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

July 02, 1992|ANNE MENDELSON

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."

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."

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