“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.
Carolina Rice Bread
Okra and Tomatoes
Roast Chicken With Groundnut Dressing
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.