Can We Taste The Past?

Published by the American Society for Eighteenth-Century Studies (ASECS), Studies in Eighteenth-Century Culture (SECC) is an annual, peer-reviewed volume devoted to publishing revised and expanded versions of scholarship first presented at the national and regional meetings of ASECS and its affiliate societies. SECC features articles that chart out new directions for research on eighteenth-century culture and reflects the wide range of disciplinary interests that characterize eighteenth-century studies.

The 2019 volume of Studies in Eighteenth Century Culture includes David S. Shields’ paper What Remains of the Flavors of the Eighteenth Century?, which investigates the history of rare varieties of fruits and vegetables that have remained genetically intact over centuries and across continents. JHU Press is grateful to have been able to ask Mr. Shields about his work researching, restoring, and cultivating these nearly-vanished varietals. 


How did this article come about? How did you choose SECC to publish?

At every annual meeting of the American Society for Eighteenth Century Studies a scholar is nominated to deliver a plenary lecture on a topic that might interest the broad membership of this multidisciplinary association.  It is called the Clifford lecture.  I was selected to give this lecture and since food is something everyone has some engagement with, the topic “fit the bill.”  SECC publishes each Clifford Lecture.

How did your work with Glen Roberts and Anson Mills begin? How did you find each other? 

Glenn Roberts, the CEO of Anson Mills, one of the great processors of landrace and heirloom grains in the United States, had undertaken the recovery of classic southern meal corns in the late 1990s.  In 2003 I hosted and Dr. Jeffrey Pilcher chaired a conference in Charleston SC on “The Cuisines of the Lowcountry and the Caribbean.” We invited historians, chefs, growers and producers, distillers, and bakers.  Glenn Roberts attended and took me aside afterwards.  He told me he wished that Lowcountry food was a cuisine, but it had degenerated into mere cookery.  None of the classic ingredients that had made the food of the region world famous in the 19th and early 20th century was now locally grown except okra and collards.  The rice that the Lowcountry shipped around the world—Carolina Gold—has ceased production in the late 1910s.  He said he wanted to bring the ingredients back.  But so much had been lost no one knew what needed to be restored.  He indicated that I had the research skills to determine what needed restoration.  Would I help?  I had no inkling of how much work it would take to gather this knowledge—how many hours reading old agricultural journals, seed catalogs, plantation records, WPA recollections of former enslaved African Americans.  

Your work with the Carolina Gold Rice Foundation has resulted in the revival of many key ingredients of traditional Southern cuisine, including Carolina Gold Rice, benne, the Carolina African Runner Peanut, Sea Island White Flint Corn, the Bradford Watermelon and Purple Ribbon Sugar Cane. What other ingredients is the Foundation currently actively looking to save and market? 

We are greatly interested in upland rice varieties that once grew in the South—gopher or highland rice—the red bearded rice that we found still growing among the Merikans in Trinidad called Moruga Hill Rice.  We wish to reboot the original biscuit and cake flour wheat of the South—purple straw.  Seed stocks are building for that as we speak.  We have successfully repopularized Cocke’s Prolific corn, an old dent corn.  Distillers have embraced Jimmy Red Corn.  One item that distillers crave to find but still eludes us is White Mammoth Rye, or Egyptian Rye, introduced in 1811 by ambassador Joel Barlow.  It was the classic rye whiskey rye in the mountain South.  One recent rediscovery that is gaining traction is the Dyehouse cherry, the classic sour pie cherry of Kentucky.  Trees are being distributed throughout the region now.  


What has been the Foundation's biggest success story?

Carolina Gold Rice has become once again a staple of classic American cooking.  Benne is used everywhere in southern cooking and baking.  Other items have enjoyed notice, but are employed almost exclusively by chefs—such as purple ribbon sugar cane syrup, or Bradford Watermelon.  Certain of the revived field peas-the rice pea-the sea island red pea-have become widely used.  


Where did your interest in the history of classic southern ingredients stem from? Did you grow up in the south? 

