In the decade before John Martin Taylor opened his Hoppin’ John culinary bookstore in 1986 near the City Market, finding a bag of stone-ground grits here to buy was as likely as striking gold in pluff mud.
Charleston, for all of its rich food history, almost had become Anytown, USA, in a gastronomic sense. People had become disconnected from local food sources and homogenized in their approach to cooking. Taylor calls it “the grocery store mentality.”
“This whole postwar industrialization of American affected people in the Lowcountry as well,” he says.
But there were signs of a turning tide. In the ensuing years, Taylor was not only a witness to the area’s culinary renaissance, he as a historian and preservationist was one of its driving forces. Many recognize the publication of his book, “Hoppin’ John’s Lowcountry Cooking,” in 1992 as a milestone in the rise of Charleston as a “food destination” on a national scale.
“No man deserves more credit for Charleston’s culinary resurgence,” Gourmet declared.
“Splendid recipes that should be on a National Registry of Great American Food. It’s a stunner!” said The New York Times.
Now, two decades later, the University of North Carolina Press has come out with a 20th anniversary edition of the book. The soft-cover includes a new preface by the author and other minor changes.
Taylor, 62, who has lived overseas since 2004, returns to Charleston next week as part of a tour promoting the new edition. His time in the Holy City includes a public book signing and a lecture at the Charleston Heritage Symposium.
Marion Sullivan, a staff member of the Culinary Institute of Charleston, longtime food and cookbook consultant, and Post and Courier columnist, says Taylor’s book is a timeless and definitive field guide to the local cuisine.
“With its mission to respect what came before and incorporate these elements into a contemporary culinary context, it will always command a primary place in Lowcountry literature.”
When writing the book, Taylor says he strived “to weave the historical and the haute in with a popular voice and the lowdown.” Lowcountry cooking always has been “a combination of the high and the low — the city and the country — the hunters and those attending balls. I wanted to show what it had been and what it could be today.”
Taylor sees a number of events in the mid-20th century gradually setting the stage for Charleston’s culinary resurgence, which by the 1990s had picked up a full head of steam.
“I can see this arc, plain as day. It starts with the general development of the South, meaning the interstate highways and air conditioning coming so you could have places like Hilton Head develop, so that people came. Because people used not to come to South Carolina.”
Then, in the 1960s and early ’70s, the civil rights and women’s movements opened up new fields of study in academia, Taylor says. “History had always been written in terms of court cases and battles. Historians really didn’t know much about food; if they did, they didn’t consider it historically important regardless of how culturally important it was. ... Cooking became respectable.”
At the same time, the Spoleto Festival came to Charleston, injecting the city with more international influence and visitors. A robust U.S. economy in the 1980s also resulted in more personal disposable income and helped fuel development in general, Taylor says. That led to more restaurants opening in downtown Charleston.
Chefs such as Jeremiah Tower and Wolfgang Puck started appearing on television, branding themselves and creating an aura of celebrity.
Add to that a “fresh and local” food movement coming out of California that caught on with the public, and Charleston became ripe for a new-age food culture to blossom.
“I think it’s all inter-related,” Taylor says.
With Charleston’s red-hot food scene and the general decline in home cooking, is Lowcountry cuisine in danger of becoming “restaurantized”?
Taylor doesn’t necessarily see it that way. Home cooking will hold its own, he believes, even as local chefs become more prominent. “If they’re using fresh and local ingredients, there’s two-thirds of the components,” with the third being tradition.
Asked to name a dish that epitomizes the fusion of African-American, European and/or native American cooking traditions, and Taylor answers pilau, or “perlo” in local vernacular.
“The West Africans and their descendants who were cooking in Charleston kitchens for over 200 years came from a stewpot culinary tradition,” Taylor says. “I can think of no better evidence of the emergence of the Creole cuisine of Charleston than these one-pot dishes that used little bits of meat strewn in them rather than the traditional big roasts that were the traditions of the 17th-, 18th-, and 19th-century French and English settlers of Charleston.”
The dish known as Hoppin’ John is a perfect example, he says, “with its red peas and rice of West Africa with the hot peppers of the Caribbean and the smoked pork the legacy of European butchers. Plus the cornbread that goes alongside (being) a throwback to both Scots-Irish breads and Native American corn, and the collards that accompany it, more pure Africa. Served with a ham or roast pork with a host of condiments reflecting the exotic flavors that Charleston Harbor brought into the South along with the enlsaved.”
The defining dishes of the plantation South came to be perlos, gumbos, fish stews, chicken country captain, jambalaya, Brunswick stew and chicken bog.
Besides family, what Taylor misses most about living in the Lowcountry is the availability of collard greens and seafood.
Taylor, an Orangeburg native who spent much of his childhood on and around Lowcountry waterways, closed his eclectic bookstore in 1999 to concentrate on writing.
He moved to Washington, D.C., in 2004 with his partner, who works for the Peace Corps, and then to Bulgaria in July 2011.
“They’ve got the best tomatoes you ever tasted in your life here, “ Taylor concedes. “Listen, I’ve grown dozens and dozens of heirloom varieties and ... hand pollinating them and all that, and I have never tasted tomatoes like these. They’re like the size of grapefruits. It’s amazing.”
But the biggest drawback, food-wise, is the lack of greens like collards and kale. But they do eat spinach, and beets and turnips are plentiful.
He does a lot of entertaining, as always. “This year we’ve had visitors from the states every two weeks since March.”
His next major stop in life is right around the corner. Next year, he’ll be moving to the city of Sichuan in the Chengdu province of China.
At the moment, he’s focused on learning a new language: Mandarin. Taylor says Sichuan is a city of 16 million people, but the average person on the street does not speak any English.
“I’m lucky I have a facility for language,” he says.