John Martin Taylor: A Charleston Culinary Legend
As more time passes and people from all over the world descend into Charleston, the city’s legends seem to get lost, or easily forgotten. Especially when the people that built the city’s culinary scene move to other places and seem to not beg for the light to be shined on them. One person that cannot and should not be taken for granted or lost in the shuffle is John Martin Taylor, better known as “Hoppin’ John Taylor.” John brought the national attention onto the city’s culinary landscape and shared it with everyone through his popular store and books on Lowcountry cuisine.
I often think about Hoppin’ John, and relish in cooking from his book, so thought it was important to keep his legacy alive and share why he is a Charleston Culinary Legend.
We recently chatted with John, talked more about his role in the city and his thoughts on where it is today:
The Daily Meal: Tell us about your upbringing and how you ended up in Charleston?
John Martin Taylor: Our family moved from Baton Rouge, Louisiana to Orangeburg (which is about an hour and a half west of Charleston) when I was three years old. We lived near a swamp, similar to our home and setting we had in Louisiana. My father was also an avid boater and was always on the water. For years we had one of the three sailboats docked on Hilton Head Island and often traveled there.
How did you get into cooking and food?
My parents were incredible cooks who had an extensive wine cellar. We always had large family dinners where wine was served. My mother had a cookbook collection of over 1,200 books, most of which she left to me when she passed away. We also traveled a lot and dined at upscale restaurants everywhere we went.
So tell us about your background and how you ended up into food, especially doing what you did in Charleston?
After graduate school, where I received a Master’s in Film, I went to the Caribbean and was a freelance photographer. While there, I realized how much I missed the Lowcountry. There were so many similarities. So I decided to move to Charleston in 1975 and then again in 1980 but did take time to travel to Europe. I was hired to write for a food magazine after applying to be the art director. Eventually I headed to New York and wrote about food for a French magazine Ici New York. It was around this time I met Karen Hess, who was a leading food historian. She and I would discuss for hours and hours foodways and recipes, including those from South Carolina plantations, where the cooking was done by the enslaved.
After two years in New York, I decided to move to Charleston and open a culinary bookstore. That was 1986.
What was the store like? What made it special?
It was heavy on books of course. At one point, we had 10,000 titles and books on everything from hunting, butchering, cooking, history, and more. But I knew I wanted to sell ingredients to cook with there as well. When I started searching for things, I quickly realized that there was nothing out there. No country grits, the kind we ate as kids. So I went to over 30 mills and found a miller that grew stone-ground, whole-grain, heirloom corn and together started making grits that I sold at the store, and still sell online today. Many of my customers are chefs all over the country.
So what lead to writing your own cookbooks?
Well, I was writing for a lot of magazines — Food + Wine, Gourmet, New York Times. I was researching and writing on southern foods. This eventually led to the books including Hoppin’ John’s Lowcountry Cooking.
You closed the store. Why did you decide to do that?
After Hurricane Hugo, we had to close for repairs (and my fist book was due!). After it was released, my sister Sue came to work for me and she really ran the store. Then, in 1997, I bought the building and started a cooking school, added cooking ware and my own line of condiments and really built it up. I get a lot of credit for the store’s success but Sue was the real force behind it. My focus was mostly on writing and consulting at that point. When online book sales began digging into mine, I decided to close the shop and go online with my own books and food products. Also, my partner of six years at the time (now my husband) was moving up in the federal government and we were anticipating moving.
What were the most significant memories for you at the store?
Most significantly, I turned Charlestonians on to stone-ground, whole grain, heirloom corn grits, long before Glenn Roberts was growing them, before any local restaurant was serving them. That was cool. Food historian David Shields was a supporter of the store and I remember the first time he came in. He and I started talking about the music we liked — we both appreciated pretty obscure stuff.
Talk about where Charleston is today and where it was when you opened the store?
Well, Sean Brock was just a young boy when I opened the store (laughing). Really regional cooking was and should always be about the home cooks. That was what we championed with the store. Authentic Lowcountry cooking happens at the home and it all began at the plantations and in Charleston townhouses. Much of the cooking was based on what came from the sea. And on rice. These traditions of cooking large traditional meals at home and celebrating together still happens but not a lot, and not really still in Charleston.
The food scene was just beginning back then. When Donald Barickman was a chef at Carolina’s, it was Alice Marks, a mutual friend and an outstanding home cook who introduced him to shrimp and grits. It was she who found the miller for both of us.
There were some great places. Marianne’s had the best chef ever, Celia’s, Martha Lou’s and Bertha’s, 82 Queen, and Poogan’s Porch were the new hot spots, Pinckney Café, and Garibaldi’s. Most of those places are no longer around.
Where did you like to eat?
I could not afford to eat out! I also preferred to cook and eat at home. And I always had a book contract and recipes to test. I did go to Celia’s once a month. Or I would go to Carolina’s and Mama Rose would cook something Vietnamese of me in the Perdita’s Room.
What was your greatest memory at the store?
We opened on Thanksgiving Eve. Everyone said no one would come, but we did it anyway. We had champagne and chocolates by Mark Gray and over 300 people showed up! It was awesome.
What do you love to cook?
Anything fresh and local. Shrimp, tomatoes (now), butterbeans, oysters! Recipe wise, so many of the dishes from my book are easy and great for entertaining — pickled shrimp, Carolina pilau, and cobbler.
So where are you now? What has transpired in your life since leaving Charleston?
It was time for me to let my husband Mikel Herrington follow his dreams. He has basically supported me for all these years. He was the Acting Director of AmeriCorps National Civilian Community Corps when he was offered a Peace Corps Country Directorship. We were stationed in Sofia, Bulgaria for two years, and then in China. We now split our time between Savannah and Washington, DC where Mikel works. I am still writing and consulting. I speak at events and love to garden. Also, I am involved in a film project, which has been fun.
We get back to Charleston to see family, but there is always a big family dinner, oyster roast or bbq or potluck events. So little time to do much of anything else.
Any words of wisdom for younger chefs and culinary pros?
Learn a foreign language (or two or three) and travel. The best way I know to understand where you are from, is to go somewhere else. I had to get out of the Lowcountry to understand and appreciate it. Your vision of where you are from and who you are just becomes clearer when you travel elsewhere.
We could have talked for hours and hours to John Martin Taylor. His life has been full of incredible journeys and knowledge. Personally, my household holiday meals were made from the books he wrote and my all-time favorite thing to cook for a party or event is his infamous Cheese Pigs. He was a true inspiration when I started the Charleston Wine + Food Festival and his store, books and impact on the city will always have an important part in the love I have for this great city. We should all praise and celebrate his impact he had on Charleston’s culinary landscape. May there be more people like Hoppin’ John!
For more Charleston dining and travel news, click here.