John Martin Taylor: Beyond true grits


John Martin Taylor’s low-country cookbook was originally released 20 years ago. (Deb Lindsey/FOR THE WASHINGTON POST)
September 11, 2012

John Martin Taylor’s unlikely transformation into cookbook author and low-country cuisine historian began in 1984 in, of all places, Newport, R.I., where he found himself combing through a pile of household items discarded on a sidewalk. From the trash, Taylor plucked “Old Receipts from Old St. Johns,” a cookbook with a hand-sewn cover and old plantation photographs pasted into it. It was probably assembled around 1919.

Although no author was listed, “Old Receipts” was written by Anne Sinkler Fishburne, whose family, like many prominent South Carolinians, probably vacationed in Newport. Their country residence, however, was the Belvidere Plantation, on a piece of property located near Taylor’s childhood home in Orangeburg, S.C. The plantation’s land now sits at the bottom of Lake Marion, a massive body of water created in 1941 as part of a dam project to bring hydroelectricity to the rural South. Fishburne apparently wanted to preserve a small slice of antebellum cooking before the long-promised floodwaters washed away all recorded evidence.

Taylor didn’t know all of that at the time he stumbled upon “Old Receipts,” but he did know this: Many of the dishes were foreign to him. “I’m looking at this stuff, and I’m freaking out. I had grown up right [there], and I don’t even recognize this food,” Taylor says via telephone from Bulgaria, where his husband, Mikel Herrington, became the country director for the Peace Corps after years of working in Washington.

At the encouragement of the late Karen Hess, the polarizing culinary historian often critical of icons such as James Beard and Julia Child, Taylor began his seven-year investigation into low-country cuisine, culminating in “Hoppin’ John’s Lowcountry Cooking,” first published by Bantam Books in April 1992. Among other things, Taylor cut through the buttery cliches and clutter of Southern cooking to define what low-country cuisine is:

“It is not European, African or West Indian dishes specifically that characterize low-country cooking; rather, it is the nuances of combination and a respect for the past that make the cuisine unique,” Taylor wrote in his introduction. “Low-country cuisine is Creole cooking, but it is more heavily influenced by Africans than is the cuisine of Louisiana.”

The book was an instant hit. Wrote the New York Times: “Rich in lore and history, full of culture, the book has splendid regional recipes that should be on a National Register of Great American Food.”

Over the next 20 years, “Hoppin’ John’s Lowcountry Cooking” would generate the kind of press that would make Taylor something of an icon himself. He has been praised for fueling “the back-to-the-stone-ground-grits movement” (Gourmet magazine); for jump-starting “Charleston’s culinary resurgence” (food writers Jane and Michael Stern); and for writing “the book on Charleston cuisine” (Charleston magazine, in naming Taylor one of “10 icons of life in the Lowcountry during the past 35 years”).

Taylor’s elevation to low-country cooking icon is an unorthodox story in the sense that he wasn’t formally trained in either cooking or history. But he was always curious as a boy, says sister Susan Highfield, who lives in Charleston. His curiosity was fostered by his parents, both scientists, who established a rather nontraditional household in 1950s-era Orangeburg.

The couple ground their own coffee, Highfield says. They stocked a wine cellar. They owned a boat to catch their own shrimp and crabs. They traveled regularly to introduce their four children to the foods of other cultures. Taylor’s mother, Rebecca, was also an adventurous cook. “She’d make beef Wellington for lunch,” recalls Highfield, “just to see if she could do it.”

But when it came time to choose a career, Taylor followed his interest in the visual arts. He earned his keep for a decade as a photographer and painter. He kicked around Europe for a few years, living in Italy and France before finding himself in New York, where he worked briefly at Kitchen Arts & Letters, the mecca of culinary bookstores. Taylor soon realized what he wanted to do: start a similar bookstore in Charleston.

In 1986, Taylor opened the store, Hoppin’ John’s, its name a nod to the moniker the budding bookseller had adopted a year earlier when he brought the traditional good-luck dish of rice and beans to a New Year’s Day party. Historian and author Dale Rosengarten, curator at the Addlestone Library at the College of Charleston, remembers the store as a “hole in the wall” filled floor to ceiling with cookbooks. For many years, a steady stream of journalists, chefs and home cooks poured into the store, looking for the right book. Robert Stehling, chef and proprietor of the Hominy Grill in Charleston, recalls visiting the store and watching Taylor scrunch up his face when customers asked for certain books. The owner wasn’t shy about redirecting people to other volumes.

Perhaps because Taylor was opinionated about others’ cookbooks, he knew he couldn’t cut himself any slack with his own project. “I knew [the cookbook] had to be all but perfect. It had to be,” Taylor says. If it wasn’t, “why would anybody respect my opinion on anybody else’s book?”

Hoppin’ John’s, the bookstore, became something of an attraction for food lovers. In that way, the store, like the “Hoppin’ John Lowcountry Cookbook,” presaged the Charleston of today.

