Trailblazing cookbook author John Martin Taylor is well-known for his southern dishes and internationally acclaimed stone-ground grits, cornmeal and corn flour (http://www.hoppinjohns.com/index.php?option=com_virtuemart&Itemid=77). In fact, Taylor was the recipient of the first Lowcountry Culinary Legend Award at the Charleston Food & Wine Festival (in 2007). He’s been written up in many well-circulated publications, like The Washington Post (in 2006) and Gourmet (in 2006); this issue of Gourmet even declared, “Artisanal food supplier and cookbook author John Martin Taylor…fueled the back-to-the-stone-ground-grits movement.” In addition to his professional site at http://www.hoppinjohns.com (where his stone-ground grits, cornmeal, corn flour and books can be purchased), there’s his fun-loving personal blog at http://hoppinjohns.net/. It’ s here you’ll find some of his more private recipes, like his “Valentine’s Day Cheesecake” and fascinating postings of what national dishes are like where he currently lives in Sofia, Bulgaria with his husband (who is the Peace Corps Country Director). Add to that, while at http://hoppinjohns.net/, you can also read of his wonderful connection (over 30 years as friends) with the phenomenal B-52s, as evidenced in one of his blogs from about five years ago entitled “The B-52s and Me” (http://hoppinjohns.net/?p=263). This particular blog is rife with insider knowledge—like when he spent time at the illustrious CBGB, pictures of great dance-party days gone by (including one where everyone was asked to bring blue food), photographs of members of the band and other celebrities—and even some hand-written lyrics. Indeed, “The B-52s and Me” blog is so detailed and informatively fun that it may very well have the beginnings of a great book one day!
So great to be interviewing you, John!
Though you were born in Baton Rouge, Louisiana, you moved to the South Carolina Lowcountry when you were just three years old, correct? Did you live in Charleston, South Carolina or Hilton Head Island first?
Neither. We moved to Orangeburg, about 70 miles inland, where my father managed the Ethyl Corporation plant. We immediately began going to the coast (Edisto Island first), and Hilton Head later. Our sailboat was one of three sailboats on the island for over 20 years. When the bridge to Hilton Head was built in 1959, my mother cried, saying, “This is the end of paradise.” I spent nearly every weekend of my teenage years there.
You opened your culinary bookstore in Charleston, SC in 1986, and you published your first book in 1992. Please tell readers the title of your book and what contributed to its being a big success (timing, content, etc.).
I was in the right place at the right time with the right idea. The book, “Hoppin’ John’s Lowcountry Cooking: Recipes and Ruminations from Charleston and the Carolina Coastal Plain,” was one of the first books written about an American regional food that combined historical scholarship with personal experience and a popular voice; hence, its popularity. Culinary history was still a new field and Charleston was not yet the culinary destination that it is now. The book was favorably reviewed by all the major newspapers (and many small ones) and most of the magazines.
How does your 20th Anniversary Edition of “Hoppin’ John’s Lowcountry Cooking” differ from your original book?
It doesn’t. The University of North Carolina Press said it was a classic and they wanted to keep it the way it was/is. There is a short new preface and a few sources of ingredients have changed, but everything else is exactly the same as the first edition.
Do you personally believe that the Hoppin’ John dish is, indeed, good luck? What about the Skippin’ Jenny dish?
I never heard the term “skippin’ jenny” until a few years ago. I did hear “limpin’ susan,” but I think those are both fairly modern take-offs on the name “hoppin’ john”…. and, as for the luck thing, well, I don’t know that I’ve ever not had beans and rice on New Year’s Day… it’s a tradition all over the world, wherever rice is grown… and I’ve had decent “luck” all my life. All these customs are based in not only the end of the rice/bean harvest — hence a time of celebration and rest — but also it’s that time of year when, finally, the days will be getting longer now that the solstice has passed.
