Sunday, April 13, 2008
The really remarkable thing about John Martin Taylor's Hoppin' John's Lowcountry Cooking is not the recipes included but rather when it was published. When the book first came out in 1992, true Lowcountry cooking was just being revived in Charleston restaurants, and the traditional recipes of the 19th century were all but lost among home cooks. "Locavorism" and the "Slow Food Movement" and all their attendant claptrap was still more than a decade away.
And here, at the tail end of the "New American cuisine" period, was a guy who was less interested in assembling tall towers of expensive ingredients as he was in exploring old cookbooks and historic manuscripts, seeking out clues for how people cooked a hundred years before and figuring out the best ways to replicate their cooking.
The result is Hoppin' John's Lowcountry Cooking: Recipes and Ruminations from Charleston and the Carolina Coastal Plain. Taylor at the time was a food writer and owner of Hoppin' John's, a culinary bookstore that also sold grits and other classic ingredients. (The store has since gone virtual, with the brick-and-mortar location closing up shop in 1999 and moving to the web.) From the opening essay, "About the Lowcountry," which provides a concise historical survey of the region's food, to the detailed bibliography at the end, Taylor's passion for and first-hand knowledge of Charleston's native cookery shines through.
There are plenty of books about Charleston cooking that are little more than random collections of recipes that incorporate a few Lowcountry-esque ingredients but use plenty of French techniques or fancy imported ingredients. Not so with Hoppin' John's. Calling himself "the Lowcountry's culinary preservationist," Taylor's focus is on authenticity both of methods and ingredients, and his book begins with a firm insistence that the key to making the region's dishes correctly is not the recipes themselves but "faithful use of good locally raised ingredients". Taylor drew heavily on the classic recipes in Sarah Rutledge's 1847 volume The Carolina Housewife and the Junior League's 1950 Charleston Receipts, though he took pains with the latter to "eliminate some of the baking powder, cans of soup, and overreliance on commercial products."
The book's fourteen chapters cover the full gamut of Lowcountry cooking, from Snack and Starters through Desserts, Beverages, and Condiments. The essential classics are there, including She-Crab Soup, Hoppin' John (no surprise there!), Carolina Pilau, Shrimp and Grits (the classic breakfast variety, not the uptown restaurant version), Frogmore Stew, and Country Captain. An expansive Game section includes recipes for venison, rabbit, raccoon, turtle, frog, squirrel, duck, quail, squab, and marsh hens. There are even a few South Carolina classics from a little bit outside of town, like boiled peanuts and liver pudding.
Taylor introduces each type of dish with a few paragraphs providing history and context and general cooking advice before launching into the recipes. Because of this, it's a great book not only for finding a few interesting recipes to try (which is the best you can say about most Charleston cookbooks) but also for gaining a strong grounding in the fundamentals of the region's foods and styles of cooking. This one sits on my shelf in my kitchen, and I dip into it regularly when I'm trying to chase down the right way to make something, and it's a great book for anyone who's seeking to master the distinctive dishes of Charleston.
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