Excerpt: Southern Provisions
An excerpt from Southern Provisions: The Creation and Revival of a Cuisine by David S. Shields
Rebooting a Cuisine
“I want to bring back Carolina Gold rice. I want there to be authentic Lowcountry cuisine again. Not the local branch of southern cooking incorporated.” That was Glenn Roberts in 2003 during the waning hours of a conference in Charleston exploring “ The Cuisines of the Lowcountry and the Caribbean.”
When Jeffrey Pilcher, Nathalie Dupree, Marion Sullivan, Robert Lukey, and I brainstormed this meeting into shape over 2002, we paid scant attention to the word cuisine.1 I’m sure we all thought that it meant something like “a repertoire of refined dishes that inspired respect among the broad public interested in food.” We probably chose “cuisines” rather than “foodways” or “cookery” for the title because its associations with artistry would give it more splendor in the eyes of the two institutions—the College of Charleston and Johnson & Wales University—footing the administrative costs of the event. Our foremost concern was to bring three communities of people into conversation: culinary historians, chefs, and provisioners (i.e., farmers and fishermen) who produced the food cooked along the southern Atlantic coast and in the West Indies. Theorizing cuisine operated as a pretext.
Glenn Roberts numbered among the producers. The CEO of Anson Mills, he presided over the American company most deeply involved with growing, processing, and selling landrace grains to chefs. I knew him only by reputation. He grew and milled the most ancient and storied grains on the planet—antique strains of wheat, oats, spelt, rye, barley, faro, and corn—so that culinary professionals could make use of the deepest traditional flavor chords in cookery: porridges, breads, and alcoholic beverages. Given Roberts’s fascination with grains, expanding the scope of cultivars to include Carolina’s famous rice showed intellectual consistency. Yet I had always pegged him as a preservationist rather than a restorationist. He asked me, point-blank, whether I wished to participate in the effort to restore authentic Lowcountry cuisine.
Roberts pronounced cuisine with a peculiar inflection, suggesting that it was something that was and could be but that in 2003 did not exist in this part of the South. I knew in a crude way what he meant. Rice had been the glory of the southern coastal table, yet rice had not been commercially cultivated in the region since a hurricane breached the dykes and salted the soil of Carolina’s last commercial plantation in 1911. (Isolated planters on the Combahee River kept local stocks going until the Great Depression, and several families grew it for personal use until World War II, yet Carolina Gold rice disappeared on local grocers’ shelves in 1912.)
When Louisa Stoney and a network Charleston’s grandes dames gathered theirCarolina Rice Cook Book in 1901, the vast majority of ingredients were locally sourced. When John Martin Taylor compiled his Hoppin’ John’s Lowcountry Cooking in 1992,4 the local unavailability of traditional ingredients and a forgetfulness about the region’s foodways gave the volume a shock value, recalling the greatness of a tradition while alerting readers to its tenuous hold on the eating habits of the people.
Glenn Roberts had grown up tasting the remnants of the rice kitchen, his mother having mastered in her girlhood the art of Geechee black skillet cooking. In his younger days, Roberts worked on oyster boats, labored in fields, and cooked in Charleston restaurants, so when he turned to growing grain in the 1990s, he had a peculiar perspective on what he wished for: he knew he wanted to taste the terroir of the Lowcountry in the food.5 Because conventional agriculture had saturated the fields of coastal Carolina with pesticides, herbicides, and chemical fertilizers, he knew he had to restore the soil as well as restore Carolina Gold, and other crops, into cultivation.
I told Roberts that I would help, blurting the promise before understanding the dimensions of what he proposed. Having witnessed the resurgence in Creole cooking in New Orleans and the efflorescence of Cajun cooking in the 1980s, and having read John Folse’s pioneering histories of Louisiana’s culinary traditions, I entertained romantic visions of lost food-ways being restored and local communities being revitalized. My default opinions resembled those of an increasing body of persons, that fast food was aesthetically impoverished, that grocery preparations (snacks, cereals, and spreads) had sugared and salted themselves to a brutal lowest common denominator of taste, and that industrial agriculture was insuring indifferent produce by masking local qualities of soil with chemical supplementations. When I said “yes,” I didn’t realize that good intentions are a kind of stupidity in the absence of an attuned intuition of the problems at hand. When Roberts asked whether I would like to restore a cuisine, my thoughts gravitated toward the payoffs on the consumption end of things: no insta-grits made of GMO corn in my shrimp and grits; no farm-raised South American tiger shrimp. In short, something we all knew around here would be improved.
