Much has been made of the rise in popularity of Southern cooking in recent years. There is endless speculation about the best way to make fried chicken and pimento cheese. And let us not, especially on a Sunday, debate whether sugar bowl is permitted to dance with the cornbread, or what constitutes real barbecue.
The commercial homogenization of modern Southern fare may lead some to believe that butter-laden sweets and bacon-wrapped, deep-fried everything formed the primary sustenance of our forebears, no matter when or in what part of the South they called home. In fact, many who lived below the Mason Dixon – and particularly those who survived the lean years after the Civil War – counted themselves lucky to have a plate of beans and rice for dinner.
The contrast between pre-war plenty and the deprivation that followed – including due tribute to the culinary contributions of freed slaves – is eloquently defined in Hoppin’ John’s Lowcounty Cooking: Recipes and Ruminations from Charleston & the Carolina Coastal Plain. Released to critical acclaim 20 years ago, the out-of-print classic has been reissued by UNC Press with a new introduction by author John Martin Taylor.“It was important to me for the book to be published by an accomplished university press,” said Taylor during a recent call from his home in Bulgaria, where his husband is the country’s director for the Peace Corps. “It has a great home now and will help to preserve the food traditions of the Lowcountry.”
While Charleston is now a celebrated restaurant Mecca, Taylor said Lowcountry Cooking was written long before its status as a foodie’s dream destination. His research began unexpectedly in 1984 when he noticed a hand-sewn plantation cookbook from 1919 in a trash heap on a Newport, R.I., sidewalk. The discovery pretty much blew his mind.“I grew up there but I didn’t even recognize this food,” Taylor said, recalling his astonishment. “When I was first writing about Charleston’s food history in the late 1980s, it was pretty much falling on deaf ears. When I moved back to South Carolina in 1986, you couldn’t find stone-ground grits anywhere. With the exception of hunters, fisherman and farmers, people pretty much lost touch with the land.”
Lowcountry Cooking speaks to the essential question of what is local food and how it defines the lives of those who consume it. His engaging writing recalls the vivid sense of place established by Diana Kennedy and Paula Wolfert. In the manner of a rapturous nonfiction novel, you feel the pride of Mary Clare for her caramel cake as deeply as the humility of former slaves who made belly-filling, soul satisfying meals from the bounty of the land and scraps discarded by wealthy landowners.
“People were insanely wealthy,” Taylor said. “They were shipping 60 million pounds of rice every year and never dreamed it would end. They were not prepared for what hit them.”
In a sense, the cookbook addresses Reconstruction through the lens of rebuilding the ravaged foodways of the South. Food became a social equalizer, with rich and poor eating the same basic items that remained after the combined impacts of war and a hurricane that swept choking salt water into once thriving rice and cotton fields. Indeed, Taylor’s moniker of Hoppin’ John comes from the hearty rice and cow pea dish that became a favorite of both master and slave.
The book also draws clear distinctions between the traditions of Charleston and the humid, subtropical Lowcountry to other Southern cuisines.“You won’t find any barbecue, the way you do in the Piedmont,” Taylor said. “Because of the climate, things grow there that do not grow elsewhere in the Carolinas. And because of the port, Charleston always had access to things like great olive oil and sherry and pineapples from Cuba.”
Taylor writes that his goal was to “present the sumptuous fare of antebellum Charleston for the modern cook” – a task that included denuding “authentic” recipes offered to him of such modern ingredients as canned soup and margarine.While the book has been hailed as definitive – the New York Times raved that it “should be on the National Registry of Great American Food” – Taylor demurs that “this is not ‘Mastering the Art of Lowcountry Cooking.’
“It’s my version of the cooking of the time based on the records that remain,” he said. “The food reflected a great fusion of international flavors – especially those of Africa.”Ports in the Lowcountry are believed to have been the entry point for between 40-60 percent of all Africans in the North American slave trade. In a more hospitable vein, it also was the landing point for immigrants of many faiths, who likewise contributed their diverse food traditions to what remained one of America’s 10 largest cities though 1840.
Before the Civil War, immense tables in Charleston’s fashionable plantation homes groaned with a gracious plenty raised and cooked by slave labor. Rich landowners regularly held grand soirees to ensure their position in society. This sort of conspicuous consumption is evident in menus that survived from the era – vast food orgies that featured not only the Lowcountry’s abundant natural resources but also imported delicacies that regularly flowed through the city’s bustling port.Post-war poverty brought down the aristocracy, but such advances as the railroad and refrigeration – chilled butter! ice cream! – introduced new prosperity. Later, air conditioning and the highway system beckoned travelers, and corporate money helped to rebuild Charleston as a tourist destination with a renowned reputation for the arts and fine dining.
While Lowcountry Cooking contains about 250 recipes, Taylor said there is one simple dish that truly provides a taste of antebellum Charleston.“The whole cuisine at once would have to be Chicken Country Captain, but it takes two days to make it right,” he said with a laugh. “But the composed rice dishes, the pilaus, really give you a sense of what defined Lowcountry cooking.”
Published with permission of John Martin Taylor from Hoppin’ John’s Lowcountry Cooking: Recipes and Ruminations from Charleston & the Carolina Coastal Plain (© UNC Press, 2012).Dishes like this one appear in various cultures as pilaf, jambalaya, and just plain chicken and rice. In Charleston and the surrounding Lowcountry, they started as pilau, but they’re often spelled perloo (though I’ve seen purloo, perlo and perlau as well). The word is pronounced “PER-lo,” “per-lo,” and “pee-LO,” but that o is a distinctive Charleston sound – and make--people not from here think we are saying “oo.” Some people say, “oo, la, la”; others say “oh, la, la.”
Serves 81 3½-to-4-pound chicken
2 quarts water
¼ pound (I stick) unsalted butter
1 large onion, chopped (about 1½ cups)
2 cups chopped celery
2 or 3 large tomatoes (about 1 pound), peeled and chopped
1 tablespoon fresh thyme leaves or 1 teaspoon dried
½ teaspoon hot red pepper flakes
salt and freshly ground black pepper to taste
2 cups long-grain white rice
Cover the chicken with the water and boil in a large pot, uncovered, for 30 minutes. Remove the chicken from the broth and reserve the broth. Skin the chicken and remove the bones, pulling the meat from the bones. Cut the meat into uniformly sized pieces. Set aside.Melt the butter in a Dutch oven on the top of the stove, then add the onions and the celery and cook over medium heat until the onions start to brown, about 10 minutes. Add the tomatoes and their juice and the seasonings, adding a little more salt than you might think is necessary. Add the chicken meat, the rice, and 1 quart of the reserved broth. Cover, bring to a simmer, and cook slowly, without lifting the lid, for 30 minutes. Serve with a green salad and corn bread.