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.