Charleston wasnt always the culinary mecca that it is today. Stone-ground grits used to be hard to find. Shrimp and grits wasnt served at every Southern restaurant above the level of a meat-and-three.
There is much debate about who deserves credit for the revival of Lowcountry cuisine. But theres no denying that John Martin Taylor, author of Hoppin Johns Lowcountry Cooking: Recipes and Ruminations from Charleston & the Carolina Coastal Plain, played a key role.
I think he kind of woke everybody up, said Fran McCullough, who retired to Hillsborough five years ago after a career editing some serious writers in the cookbook world, including Taylor. (McCullough became a cookbook editor after editing renowned fiction writer Sylvia Plath and poet Robert Bly.) Her cookbook authors included Mexican food expert Diana Kennedy and Moroccan authority Paula Wolfert.
McCullough helped arrange for me to meet Taylor when he came to Chapel Hill this fall to promote the 20th anniversary edition of his cookbook, published by The University of North Carolina Press.
Taylors path to expertise on Lowcountry cooking was circuitous. He grew up in Orangeburg, S.C. His parents, both scientists, ground their own coffee and kept a stocked wine cellar. The family had a sailboat at Hilton Head Island, where they would catch shrimp and crab. He graduated from the University of Georgia and started a career as a photographer, eventually becoming an art director and food editor for a French magazine.
My favorite part of his story is this: One day in 1984, Taylor stumbled upon a cookbook called Old Receipts from Old St. Johns in some trash on a sidewalk in Newport, R.I. The book had been compiled by Anne Sinkler Fishburne, whose family owned the Belvidere Plantation not far from where Taylor grew up. The book, likely written in 1919, was filled with recipes Taylor didnt recognize. He began researching them.
In 1986, he opened a culinary bookstore in Charleston and began writing a food column for a weekly paper, often using those Old St. Johns recipes as material. That research and those columns, with McCulloughs help, became Hoppin Johns Lowcountry Cooking. The book, first published in 1992, was praised in The New York Times and became a hit.
Taylor, 63, now lives in Bulgaria. He and Mikel Herrington, a Peace Corps country director, moved there after being married in Washington, D.C. in 2010. Since moving there almost two years ago, Taylor has figured out how to make do. He grows turnip greens on his balcony. A farmer friend plants field peas and other greens for him. And he always asks friends to send pecans for his birthday.
I love how rummaging through a pile of discarded items on a sidewalk led Taylor down an unexpected path. I appreciate the work he poured into this cookbook, which tried to explain the influence of European, African and West Indian food traditions on what we know as Lowcountry cooking. I love that he works so hard to pull together the ingredients for a good Southern meal in an Eastern European country.
Im inspired to honor Taylor by making his recipe for Hoppin John, that classic New Years Day dish of peas and rice. I hope you all will join me and have a happy, healthy and delicious new year.
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