I was initially raised in Japan and my taste was formed there.  It wasn’t until I went off to College at William and Mary that I encountered southern food, and found it had the same integral character and wholesomeness of Japanese cuisine.  I became curious about it.  


Do you have a favorite food memory or association from your childhood?

Carts in Japan would sell baked hot sweet potato in winter.  In the early 1950s there was still no common granulated sugar in the country.  I remember the mellow sweetness of biting into a hot sweet potato.  


Does your passion for landraces and cultivars spill over into your own cooking at home? Do you have a vegetable garden of your own?

I do the cooking in my family.  We have been doing classic rice-based pilau recipes recently.  My wife has a splendid flower garden.  But I’ve discovered that the seeds I save do best in the hands of experienced farmers and expert growers.  So I give them that material to work with.  It is not unusual for me to find a free bag of grains or vegetables on my back stoop when I come home.  


A variety of hot pepper local to our Baltimore area called the Fish Pepper has an extraordinary story behind how the seeds have been passed on via a World War I veteran. Has your research uncovered any similarly remarkable family-specific  histories or legends?

In the South, the great family maintained crops tend to be beans and okra.  There are old pepper types—the datil in Florida, the grove pepper or bird pepper that came up from the West Indies and is found along the Gulf coast.  Nat Bradford keeps the famous Bradford watermelon going, the 8th generation grower in his family to do so.  His family has its own okra, collards, and mulberries—but lost the family yellow dent corn variety two generations back.  One of my favorite seed revival narratives has to do with the Gullah Geechee gardeners of Ossabaw island who kept indigo plants, a crop introduced late in the 18th century, going when all formal cultivation had suspended generations back.  There is now a revival of traditional indigo dye craft going on in the sea islands.  

The Bradford Watermelon Story - Mind of a Chef



Reading your account of the research and sleuthing you do to trace these ingredients almost felt like listening to a cross-continent Indiana Jones-type adventure.  Do you consider yourself more a historian, or would "culinary archeologist" be more accurate? 

You have to be able to do research in primary sources—the legwork.  The first step of finding something is knowing something is lost, and what exactly that something had been and where it had been.  Then you can go hunting. That entails a certain amount of audacity and intuition.  There are germ plasm banks, and things survive there.  But they also survive on the landscape. Whenever you step on an old family’s private property, there is some risk involved. 

The Dyehouse Cherry was found because we undertook a campaign in KY to find it, enlisting media.  Finally we learned of a tree in Somerset KY on the family land of Dan Dutton, an artist.  When Alan Cornet, whose publicity work led to the initial discovery, broadcast an interview about that search last month, someone heard it, and a second tree was discovered four miles from where the cherry was first introduced in Crab Orchard KY.


Do you think the "slow foods" movement continues to gain traction? Does our current global pandemic lend itself to a return to a more intentional focus on what we eat and where it comes from? 

Slow Food’s ideals are impeccable.  Who besides a profiteer is saying anything against good clean and fair food. I contributed my time to the movement because I admire its goals and have knowledge that can assist its projects.  It is not the most efficient body in the world.  Given its ambition it is always challenged to secure the revenue needed to sustain it.  


What can those of us in the U.S. do to make small but meaningful changes to their consumption choices? 

Seek organic produce.  Join a CSA and get into some sort of relationship with a farmer or gardener.  Be willing to pay a little extra for flavor and quality.  


What's next for you? Are you working on another book? 

I have co-written a book with Chef-Scholar Kevin Mitchell entitled Taste the State: Signature Foods of South Carolina and their Stories.  It should be out next Spring from the University of South Carolina Press.  In the Fall of 2021, I will be at the Huntington Library as a senior scholar in residence writing the biography of Napoleon Sarony, America’s greatest portrait photographer of the 19th century.  I write books in several fields.  

David S. Shields is the Carolina Distinguished Professor at the University of South Carolina, Chair of the Carolina Gold Rice Foundation, and Chair of Slow Food Ark of Taste, Southern Region.