Southern Heirlooms: Bringing Back the Most Delicious Crops

An interview with Dr. David Shields, the author of "Southern Provisions: The Creation and Revival of a Cuisine"

Food Features
Southern Heirlooms: Bringing Back the Most Delicious Crops

Dr. David Shields, an heirloom food pioneer, has been instrumental through his work with the Carolina Gold Rice Foundation and the Slow Food Ark of Taste in bringing back such rare food breeds as the Bradford Watermelon and the African Runner Peanut. These unique heirlooms are capturing the imaginations of cutting-edge chefs.

Dr Shields’ latest book, “Southern Provisions: The Creation and Revival of a Cuisine,” documents the cuisine of the Lowcountry, the region that hugs the coast roughly south of Wilmington, North Carolina to Amelia Island, Florida.

Dr. Shields and I run in the same Slow Food circles, and we have shared conversations about lettuce and seed-saving over craft beers and heirloom veggie plates at The Grocery. I sat down with Dr. Shields to discuss the impetus and creation process of his book, as well as where he sees our food culture going.

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Paste: You are a lifelong scholar, but specifically what do you find fascinating about food history?

David Shields: I realized that there was a kind of crisis afoot. Seeds are now in the hands of a few companies, and to cut out competition, these companies are reducing the numbers of seed varieties marketed. The range of variety is being curtailed in a startling way.

I knew intellectually that food matters to everyone, that it is one of the great regional sources of community, and that economic forces were making food generally more homogenous.

When I was approached to undertake the research by Glenn Roberts for the Carolina Gold Rice Foundation, I thought I knew something about this research, but I soon realized I knew nothing.

It took three years of digging in the archive to have a clear idea of why the best tasting ingredients got lost. A lot of the world is connected in the world of food, and that kind of depth and complexity is fascinating.

Paste: Why did you focus on the South Carolina Lowcountry?

DS: Once again it came out of the work of the Carolina Gold Rice Foundation, which formed to reestablish the Carolina rice kitchen, yet has now taken on other projects, such as the American Chestnut, for example.

But this is only part of it. After reading numerous 19th-century agricultural journals, I had a list of ingredients that were central to this cuisine. Some of them were still on the land, but many of the strains were different, and the majority of the stuff was gone. The best tasting stuff was gone. Where was the low-oil benne seed, for example? Who was growing it? No one!

The people engaged in the seed saving business depend heavily on ethnobotanical serendipity. That seed recovered is really interesting, but it may have been a chance survival that wasn’t a central thing. In our list, we understood that these ingredients were important.

Paste: What does this list of “lost” ingredients have to do with Lowcountry cuisine?

DS: Cuisines are a rare thing. A cuisine is an expression of a growing system. You had to get as many specific flavors back to bring back as much of the real Lowcountry cuisine matrix as possible.

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Paste: That is a hefty task, and one you attempt to document in Southern Provisions. How did you organize the documentation of a cuisine?

DS: Well, Southern Provisions is divided into sections. I’ve included snapshots of other cuisines around the South to give the Lowcountry a framework for reference. I wanted people to have a sense of the high-style table, what a typical meal was by trained, accomplished chefs. A cuisine is always a conversation between the city use and the country use of foodstuffs, a sort of feedback loop of high end/low end.

The book also delves into the markets and the competition in those markets that acted as an impetus for the increasing quality of ingredients. And then there is the history, how the South, after the Civil War, got into truck farming for the Northern markets, which shifted breeding to a transportable focus. In the case of the best-tasting melon — the Bradford Watermelon — it didn’t ship well. And with the shift came a single-crop focus, which of course, invited the rise of plant disease.

This really isn’t a book that is designed to be read in a series of sittings. Most people just read sections and circle back to subjects important to them. I tried to include a lot of stories and anecdotes, as well as recipes if they illustrated the discussion.

Paste: With so much information in Southern Provisions, what do you want readers to take away from it?

DS: I hope that it is a matter of enrichment, that if you are conscious of the true value of what you eat, it tastes better.

This is a book about hope. Many arguments such as this are based on the general assumption that the modern industrial fast food is generally degrading the quality of life, but it doesn’t have to be this way. Knowledge can help people go out and save the best flavors and people who are creative can use those flavors not just to recreate something historical, but for all kinds of creative preps.

We can’t relive the past. We aren’t Civil War reenactors. The best creations of the past are dusted off, rehabilitated, and shown what their best virtues are. At its best, this work is adventurous, and if you decide to be a part of it, you will experience the taste of the agricultural imagination at work.

Stephanie Burt is a freelance writer based in Charleston, S.C., who can’t stop, won’t stop with the whey (or for that matter, song lyric) puns. You can find her at @beehivesteph.

Main photo by Breville CC BY

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