Charleston's downton restaurant scene, with some 120 restaurants and 3 James Beard award-winning chefs, is as hot as a city sidewalk in summertime. You can find anything from a unique gourmet sandwich to a whole fried lobster here, but Lowcountry food is the star of the show. For that I give credit to a cadre of enormously talented chefs and a 20-year old, scholarly cookbook -- Hoppin' John's Lowcountry Cooking (just reissued in paperback by UNC press).
When the book was first published in 1992, regional cuisine was just beginning to show up on the radar. Charleston's restaurant community was a mere foreshadowing of what was to come--McCrady's, Hominy Grill, FIG, and Husk were years away. And few people outside of Charleston had any inkling of what Lowcountry cuisine was.
But since 1986, John Martin Taylor (aka Hoppin' John), had been preaching the gospel about Charleston's food at Hoppin' John's Cookbook Store on the corner of Anson and Pinckney Streets. It was a mecca for food lovers, chefs, cookbook authors, and food editors.
John's store was the place I first fell truly, madly, deeply for the food of my hometown. It's the first place I heard the phrase "stone ground grits," the bookstore where the The Lee Bros. mama shopped, and the gathering spot for other foodies just as obsessed with shrimp and grits as I was.
Hoppin' John documented this food of the South Carolina coastal plain--its history, its geographic boundaries, and its culture--with a preservationist's precision. Pilau, benne wafers, she crab soup, and okra soup were part of the experience of growing up in the Lowcountry, and I'd enjoyed most of these since infancy. But it turns out I knew only the merest smidgen of the what, why, and where of the cuisine.
Charleston natives and cookbook authors Matt and Ted Lee (aka The Lee Bros.) have similar memories. They recall, "Most restaurants of distinction in Charleston then were doing fancified fare in a French or Mediterranean vein. So John Martin Taylor's loving treatment of Lowcountry cooking—our local food elevated to totemic status—was a revelation. . . .It was also an early lesson that great cookbooks are so much more than a gathering of superb recipes; they can be inspirational and they can tell stories."
The book also had an impact on Sean Brock, who would become arguably the city's most celebrated chef. He says, "Hoppin John's book blew me away when I moved to Charleston at 18 years old. It still blows me away. His passion for all things Lowcountry has always been and continues to be a huge inspiration for my work."
Another James Beard award winner, Robert Stehling of Hominy Grill also gives the book props for helping chart his course."It’s the authoritative reference on what Lowcountry food is, and it helped me focus the restaurant," he says. "His store was a beacon for those of us interested in Southern cuisine."
The store (with John's home attached) was badly damaged by Hurricane Hugo, and closed for a year, then came back stronger and remained open until 1999. The hardcover version of the book has been in print almost continuously for the past 20 years.
It's hard to choose a single recipe to share with you, but his flawless cornbread, is one of our food staff's favorites, and the one I always serve at home. John also sells his famous stone-ground grits by mail-order--they're perfect for making shrimp and grits, a dish he helped popularize. You can purchase them and a copy of the book here.
Southern Living: The Perfect Eating Day in Charleston, SC
MyRecipes.com: Benne Seed Wafers
Southern Living: She Crab Soup