Good answer! Plus, I like the tagline at your http://www.hoppinjohns.com page: “SPREADING THE CULINARY GOSPEL SINCE 1986.” You have many traditional dishes posted there—like “Shrimp and Grits” (also known as “Classic Charleston Breakfast Shrimp”). Yet, you also offer vegetarian recipes—like the “Sweet Potatoes with Horseradish” dish from “The New Southern Cook.” Plus, your “Eggplant Home Fries” sound delicious! Have you ever thought about putting together an entirely vegetarian cookbook?
No, it would be disingenuous of me. I’m an omnivore for sure. There’s an elaborate vegetarian rice pie that I developed for Kate Pierson in the lowcountry book. And, if folks want to make vegetarian versions of the dishes, they can. In reality, I eat an awful lot of vegetarian meals, but I’m also pretty much finished with cookbook writing. I blog to stay visible: it helps sell not only books, but my grits and cornmeal as well.
Even though you’re currently living in Sofia, Bulgaria, have you managed to make it back to the Charleston Food & Wine Festival in recent years?
I was the first recipient of the Lowcountry Legend Award that they give out each year, but I couldn’t make it to the first festival because I had other commitments. In fact, I’ve never been. However, I do make it to Charleston fairly regularly because so many of my best friends and family members live there (both of my sisters, my nephews and nieces, my grand-nephews — plus my brother lives in Columbia and most of my husband’s family lives in South Carolina as well). I HAVE spoken at museums and conferences and symposia in Charleston and other SC cities several times over the past few years, including the Charleston Heritage Symposium in October (when I had to follow Tom Savage, the Director of the Winterthur, and Betsy Kornhauser, the Curator of the American Wing of the Metropolitan Museum in NY.
Besides our Lowcountry ties, another thing we share is a love of The B-52s!! How did your 30+ year friendship with them begin?
I met Keith when he was in high school and I was a senior at UGA. We both had a love of music that was not mainstream — Captain Beefheart and Frank Zappa, for example. When I returned to grad school, he and I had many mutual friends — mostly gay. Our friendship has blossomed over the years. I left for a couple of years and came back to finish my Masters Degree in Film. This was right as the band was forming. I got to know the rest of the band members then. Kate and I bonded as birdwatchers. Ricky loved my cornbread (and though he was a vegetarian, he knew that I put a teaspoon of bacon grease in the cast iron skillet to keep it from sticking!) Fred and I had many mutual interests — records, kitsch art, the experimental music of Steve Reich and Terry Riley. And all of us loved art, Fellini movies, dancing in the garden in the torn sheets in the rain, and — mostly — dancing! My house was one of the “salons” where lots of folks gathered.
Segueing from a great party band to a great party spot (in the ’70s and ’80s), did you ever step foot in the cutting-edge (for its time) Garden & Gun Club (in Charleston, SC)?
I did go to the Garden & Gun sometimes, but Les Jardins was the real cutting edge place!
What’s in the pipeline for the rest of 2013?
I’ve written two novels and an advice-book-for-couples (my husband and I have been together for 20 years without so much as an argument), but I’ve had no takers on them. He’s the breadwinner now, so I don’t worry about being published. Perhaps I’ll self-publish and offer them online. I continue to write for Gastronomica (an academic food journal) and The Washington Post when something in my kitchen or travel inspires me… and I continue to blog when I feel like it. But mostly I’m a house-husband. I usually spend several hours each day on dinner. I shop for each meal, usually on foot. In July, we are moving to Chengdu, which is in the Sichuan region of China. It’s one of the great food cities of the world, and I actually plan to eat most of my meals out while I study Mandarin, calligraphy, and Tai Chi. My husband is the Peace Corps Country Director here in Bulgaria, but the post is closing. He’s taking over the post in China, and we will be there for two to five years. Though he’s 12 years younger than I am, I’m hoping I can get him to retire after China. Where to? Who knows? Currently we’re looking at SW France, Sicily, Liguria, and Uruguay, but we may well find some place in Asia that we love. It will NOT be the United States unless lots of laws and attitudes about gay people are changed!
Thanks again, John…great to know of a kindred spirit from this area!!
To read more about John Martin Taylor, go to http://www.HoppinJohns.com and