John Martin Taylor was exalting Lowcountry cooking before it was fashionable. He opened his culinary bookstore, Hoppin' John's, in Charleston back before any restaurant in the city even had shrimp and grits on its menu. In 1992, his cookbook, "Hoppin' John's Lowcountry Cooking: Recipes and Ruminations from Charleston and the Carolina Coastal Plain," was published. The New York Times proclaimed its recipes should be on "a National Registry of Great American Food."
He became an arbiter of Lowcountry cooking done the right way. For example, he was bothered he couldn't find grits made in South Carolina the way he liked them -- where the right type of corn is ground the right type of way -- so he tracked down a mill in Georgia that could do it correctly. He still sells them on his website.
Nowadays, Southern and Lowcountry cooking is all the rage. Charleston's culinary scene is the toast of the South. Chefs like Mike Lata and Sean Brock have made their names (and won plenty of awards) by focusing on traditional Lowcountry cooking, hunting down ingredients like Carolina Gold Rice that can be the difference between a dish that's pretty good and just right.
"Hoppin' John's Lowcountry Cooking" has just been released in a 20th anniversary edition. Its author still spreads the good word of Lowcountry cooking -- just from thousands of miles away. Taylor now lives in Bulgaria, where his partner is director of the Peace Corps in the country.
Taylor, who spent time on Hilton Head as a youth, took some time to discuss living overseas and the reissue of the cookbook.
Question. Southern cooking has become very popular stateside. Do you find living overseas that most people have an idea of what Southern or Lowcountry cooking is?
Answer. Actually, I don't think they do. I've lived in Italy, France, the Caribbean, all over. Foreigners think of the United States as one place. They think of it as hamburgers and fried chicken and what they see on American TV shows. At the same time, most Americans wouldn't know much about other people's food. They have a concept of Chinese food from the local Chinese take-out restaurant. But China is huge. They don't have an idea of the regional variations.
But this ties into what I tried to do with my book when it was published. It was important for me to explain where the Lowcountry is and what it is and what is grown there and who settled there in the beginning. What I was trying to do was preserve a lot of what is lost.
Q. Can you find good grits in Bulgaria?
A. They do have something here similar. It's something like polenta. But not grits. I have millers who send me grits. I have a freezer full of it.
Q. What's your connection to Hilton Head?
A. My dad was on the state development board. One of the first things the board did was oversee building the bridge to Hilton Head. We'd go there on boats and explore. When Palmetto Bay Marina opened, we'd go there. We were one of three sailboats. We'd putter around and Mom would tell me to get lunch and I'd get oysters off the bank or I'd throw a shrimp net or go empty the crab pot. One of our favorite anchorages is where Harbor Town is now. If we saw another boat it was a major event. We'd call them over for lunch.
Q. Do you miss the Lowcountry?
A. All my family is there. I love the food, of course. I miss the crabs and the oysters and the shrimp. I miss the greens. I have to say I don't miss the heat. Or the bugs.
Get a copy of "Hoppin' John's Lowcountry Cooking" here.