Scribbled across a page in one of John Martin Taylor's old sketchbooks is the title "Ten Reasons I Should Write a Cookbook." It's followed by a list of very specific dishes. "The way mama cooked shrimp. Pimento cheese. Things like that," Taylor says, adding "Grandma's sugar cookies" to the menu.
But it took many miles and years for him to seriously consider the idea. The South Carolina native earned a master's degree in filmmaking, spent a decade employed as a painter and photographer, and worked with a chef on a 112-foot yacht to save money to live in Europe. There, he applied to serve as art director for a French magazine, but he was persuaded to fill the role of food editor instead after hosting several of the publication's staff for a meal. It was the first of several opportunities Taylor would find at his own kitchen table.
His best-known work, Hoppin' John's Lowcountry Cooking: Recipes and Ruminations from Charleston and the Carolina Coastal Plain—the 20th anniversary edition of the book was recently published by UNC Press—provides an in-depth look at the food and traditions Taylor grew up with in Orangeburg, S.C., including shrimp with their heads intact and real stone-ground grits.
These foods are now popular well beyond their home base. Award-winning chef Sean Brock, whose restaurants Husk and McCrady's rank among the best in Charleston, has touted a return to traditional Southern ingredients in The New Yorker and on Charlie Rose. And Charlotte Observer Food Editor Kathleen Purvis recently declared, "Shrimp and grits, the shrimper's breakfast born on the tidal creeks of the Lowcountry, has become the iconic dish of the South."
But when Taylor published the first edition of Hoppin' John's with Bantam Books in 1992, the food scene was quite different. Charleston chefs were looking elsewhere for inspiration. "You couldn't even find grits," Taylor says. "The only person I knew anywhere serving shrimp and grits was Bill Neal," the chef at Crook's Corner in Chapel Hill who helped incite a serious new look at traditional Southern cooking, and also one of Taylor's friends.
Another place Taylor located Lowcountry dishes was Old Receipts from Old St. John's, a book likely penned in 1919 that he found on a sidewalk in Newport, R.I. Yet what he read inside was unfamiliar. "Though I had spent most of my life in the Lowcountry, just a few miles from St. John's, I didn't recognize much of the food so lovingly documented in the old book," Taylor writes in the preface to the new edition of his work. So, encouraged by his magazine editor and Karen Hess, a legendary culinary historian, Taylor set off to rediscover it.
He returned to Charleston, opened a cookbook shop and embarked on a seven-year investigation. Taylor interviewed locals, sorted through old plantation journals and shipping records, and read stacks of books, most of whose indexes did not include food—a subject not yet considered worthy of study.
"There were certainly no universities giving degrees in anything vaguely resembling culinary history at the time," Taylor recalls.
He credits his interdisciplinary background in helping him find his way through the research. What resulted was a book intertwined with recipes, histories and stories. "You got this huge sense of not only wonderful food, but what it means," says Fran McCullough, Taylor's first editor, who now resides in Hillsborough.
Dr. Marcie Cohen Ferris, a professor of American Studies at UNC-Chapel Hill, calls Hoppin' John's "a critical book in the canon of Southern food studies."
"[Taylor's] work honors culinary historians like Karen Hess, who came before him and laid the foundations for the study of Southern food," Ferris says. "[It] also provides an important bridge from the scholarship of this earlier era to the exciting worlds of young chefs in the Lowcountry today, such as Charleston's Sean Brock and Robert Stehling, and Southern food historian David Shields at the University of South Carolina," who chairs the Carolina Gold Rice Foundation.
Since kicking off a book tour for Hoppin' John's 20th aniversary edition in South Carolina, Taylor has heard from many Charleston chefs, who are also his fans.
"To be here in Charleston now and to have all these chefs that were kids [say], 'Please come to my restaurant. We so appreciate your work,' it's thrilling. I'm humbled by it," Taylor says.
However, he refuses to take credit for the renewed interest in such foods. "I think it's this big huge arc of lots of different things happening," he says.
His proudest accomplishments—which he can certainly claim—include contributing to the growing field of food scholarship and promoting real grits over ubiquitous instant varieties.
When Taylor returned to Charleston to begin his research some 27 years ago, he started partnerships with several old mills in the mountains of Georgia to source fresh-ground heirloom dent corn. He sold the grits from his bookshop ("Bookstores always have some kind of side product to help pay the bills," he laughs). And today he continues to sell them online, managing the site (www.hoppinjohns.com) from his current home in Bulgaria, where he lives with his husband, Mikel Herrington, country director for the Peace Corps.
In the Balkans, he is perturbed that the only greens eaten are spinach. "They've got fields of turnips and fields of beets and fields of mustard, but the mustard are grown for the seeds. They feed all of the greens to the hogs," Taylor says.
So as you might expect, he set out to find them himself. "I've been growing turnips on my balcony."
This article appeared in print with the headline "When grits were scarce."