John Martin Taylor is enamored with tomatoes lately, Bulgarian tomatoes to be exact. He's been raiding markets and "little old ladies gardens" outside of Sofia, Bulgaria where he currently lives and declares them to be the finest he's ever tasted. He's been the same way about grits from a mill in North Georgia, creek shrimp caught with a cast net, and the proper temperature for deep fat frying oil — a man with definite opinions about certain things, not the least of which is food.
Around here, we've always known him as "Hoppin' John" Taylor, and his downtown bookstore off Pinckney Street served as a hub for serious foodies about town from its inception in 1986. A steady stream of culinary students from the now-defunct Johnson and Wales campus once beat a path to his door. Many of our most celebrated chefs graced the doorway before they were much more than grill cooks. People came for the books, but John Taylor was more than a bookseller, he was a chronicler of local foodways.
Raised in Orangeburg, Hoppin' John grew up around Southern food. "But we were weird," he relates. "My parents were both scientists, and we had a wine cellar — in Orangeburg!" He recalls being exposed to a variety of cuisines at a young age, and he lived for some time in Genoa, Italy and Paris, France. So when he moved to Charleston to open a culinary bookstore, modeled on the Culinary Books and Letters shop that he worked for in New York, Hoppin' John naturally delved deeper into the native cuisine.
The result of that effort, Hoppin' John's Lowcountry Cooking, helped bring Lowcountry cuisine to the forefront of Charleston dining. Chefs like Philip Bardin at The Old Post Office on Edisto were just beginning to explore grits as a facet of fine dining, and Taylor wanted to share his discovery of a lost cuisine. "I wrote the book trying to showcase the ingredients and philosophies of a cuisine that I felt was almost gone," he explains. "This cooking was no longer utilized as an everyday thing in people's homes." He ended up writing the definitive cookbook on Lowcountry food.
His book introduced many parts of the country to shrimp and grits, she-crab soup, and other Lowcountry staples, and certainly paved the way for much of the culinary attention that Charleston now garners in the gastronomic marketplace. Despite having sold his store and moved away a number of years ago, he still holds a special affinity for Charleston. When pressed to talk about how the culinary landscape has changed in the years since his book came out, he presses for a more inclusive rather than preservationist approach to Lowcountry food, or at least an acknowledgment that the food of the past needn't be fussed over as if it were a restoration project on a historic downtown home.
"What Sarah Rutledge wrote is not immutable," he says. "I'm not giving up my food processor, or my dishwasher, or my gas range." In fact, Taylor imagines that a true Lowcountry cuisine would find a pluralistic nature in its past.
"Who am I to say that Donald Barickman shouldn't have put tasso ham in his shrimp and grits? Charleston was always a very cosmopolitan place. There were 200 ships in this harbor and they had access to everything, you could get anything you wanted, from Mediterranean olive oil to almost any exotic spice."
Taylor says his book was not designed to be the last word on how to cook "Lowcountry." "It was just my version of things," he insists, "because I would not have written it if I didn't think that people would come away with a strong sense of place."
On Friday, Oct. 5 Taylor will kick off a month-long book tour with an appearance at the Charleston Preservation Society' Charleston Heritage Symposium, unveiling a 20th anniversary edition of his cookbook with a new foreword and updated ingredient listings.