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.