Food of Life
Hoppin' John, they call him. Now, five decades deep into his career as a historian of Southern food, John Martin Taylor delivers a career-capping memoir that teaches us to make the most of what we’ve got. On our tables and in our souls.
John Martin Taylor’s first book in 25 years might be expected to brim with recipes, and it does deliver 30 that will find their ways onto many tables.
But the true power of “Charleston to Phnom Penh: A Cook’s Journal,” lies in the quiet but powerful narrative of essays that create a long-awaited testimonial of his life, culinary career, influence, and progressive stance on social issues — perfectly paired with his kitchen savvy and doggedly respectful approach to cooking.
Every recipe is a heartbeat of living, not a daunting template of instructions down to the last clove of garlic and teaspoon of olive oil. As such, they provide accents and examples for Taylor’s endless quest into the connections between how we dine, who we are, and who we were. The Zen koan asks, “What was your face before your parents were born?” Taylor adds, “And what did you eat?”
Alas, the title of this hybrid memoir already has been lapped. Taylor’s global reach now stretches beyond Phnom Penh, Cambodia, to Hanoi, Vietnam. His doing-the-lord’s-work husband, Mikel Lane Herrington, learned after the book was printed by the University of South Carolina Press, known for its culinary library, that his job as Peace Corps director in Cambodia had shifted to the same position in Vietnam. His third station in Asia completes a sort of hat trick that started with previous service in China. (And before that, Bulgaria.)
Lighting out for the territories is not unusual for Taylor. For a culinary historian with one foot in the Lowcountry of South Carolina, he has been in continuous global movement since the 1970s. In the course of it, he has, as much as any explorer, learned that you can find as much commonality as difference in people and cultures. In Cambodia, for example, not only did he learn many new recipes and approaches to using similar vegetables, fruits, and seafood, but he also returned the favor to his hosts. Fried chicken was the most popular request from Cambodian dinner guests.
“For years, my battle cry in the kitchen has been fresh, local and traditional, whether I am frying fish in South Carolina, pounding pesto in Liguria, or making spring rolls in Asia.”
It will surprise none of Taylor’s many global friends that “Charleston to Phnom Penh” is a showcase not so much for travel as for acquiring an ability to absorb context quickly. His essays carry this thread throughout the book, ranging in subject from the simplicity of shrimp and grits or boiled peanuts to variations and complexities in Italian, Bulgarian, French, or Chinese dishes.
“For years, my battle cry in the kitchen has been fresh, local and traditional, whether I am frying fish in South Carolina, pounding pesto in Liguria, or making spring rolls in Asia,” he writes. “It’s a different world now. Bourbon and barbecue may be king throughout the land, but Chinese spices season New England stews, upscale Greek and Lebanese restaurants are as popular as French bistros, and home cooks are following celebrity chefs as they traverse the globe, discovering new tastes.”
His is certainly not the only approach to culinary history and philosophy, but one that Taylor, also known as Hoppin’ John and, to close friends, as Bubba, represents as do few others: “I wouldn’t call this a cookbook. Nor is it a book about the South. He considers it an “eclectic anthology” that covers “the evolution of my peripatetic life and career.”
Jessica Harris, the internationally acclaimed author (“My Soul Looks Back: A Memoir”), culinary historian (“High on the Hog: A Culinary Journey From Africa to America,” “The Africa Cookbook: Tastes of a Continent”), and longtime friend of Taylor’s sees it the same way in her foreword: “We’ve had enough adventures together to provide a companion piece to this volume; however, most of those are mercifully unrecounted. The tales that are told are an exuberant love letter to a life well-lived: a life that is savored daily — one seasoned with thought, simmered with humor, and served up with JOY.”
The tale of Taylor started in Baton Rouge, shifting at age 3 to Orangeburg, South Carolina, about 75 miles from Charleston. In the 1970s, it jumped to college days in Athens, where he earned degrees in journalism and film at the University of Georgia, traveled as much as he could, and partied sometimes with B-52 friends, with whom he has remained in touch for 50 years. One of the closest, Kate Pierson, provides a blurb for the book cover.
Taylor subsequently departed to Europe, where, while primarily interested in photography, he started his writing career with a “stylish French magazine” that shifted him from art director to food editor, effectively changing his life. That and the death of his mother in 1982 led him back to New York in 1984, working for the same, soon to be defunct, French magazine. The ’80s and ’90s became the foundation of his work in culinary history, thanks to new friendships with emerging voices, especially the late culinary historian Karen Hess.
In 1986, Taylor was in Charleston opening Hoppin’ John’s bookstore, acclaimed for its treasure trove of obscure but important culinary histories. Later it also sold and shipped specialized foods, notably stone-ground grits (New Orleans was his biggest market).
"We lived not 500 yards from the dark and sinuous Edisto River, the longest blackwater river in the world, where I swam with reckless abandon, ignored the alligators and water moccasins. I knew what now seems limitless freedom as a child.”
He added heirloom cornmeal and corn flour to the list, and then other authentic ingredients, plus tableware and a line of his own canned goods. The store closed in 1999, but by then his first and most popular book, “Hoppin’ John’s Lowcountry Cooking: Recipes and Ruminations From Charleston and the Carolina Coastal Plain” (1992) had been published. Three decades later, the book still sells. These two achievements helped vault Taylor into top culinary ranks.
That and two widely read essays, both published in 2010, are included in this book. “Oysters Mournful,” a Washington Post op-red on the Deep Horizon oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico, positioned him as willing to take a social and environmental position. Despite somehow showing up in the paper’s food section, It drew notice and, perhaps better yet, controversy.