It never occurred to me that the losses in Lowcountry food had been so great that we all don’t know jack about the splendor that was, even with the aid of historical savants such as “Hoppin’ John” Taylor. Nor did I realize that traditional cuisines cannot be understood simply by reading old cookbooks; you can’t simply re-create recipes and—voilà! Roberts, being a grower and miller, had fronted the problem: cuisines had to be understood from the production side, from the farming, not just the cooking or eating. If the ingredients are mediocre, there will be no revelation on the tongue. There is only one pathway to understanding how the old planters created rice that excited the gastronomes of Paris—the path leading into the dustiest, least-used stacks in the archive, those holding century-and-a-half-old agricultural journals, the most neglected body of early American writings.
In retrospect, I understand why Roberts approached me and not some chef with a penchant for antiquarian study or some champion of southern cooking. While interested in culinary history, it was not my interest but my method that drew Roberts. He must’ve known at the time that I create histories of subjects that have not been explored; that I write “total histories” using only primary sources, finding, reading, and analyzing every extant source of information. He needed someone who could navigate the dusty archive of American farming, a scholar who could reconstruct how cuisine came to be from the ground up. He found me in 2003.
At first, questions tugged in too many directions. When renovating a cuisine, what is it, exactly, that is being restored? An aesthetic of plant breeding? A farming system? A set of kitchen practices? A gastronomic philosophy? We decided not to exclude questions at the outset, but to pursue anything that might serve the goals of bringing back soil, restoring cultivars, and renovating traditional modes of food processing. The understandings being sought had to speak to a practice of growing and kitchen creation. We should not, we all agreed, approach cuisine as an ideal, a theoretical construction, or a utopian possibility.
Our starting point was a working definition of that word I had used so inattentively in the title of the conference: cuisine. What is a cuisine? How does it differ from diet, cookery, or food? Some traditions of reflection on these questions were helpful. Jean-François Revel’s insistence in Culture and Cuisine that cuisines are regional, not national, because of the enduring distinctiveness of local ingredients, meshed with the agricultural preoccupations of our project. Sidney Mintz usefully observed that a population “eats that cuisine with sufficient frequency to consider themselves experts on it. They all believe, and care that they believe, that they know what it consists of, how it is made, and how it should taste. In short, a genuine cuisine has common social roots.” The important point here is consciousness. Cuisine becomes a signature of community and, as such, becomes a source of pride, a focus of debate, and a means of projecting an identity in other places to other people.
There is, of course, a commercial dimension to this. If a locale becomes famous for its butter (as northern New York did in the nineteenth century) or cod (as New England did in the eighteenth century), a premium is paid in the market for those items from those places. The self-consciousness about ingredients gives rise to an artistry in their handling, a sense of tact from long experience of taste, and a desire among both household and professional cooks to satisfy the popular demand for dishes by improving their taste and harmonizing their accompaniments at the table.
One hallmark of the maturity of a locale’s culinary artistry is its discretion when incorporating non-local ingredients with the products of a region’s field, forest, and waters. Towns and cities with their markets and groceries invariably served as places where the melding of the world’s commodities with a region’s produce took place. Cuisines have two faces: a cosmopolitan face, prepared by professional cooks; and a common face, prepared by household cooks. In the modern world, a cuisine is at least bimodal in constitution, with an urbane style and a country vernacular style. At times, these stylistic differences become so pronounced that they described two distinct foodways—the difference between Creole and Cajun food and their disparate histories, for example. More frequently, an urban center creates its style elaborating the bounty of the surrounding countryside—the case of Baltimore and the Tidewater comes to mind.
With a picture of cuisine in hand, Roberts and I debated how to proceed in our understanding. In 2004 the Carolina Gold Rice Foundation was formed with the express purpose of advancing the cultivation of land-race grains and insuring the repatriation of Carolina Gold. Dr. Merle Shepard of Clemson University (head of the Clemson Coastal Experimental Station at Charleston), Dr. Richard Schulze (who planted the first late twentieth-century crops of Carolina Gold on his wetlands near Savannah), Campbell Coxe (the most experienced commercial rice farmer in the Carolinas), Max E. Hill (historian and planter), and Mack Rhodes and Charles Duell (whose Middleton Place showcased the historical importance of rice on the Lowcountry landscape) formed the original nucleus of the enterprise.