Contemporary Charleston has become a magnet for eaters tantalized by the promise of tasting the city’s aristocratic past, when the Holy City’s great wealth (built on the backs of slaves), abundance of local ingredients and busy port helped produce one of America’s most sophisticated cuisines. Once thought lost to history, the cuisine has been put back on the table by Sean Brock of Husk, Mike Lata of Fig, Frank Lee of Slightly North of Broad and other chefs, who haven’t been satisfied with just preparing chef-driven interpretations of classic low-country dishes. They’re often using — or even cultivating — heirloom ingredients not seen in South Carolina in many generations.

Taylor has certainly played a part in this revival. But trying to trace the arc of Charleston cuisine — its antebellum heyday, its neglect and its revival — and the author’s precise role in this resurgence is probably a fool’s errand, particularly for a reporter on deadline. It would lead to the kind of lazy pronouncement that would have driven Karen Hess crazy.

Besides, as Taylor acknowledges, his research did not happen in a vacuum. It owes much to the works that came before him — not just “Old Receipts From Old St. Johns,” but many other cookbook sources. He leaned on volumes such as “Two Hundred Years of Charleston Cooking” (published in 1930), “Charleston Receipts” (first published in 1950 by the Junior League of Charleston) and “The Carolina Housewife” (first published in 1847 by Sarah Rutledge, daughter of Edward Rutledge, a signer of the Declaration of Independence).

Through years of research and interviews, Taylor was able to give more context and definition to low-country cuisine than his cookbook predecessors, rejecting or refining old dishes whose connections to the region were tangential at best. He took pains to debunk recipes that sounded authentic yet proved adulterated, such as the classic Huguenot Torte in “Charleston Receipts.”

“In researching the recipe I finally tracked down the author, Evelyn Florance, who confirmed my suspicions that the cake was not local,” Taylor wrote in the headnote of his adapted recipe, named for the Protestants who fled France for South Carolina. “She told me that it was adapted from a recipe for Ozark pudding from the Mississippi River delta,” where pecans are indigenous.

“I was trying to get at the bottom of any folklore I was encountering,” Taylor says in a phone interview.

“John’s book is a product of the modern era of professional cookbook publishing and also has the advantage of hindsight. He had his own experience growing up here, plus ‘200 Years’ and ‘Charleston Receipts’ as background,” notes Matt Lee, one half of the Lee Bros., who have carved out their own niche in low-country cooking.

As he sits down for lunch at Husk in downtown Charleston, David Shields, the McClintock professor of Southern letters at the University of South Carolina, explains that “Hoppin’ John’s Lowcountry Cooking” was a first step in the revival of the cuisine. But the book, like anything primarily focused on recipes, did not go far enough, says Shields, chairman of the Carolina Gold Rice Fou ndation, which has been working with chefs such as Brock to revitalize heirloom ingredients once found throughout the South.

“That book confronted people with the realization that certain things essential to the [low-country] tradition aren’t easily done,” Shields told me. “I’m interested in getting the ingredients right.”

The ingredients are vital, Shields argues, because without Carolina Gold rice or Carolina shrimp or the proper heirloom variety of benne seed, you can never recapture the true flavors of low-country cooking. “It never occurred to me that the losses in low-country food had been so great that we all don’t know Jack about the splendor that was, even with the aid of historical savants such as Hoppin’ John Taylor,” Shields writes in his forthcoming book, “Making the South Edible.”

At 62, Taylor has little interest in engaging in this argument over authentic recipes vs. authentic ingredients, other than to say: “I think there are many, many, many reasons why heirloom varieties of vegetables die out. It’s not just taste, and it’s not just sociopolitical reasons.”

But neither does Taylor need to feel defensive. He has understood the importance of ingredients since he was a boy casting nets to catch shrimp for his mother. For about 25 years now, Taylor has been selling his own stone-ground, unbolted grits, sourced from a mill in Georgia, to wean Charlestonians off the cheap, instant variety that took root in the South with the rise of convenience foods. Local chefs became regular customers. “I got people eating real grits again,” Taylor crows.

At one point before he closed the Hoppin’ John’s bookstore in 1999, Taylor figures, the sales of grits had probably outpaced the sales of cookbooks, particularly his own. After 20 years, the author figures he has sold only about 30,000 copies of his book. Like so much about his journey into low-country cooking, Taylor has had to generate interest where there was little before.

“I would say that I sold at least half of those [copies] myself,” he says.

RECIPES:

Carolina Rice Bread

Stuffed Flounder

Okra and Tomatoes

Roast Chicken With Groundnut Dressing

Bourbon Balls

Taylor will join today’s Free Range chat at noon: live.washingtonpost.com. Hoppin’ John grits and cornmeal are available locally at the Kensington Farmers Market, sold by caterer Anna St. John.

Tim Carman serves as the full-time writer for the Post's Food section and as the $20 Diner for the Weekend section, a double duty that requires ingesting more calories than a draft horse.
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