But it was the much longer, scholarly piece, “Deconstructing My Namesake,” appearing in Gastronomica, the University of California’s acclaimed journal for study of the “social, cultural, and historical dimensions of food,” that cemented Taylor’s reputation as a culinary historian. In particular, his emphasis on the importance of even the most seemingly banal of foods and dishes — for example, cowpeas (aka crowders, aka field peas) and rice. Which put together are called Hoppin’ John, and have histories going back to Europe and to Africa, the latter a path of culinary travel that Taylor, like his friend Jessica Harris, helped bring to overdue attention.
These strains of research and forthright opinion continued to mark Taylor’s work throughout his career. Which perhaps explains his memoir’s opening chapter, which highlights an investigation of the alleged Huguenot Torte, a popular “tradition” in Charleston. Taylor didn’t care for it, and knew it was neither French, nor a torte, nor had any connection to Huguenots. Research confirmed that the dish was really based on a mundane Ozark pudding recipe named after a Charleston tavern in which it was served.
Taylor offered a way to make the torte more honestly and called it what it was: Apple Nut Torte. But locals still served it the same old way and chided him for calling out the fake. He didn’t mind what anybody said.
Photographs by Mikel Herrington
It’s fair to say that Taylor’s indifference to the intolerance of fools, while something creative types in the South learn young, got an extra kick-start from his parents, Rebecca and Tom. Both were “adventurous intellectuals” and scientists. That’s a slight understatement. Rebecca, who studied biology in college and considered herself an early “animal behaviorist,” gave up a professional career to raise a family, rounding out with John, an older brother and two sisters. She also found time for her own passion for cooking, using a scientist’s mind to find, create and set standards at a level both detailed and artistic. She never brought her recipes into the kitchen, though, not wanting to be bound by a piece of paper if she had sudden stove-side inspirations. That point of view was clearly adopted by her son and preserved in hand-written cookbooks and ledgers prior to her death from leukemia.
John’s father, Tom, usually called Daddy, was a chemist — a “technological wizard” — who had been involved in the Manhattan Project and, later, as a key scientist with various special fuel and energy-oriented projects, including with NASA. He was on an aircraft carrier dispatched to pick up the first astronauts. The family lived well, but always in their own way, even keeping a small boat to catch shrimp for themselves off the Lowcountry coast. Rebecca and Tom were known as eccentric — and possibly worse — among their conservative neighbors. As if they cared.
“My parents, at barely 30 years old (in Baton Rouge), were exploring their own passions of sports cars, food and wine, the arts and the sciences…. My father told me that he wasn’t interested in science, per se, but in its implications and applications. Mama had studied zoology and often told that science was more about the questions than answers, that life was by nature forever changing…. We lived not 500 yards from the dark and sinuous Edisto River, the longest blackwater river in the world, where I swam with reckless abandon, ignored the alligators and water moccasins. I knew what now seems limitless freedom as a child.”
Although the recipes in “Charleston to Phnom Penh” speak for themselves, they also follow the arc of Taylor’s life. The titles are giveaways: “Boiled Peanuts and a Sense of Place”; “Cooking Nok Style on Ko Lanta”; “Galletto alla Piastra”; and, not to be overlooked, “Transylvania."
But the true union of the book’s essay-and-recipe interaction is perhaps best revealed in the powerful closing chapters, in which Taylor shifts to a new phase in his life, a sense of ending, albeit one in which a good night will certainly never be gone into gently.
In “Daddy and Paella,” the emotional impact comes more from what isn’t there than what is. Taylor recalls his mother’s death, the way he and his father reacted, remembering her in special meals, wines and stories. And then the passing of his father in 2008, remembered again in terms of food and meals and the time Daddy prepared his version of the “Purdue Paella” that his mother had created. No sadness, no tears. Just the family and the small things that had tied them to one another. And the emptiness from the loss.
The same could be said of “Dancing,” in which Taylor brags cheerfully about his skills on the floor, starting with Orangeburg teen dance parties, continuing in Athens, Georgia, where he jammed with the B-52s to new kinds of music, such as new wave and punk, wondering if he could be a professional dancer. It became the road not taken, although far from forgotten.
“Amazingly, I fell in love with someone who rarely dances … occasionally we’ll be at a party and I’ll dance with some of our old friends. But mostly, I dance the way I have since the seventies: by myself. The kitchen is my dance hall. I have arthritis and a fake knee, but it is simply impossible for me NOT to dance to Junior Walker’s ‘Shotgun.’”
Taylor’s flashbacks seem to release a different range of emotion in “Body Count,” an unusual, dark ending to a memoir about finding and living the good life. Written in 2021, this final essay comes after the pandemic, the ravages of AIDS and other memories of his time on Earth that kept him awake at night. Most of all, the losses of friends and relatives. He began keeping a list of the fallen until there were too many.
“I don’t fear death. I find comfort in the unknown and in having known so many people whose lives I remember, even if I can’t place their deaths chronologically…. I try to think of more names as I wallow in my insomnia, but I’ve lost count, so I start again, this time going through the houses I’ve lived in. There’s a limbo of time between our home in Louisiana, where I was born, and South Carolina…. I count off the houses, dorm rooms, apartments, boats, and trailers I’ve lived in: places where I used to sleep.”
Later this month, he will sleep in Hanoi. In a new home. With a new kitchen.