Chew on This

He woke us up to Lowcountry food

aweigl@newsobserver.comDecember 25, 2012 

The 20th anniversary edition of John Martin Taylor's "Hoppin John" cookbook.

  • Hoppin’ John This is the traditional Southern dish to eat on New Year’s Day with greens and cornbread. From “Hoppin’ John’s Lowcountry Cooking: Recipes and Ruminations from Charleston and the Carolina Coastal Plain,” by John Martin Taylor (2012, University of North Carolina Press). 1 cup small dried beans, such as cowpeas or black-eyes 5 to 6 cups water 1 dried hot pepper, optional 1 smoked ham hock 1 medium onion, chopped, about 3/4 cup 1 cup long-grain white rice WASH and sort the peas. Place them in a saucepan, add water and discard any peas that float. Gently boil peas with pepper, ham hock and onion, uncovered, until tender but not mushy -- about 1 1/2 hours or until 2 cups liquid remains. ADD rice to the pot, cover and simmer over low heat for about 20 minutes, never lifting the lid. Remove from heat and allow to steam, still covered, for another 10 minutes. Remove the lid, fluff with a fork, and serve immediately. Yield: 6 servings

Charleston wasn’t always the culinary mecca that it is today. Stone-ground grits used to be hard to find. Shrimp and grits wasn’t 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 there’s no denying that John Martin Taylor, author of “Hoppin’ John’s 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.

Taylor’s 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 didn’t 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 McCullough’s help, became “Hoppin’ John’s 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.

I’m inspired to honor Taylor by making his recipe for Hoppin’ John, that classic New Year’s Day dish of peas and rice. I hope you all will join me and have a happy, healthy and delicious new year.

Weigl: 919-829-4848 or

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