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Serve It Fourth : Lowcountry Cooking: Eat It Fast Before It Disappears

One day in 1984 John Martin Taylor was walking past a pile of trash outside a newly gutted house in Newport, Rhode Island, when a piece of flowered fabric caught his eye. It was the cover of a hand-sewn book, a 70-year-old-church recipe collection titled “Old Receipts from Old St. Johns.”

Probably the name would have meant nothing to anyone else within 700 miles. But Taylor--at that time food correspondent for a French magazine called Ici New York--happened to be a transplanted “Sandlapper” from the same part of South Carolina as the old cookbook, the Lowcountry.

Taylor, then in his mid-30s, had no idea that eight years later he would be the author of another Carolina cookbook, the recently published “Hoppin’ John’s Lowcountry Cooking” (Bantam: $24). At the moment of his unlikely find, Taylor, a slight, mild-mannered man who is a painter and photographer by training, was at a troublesome stage of his fortunes. He had lived in many parts of the world but felt there was only one place where he belonged. That place was the Lowcountry, a long, flat, island-studded coastal plain running northeast from the Georgia border through the central hub of Charleston and most of the way to North Carolina. It is one of the world’s most extraordinary wetlands systems.

As far as Taylor was concerned, it was also the home of the world’s best food. In his childhood that had meant direct, robust, but deft cooking based on the wild bounty of the land and an abundance of seasonal local produce. There was incomparable shellfish just for the asking. People cooked season by season with tomatoes, figs, peaches, wild grapes (or cultivated cousins like scuppernongs), corn for grits, pigs for lard and ham, many different greens and a million kinds of dried beans generically called “peas.”

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The place and the food drew him back like a magnet all the years he spent in places like Paris or Genoa. “I’ve never wanted to live anyplace else, ever,” he says over the telephone from Edisto Island in South Carolina during a weekend visit with a houseful of fellow Sandlappers. “I’ve always known I would come back.”

He was right. Today Taylor is a local institution of sorts in Charleston--or more accurately, the guiding spirit of a local institution, a culinary bookstore and much-frequented rendezvous called “Hoppin’ John’s” (after an old Lowcountry dish of rice and black-eyed peas). And through his book he has become the first national champion of a regional cuisine that some would rank among our most undervalued national treasures.

“It’s a much more beautiful cuisine than that of New Orleans,” the culinary historian Karen Hess says decidedly. By a stroke of luck Taylor happened to interview her for Ici New York when he was first poring over “Old Receipts.” A leading researcher on the evolution of Southern food, Hess helped steer him toward the historical study of Charleston and Lowcountry cooking. She also encouraged his ambition of starting a Charleston bookstore, an idea that had struck him when he wandered into the well-known Kitchen Arts and Letters store in New York and introduced himself to the resident factotum, Nahum (“Nach”) Waxman.

When Ici New York folded in 1985, Taylor thought it was time to do something about his dream of returning to the Lowcountry and finding a venue for championing its food. He put in a call to Nach Waxman. As Waxman recently recalled the conversation, he picked up the phone to hear his ex-customer announcing, “I’m trying to figure out what I’m going to do with myself and how I can live in Charleston, and I’ve decided I would like nothing better than to do what you do.” It took the bookseller about five seconds to find out that Taylor knew nothing about running any kind of retail business. He asked whether the would-be-entrepreneur would like to come and learn the trade first-hand in a working bookstore. Taylor jumped at the chance.

Taylor spent seven months as an apprentice bookseller (and still counts Waxman’s offer as one of the most “utterly gracious” things anyone has ever done for him). During this period the laid-back, talkative young Southerner became friends with many of the food writers and editors who head for Kitchen Arts and Letters whenever they are in New York.

When he returned to Charleston to set up his own store late in 1986, he found that something like a national word of mouth was waiting for him: “Everybody started writing about it--I never had to advertise.”

Located on Pinckney Street in a historic district of the city, Hoppin’ John’s was everything its proprietor had dreamed of--including an ideal vantage point from which to start thinking of a book on Lowcountry cooking. By now he knew that there would have to be more to the story than favorite recipes and local color. “I’d started digging around in the culinary history of the area and could see major changes, things disappearing. At the time, not a single restaurant in town served any Lowcountry food.”

Soon he realized that what he was seeing (more often not seeing) was directly tied to long-term changes in the region’s population and the loss of its old economic basis, rice. Moreover, he could virtually trace every stage in the breakup of a complex older culture from its peak in the 18th Century by the disappearance of this or that recipe from each generation’s cookbooks. Trying some of the old dishes in his own kitchen and recognizing their exquisite quality, he became possessed with the mission of doing justice to a lost heritage.

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Again Taylor’s luck held, and he had his pick of offers from book publishers joining the “regional American cuisine” bandwagon. Hoppin’ John’s was thriving and he seemed well on his way to writing a definitive account of Lowcountry food past and present, when his father phoned the store early in the fall of 1989. “I want you out of there,” said the elder Taylor, a ham radio operator and a sailor used to tracking marine weather. “We’ve never seen one like this"--meaning the approaching Hurricane Hugo, which slammed directly into downtown Charleston on Sept. 29.

