When the 20th anniversary edition of this Southern cooking classic arrived, I sat down, flipped through it, got back up, and went immediately to the kitchen. It was time for Okra Pickles, Sugar Cookies, Country Captain, and Rice Bread.
This deeply understood and eminently cookable collection of historical Low Country foods captures the freshness of a kitchen garden, the prevalence of seafood, the traditions of pork and poultry, and the comfort of breads, cakes, and lovely sweets. But Taylor makes the effort to find authenticity—the flavors that are true to this particular geographic and social region. You’ll find no Southern tropes like Jello mold here.
To originally create this book, Taylor gathered recipes from older residents, researched historic books, and talked to previously overlooked groups—namely African American residents. He found a mélange of influences firmly anchored in the plantation economy of rice, cotton, and indigo. He also found that he couldn’t get stone ground grits and many traditional products, like sorghum, were disappearing. Taylor started Hoppin’ John’s website and he can be held personally responsible for the happy resurgence of Shrimp and Grits on restaurant menus and in cooking magazines. And with this 20th anniversary edition, it’s interesting to note that his efforts at authenticity have spread. In his preface to the new edition Taylor notes that Charleston now has a number of good restaurants serving local food. Two of them must be McCrady’s and Husk, the work of chef Sean Brock who has made it a mission not only to cook locally and seasonally, but to resurrect lost indigenous foods—rice, benne seeds, and vegetables.
The Lowcountry’s distinctive foodways, writes Taylor, are the product of the brutal slave economy, reliant on the knowledge of enslaved West Africans who brought their rice growing knowledge, and whose foods drifted into plantation dishes, as Taylor notes, hot peppers tossed into a mild English stew. There are also tropical flavors—nutmeg, coconut, and vanilla—that perfume the food.
After the Civil War, Taylor points out, poverty ground down the rich foodways and industrialization displaced local produce. Separated from their agrarian roots, traditional foods died out. But Taylor still notices churchgoers dressed in their hunting clothes, and knows a lady who, at the first hint of chill, travels to the mountains to stock up on local apples.
Cooking from this book is at once exotic and homey. Pimento Cheese finds space on the table with Deerburgers, and a simple Campfire Cobbler of seasonal fruit shares the kitchen with its more elegant cousin, an eggy Clafoutis, introduced by the Huguenots.
But for me, the real value is historical; I would hate to lose the spare flavors of Philpy, a quick rice bread or Classic Charleston Breakfast Shrimp tangy with lemon and green pepper. I can feel the salty breeze on my skin and it’s time to cook. And the Okra Pickles will be ready in October.