John Martin Taylor is listening
A chat with the globetrotting Hoppin' John
Culinary historian John Martin Taylor is intimately associated with the study and revival of traditional Lowcountry cuisine, both as author of Hoppin’ John’s Lowcountry Cooking (1992) and founder of Hoppin’ John’s bookstore, which operated in downtown Charleston from 1986-1999. Just before his latest international move, he dialed into a Zoom call from his home in Cambodia to talk with The Food Section about his newest book, Charleston to Phnom Penh: A Cook’s Journal.
Hanna Raskin: Good evening. Or good morning, in your case.
John Martin Taylor: I still haven't had my coffee.
HR: Well, thank you for doing this. So, I jumped right into your book, expecting a traditional memoir, which it’s not. It took hundreds of pages before I learned anything about you.
JMT: It's an anthology, and we happened to put the essays chronologically. My editor at USC Press was really reluctant for the chronological order, but it works.
I started with 358 pieces. A few years ago, I gave my library and papers away, but I've been blogging for a long time, and I knew there was tons of stuff that wasn't collected. I started trying to assemble all that stuff mostly so I could shut the blog down.
We whittled it down to 42. And there are a lot of memories in it, but it’s not a memoir. And it's certainly not a cookbook.
HR: No, I wouldn't mistake it for that. Maybe it was the title that inspired me to come up with my own idea without consulting anything. So that's on me. When you assembled all these pieces and chose the ones for the book, did any themes emerge that you hadn't discerned previously?
JMT: Not really… [it’s all in] that voice that now I'm known for.
HR: What is that voice?
JMT: I'm known as the Southern voice of the Southern author. But the truth of the matter is, I really learned to cook in Europe. I'm a Franco-Italian cook. I may be steaming okra, but I'm liable to make hollandaise to go with it. I make pasta more often than I make rice. And my salads, because I'm a serious wine drinker, tend to be acidic and come after the meal, after I've finished my bottle of wine.
HR: Let’s talk about your research. I know you’ve said you cultivated a voice to go along with the facts. But you obviously have always been a very rigorous food historian. So, I am curious about your approach, because it is one that I feel like I see so infrequently in the popular press.
JMT: I was very lucky, Hanna, in that when I had the job with the French magazine in New York, in ’83-‘84, they had me interview Karen Hess, and she ended up defining what culinary history could be.1
The problem with research prior to Karen coming along was that it was written by historians who weren't cooks. Or it was written by cookbook authors who didn't know anything about historical methodology.
Before the civil rights movement, followed by the women's movement, the academic study of what Black people did and what women did wasn't considered worthy.
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