It was the event by which Taylor to this day measures everything else in his life--"before” and “after.” He had gotten inland to Columbia before the storm winds ripped onshore at 100 miles an hour, but had been able to salvage little else. Even now he has trouble describing the bomb-site vision of Pinckney Street.

Hoppin’ John’s and his apartment upstairs were two feet deep in the dark Lowcountry “pluff mud,” washed in by the ton as long-diverted waterways flooded through the downtown landfill. “It was we-i-rd ,” Taylor murmurs, his soft Lowcountry voice slowing for emphasis. “All the creeks became creeks again.” His belongings were gone. “All my film, negatives, slides, cameras, great-grandfather’s daguerreotype, all my drawings. All my clothes. The one thing I’d grabbed was my computer with the manuscript of my book.”

Along with 60,000 other people, he found himself temporarily homeless. For a time it seemed that his store could not be rebuilt. Months of painful dealings with insurance companies, banks, contractors and government agencies sapped his efforts to continue with the book. At last his editor, Fran McCullough, took a look at what he’d produced and gently told him that she was extending his contract deadline to give him the chance to put his life back together.

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Taylor, who says of his working relationship with McCullough that “it was love at first telephone call,” was energized all over again by the chance to do the thing right after getting back on his financial feet. Hoppin’ John’s reopened almost a year to the day after it had been destroyed. By then Taylor was back at work with a vivid sense of just how fragile the resources of the Lowcountry are and were.

The ordeal he and his city went through after the hurricane sharpened his zeal for preserving what was most unique and lovely, not necessarily most popular. He readily acknowledges that the resulting book may rouse the ire of some Sandlappers. “There will be octogenarians who have lived here all their lives who go through my book and say, ‘This is not Lowcountry!’ Well, let them. Let them have their gelatin salads and their television sets!” His own duty is to something else: “What I meant to write about the Lowcountry was the changes that have taken place, the fact that this food has almost disappeared.”

By “this food” he means not a recipe-by-recipe repertoire but a whole culinary culture that used to revolve around a cluster of elements. Through what he calls “culinary sleuthing” he came to see the wonderful food of his childhood as only partial survivors of something much older. He worked his way back to one of the first and greatest ethnic melting pots of North America, made possible by the world-renowned Carolina rice.

Not by coincidence, rice was the heart of the cuisine. No meal was complete without it, for either blacks or whites. “People are still that way in South Carolina, even people who don’t cook traditional,” says Taylor. But the crop died out by stages as other areas developed cheaper ways of growing rice with mechanized equipment too heavy for the bottomless Lowcountry mud. Today most Sandlappers buy their rice in 50-pound sacks from foreign parts like Texas and California.

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Probably the thing that most distinguishes “Lowcountry Cooking” from the run of regional cookbooks is Taylor’s attempt to resurrect important recipes of the glory days--to start people once more preparing dishes that used to be in any South Carolina cookbook. For him these are not quaint historical footnotes but solid links with a magnificent culinary tradition. His research showed the step-by-step disappearance of that tradition as rice died out and the Lowcountry black population went elsewhere. (No one can forget that the glory days were also the slavery days.)

In the first chapter he relates that only 11 years after the end of the Civil War, a local cookbook mentioned “neither pilau --the ‘national’ dish of Carolina--nor hoppin’ John, favorite of masters and slaves alike.” Other dishes followed the same road to oblivion. “Like rice bread,” he points out. “I have never found a soul who remembers it being served.” In 1847 “The Carolina Housewife” had printed 30 versions.

But Taylor didn’t choose to make his book a jeremiad about past splendor fallen on evil times. In the first place, “Lowcountry Cooking” is liberally salted with frankly newfangled dishes by himself and friends that he thinks carry on the tradition of light-handed, eclectic cooking (e.g., steamed duck breasts with leeks and sliced pears, “rice tabbouleh,” or an egg white salad dressing with peanuts). In the second place, he shows large numbers of people still matter-of-factly crabbing, hunting, growing “peas” and scuppernongs, making dishes like shrimp and grits. There is even a small company reviving “Carolina Gold,” once the most illustrious local rice strain.

Few regional cookbooks aim quite as high as this one, but the unorthodox scope of Taylor’s survey is no surprise to the friends who marveled at his fanatical devotion to the Lowcountry during his years of exile. (“John is loco -centric,” says the food writer Nancy Harmon Jenkins, with a certain wry emphasis on the first two syllables.) For him, the things Taylor’s done are exactly what regional cookbooks should do and usually don’t. When he talks about his home Taylor often ends up talking about destructive change--but with a strong awareness that equally fascinating chapters of Southern culinary history are in the making at this moment. His next book will be a culinary portrait of a South being explosively transformed by huge influxes of Middle Easterners, southeast Asians and new arrivals from the American Midwest.

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As he sees it, the newcomers have lost no time developing exactly the same loyalty to a patch of the South as anyone whose ancestors came to Charleston or Jamestown 300 years ago. “These people consider themselves Southerners!” he says with pride, obviously relishing the idea of new recruits to carry on the sense of place that in Taylor’s mind is the only real reason for writing cookbooks.


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