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Amherst College > News & Events > Amherst Magazine > Archives > Fall 2002 > Crackerjacks Peddle Peanuts
Ted and Matt Lee with their products.
The brothers Ted Lee '93, foreground, and Matt Lee, surrounded by their Southern specialty food products.

Crackerjacks Peddle Peanuts

By Lauren Groff '01

Ted Lee '93 believes in peanuts.

The ones that make him wax poetic, however, are not your average ballpark roasters. Ted loves Southern-style goobers, boiled and sold on the sides of highways by guys named Billy-Bob or Hank or Clint.

Now, any peanut is a humble thing, but a boiled peanut is about as glamorous as a woodchuck, the bottom of the legume barrel. Blessed with the gift of gab, though, Ted can make boiled peanuts sound extraordinary. He likens them to edamame, traces the lineage of the boiled peanut to Asia and Africa, and suggests uses for them that make one drool. After a two-minute conversation with Ted it's impossible to resist becoming a boiled-peanut proselyte. After an hour, I had an inexplicable nostalgia for them, and I'm a Northerner.

Ted began trading on more authentic nostalgia back in 1994 when he and his brother Matt were living together in New York City, homesick for their native Charleston, S.C. Ted was working in publishing and hating it. Matt, a Harvard guy, who was jobless at the time and trying to carve out a career in art, had a fit of “depressed inspiration,” telling himself “if all else fails, I can just boil peanuts.”

The cavalier idea became a reality when the brothers boiled up a 25-lb. sack of raw peanuts in their kitchen (“totally illegally, breaking every health code,” chuckles Ted), and took some to Southern-style restaurants. The managers saw the wet, brown, squishy things the brothers were peddling and laughed them out the door.

“The mistake we made,” says Ted tartly, “was thinking that Southern restaurants knew what Southern food was.”

Barely daunted, they left a sample at the house of Florence Fabricant, a New York Times food writer. The interest aroused from the mention in her “Food Notes” column sent the brothers back to Charleston, where they started up their mail-order boiled peanuts business in earnest, with only a printer, a sewing machine to stitch up their catalogs, and tremendous moxie.

Since then, Lee Bros. Boiled Peanuts has become the Williams-Sonoma of Southern goodies, “the corner store for all the foods you can't find away from the South,” says Ted. Catering mainly to relocated Southerners, they have everything from creesy greens to moon pies, she-crab soup to pickled peaches in their charming, handcrafted catalogs and on the Website (boiledpeanuts.com). For two artsy types, building a business was like “reinventing the wheel,” says Matt; but they made a profit in their second year, and have doubled it every year since.

Such a profit is surprising. Ted Lee is not so much a businessman as a Southern food don or docent, leading one gently into the land of “poke salet” and fig preserves. He speaks with heat and wit about Southern food, fighting any misconception that it is merely a heap of lard, grits and collard greens. He'll educate you, gushing about the microregions that bring a wealth of variety and freshness to Southern cooking. Ted is an intellectual, and it's clear his interest in his business is not for his own monetary sake but because he truly cares about the food.

Such modesty is habitual in Ted. When it comes to his own achievements, he's as humble as peanuts.

Take, for instance, why it was so difficult to contact him. Only after prodding will he admit it's because he was preparing to go on the “Today Show” to boil peanuts, and because he had to write an article for The New York Times, where the brothers are contributing editors for the Food section. Asked about his experience at Amherst, Ted says he worked in the dishroom at the old Valentine, but neglects to mention he was his class's Commencement speaker. When Ted speaks of his “two-year sabbatical” from his business, he's speaking of the M.F.A. in creative writing he took at the University of Iowa. Many writers would tattoo this pedigree on their foreheads, but it came out only after 45 minutes of conversation. And forget about him mentioning the Southern food cookbook the brothers will have out soon, or the cuisine tours of Charleston they will be giving for the Smithsonian in March; those tidbits had to be gleaned from other sources.

As friend Abby Messitte '93 says, Ted's “an intensely understated kind of smart, not in-your-face, know-it-all smart, but always witty, well-informed, and wildly articulate. He can talk at length about Jimmy Carter's humble beginnings as a peanut farmer in Georgia, or how to make a Mexican mole sauce, and he can do so without being in the least bit self-important; and he'll still have time to ask questions and be interested in your life.” At a college like Amherst where everyone has multiple talents, one more interesting person might be lost in the shuffle, especially when he's as modest as Ted. But Ted's friend Jeffrey Posternak '93 says that at Amherst “he was unlike anyone else. Back when nobody else seemed to have it quite together, Ted was already a distinctive person.”

This is perhaps why nobody seems surprised at his creative career. When asked what he thought Ted would do after Amherst, English Prof. Jack Cameron, his thesis advisor, mused: “Ted had very literary interests, but they weren't 'academic literary.' I was not surprised he didn't want to go to graduate school in English. I thought he'd go into publishing, or maybe into journalism.” Then, after a pause of a few seconds, he added, “Well, I suppose he is in journalism, isn't he?”

He is, indeed. He's also in business, food scholarship, magazine and creative writing, editing, researching, cooking, tour-guiding and much else.

Now back to boiled peanuts, the cornerstone of Ted's eclectic career. To rate Lee Bros. mail-order boiled peanuts, I set a fresh, five-pound bag before an authentic Southerner, Clayton Kallman '00, and waited for the verdict. A bliss-filled 15 minutes of cracking and slurping passed before a coherent sentence came forth.

Kallman said, “These peanuts are better than any I've ever had from a Florida roadside stand.”

A compliment indeed.


Lauren Groff '01 is a writer in California who brakes for boiled peanuts.

Photo: Peter Frank Edwards

 
 

Online Extra

RELATED LINKS

BoiledPeanuts.com

RELATED ARTICLES

New York Times articles by Matt and Ted Lee (free with registration):

Hoppin' John Smiles on the New Year

Beating the Heat the Alfresco Way

10th Grade, Four Courses and Dessert

On Madeira, Bottled Treasure

A Basement Revolution No Matter How You Slice It

Southern Snacks, Freshly Dug

A Canvas of Contrasts, in One Little Bite

 
     
     
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