop.
“This cake is beyond simple, yet festive and impressive―great for a large get-together. We simply toss fresh plum slices in a small amount of sugar and lemon juice, fan them around the bottom of a skillet, and pour a vanilla-buttermilk cake batter over them before baking,” Ted says. The brothers also recommend using a well-seasoned cast iron skillet to bake the upside down cake, because the ample batter might overflow in a standard cake pan.