It took two and a half years before we knew enough to reformulate our concept of cuisine and historically contextualize the Carolina Rice Kitchen well enough to map our starting point for the work of replenishment—a reboot of Lowcountry cuisine. The key insights were as follows: The enduring distinctiveness of local ingredients arose from very distinct sets of historical circumstances and a confluence of English, French Huguenot, West African, and Native American foodways. What is grown where, when, and for what occurred for very particular reasons. A soil crisis in the early nineteenth century particularly shaped the Lowcountry cuisine that would come, distinguishing it from food produced and prepared elsewhere.
The landraces of rice, wheat, oats, rye, and corn that were brought into agriculture in the coastal Southeast were, during the eighteenth century, planted as cash crops, those same fields being replanted season after season, refreshed only with manuring until the early nineteenth century. Then the boom in long staple Sea Island cotton, a very “exhausting” plant, pushed Lowcountry soil into crisis. (A similar crisis related to tobacco culture and soil erosion because of faulty plowing methods afflicted Maryland, Virginia, and North Carolina.) The soil crisis led to the depopulation of agricultural lands as enterprising sons went westward seeking newly cleared land, causing a decline in production, followed by rising farm debt and social distress. The South began to echo with lamentations and warnings proclaimed by a generation of agrarian prophets—John Taylor of Caroline County in Virginia, George W. Jeffreys of North Carolina, Nicholas Herbemont of South Carolina, and Thomas Spalding of Georgia. Their message: Unless the soil is saved; unless crop rotations that build nutrition in soil be instituted; unless agriculture be diversified—then the long-cultivated portions of the South will become a wasteland. In response to the crisis in the 1820s, planters formed associations; they published agricultural journals to exchange information; they read; they planted new crops and employed new techniques of plowing and tilling; they rotated, intercropped, and fallowed fields. The age of experiment began in American agriculture with a vengeance.
The Southern Agriculturist magazine (founded 1828) operated as theengine of changes in the Lowcountry. In its pages, a host of planter-contributors published rotations they had developed for rice, theories of geoponics (soil nourishment), alternatives to monoculture, and descriptions of the world of horticultural options. Just as Judge Jesse Buel in Albany, New York, systematized the northern dairy farm into a self-reliant entity with livestock, pastures, fields, orchard, garden, and dairy interacting for optimum benefit, southern experimentalists conceived of the model plantation. A generation of literate rice planters—Robert F. W. Allston, J. Bryan, Calvin Emmons, James Ferguson, William Hunter, Roswell King, Charles Munnerlyn, Thomas Pinckney, and Hugh Rose— contributed to the conversation, overseen by William Washington, chair of the Committee on Experiments of the South Carolina Agricultural Society. Regularizing the crop rotations, diversifying cultivars, and rationalizing plantation operations gave rise to the distinctive set of ingredients that coalesced into what came to be called the Carolina Rice Kitchen, the cuisine of the Lowcountry.
Now, in order to reconstruct the food production of the Lowcountry, one needs a picture of how the plantations and farms worked internally with respect to local markets, in connection with regional markets, and in terms of commodity trade. One has to know how the field crops, kitchen garden, flower and herb garden, livestock pen, dairy, and kitchen cooperated. Within the matrix of uses, any plant or animal that could be employed in multiple ways would be more widely raised in a locality and more often cycled into cultivation. The sweet potato, for instance, performed many tasks on the plantation: It served as winter feed for livestock, its leaves as fodder; it formed one of the staple foods for slaves; it sold well as a local-market commodity for the home table; and its allelopathic (growth-inhibiting chemistry) made it useful in weed suppression. Our first understandings of locality came by tracing the multiple transits of individual plants through farms, markets, kitchens, and seed brokerages.
After the 1840s, when experiments stabilized into conventions on Low-country plantations, certain items became fixtures in the fields. Besides the sweet potato, one found benne (low-oil West African sesame), corn, colewort/kale/collards, field peas, peanuts, and, late in the 1850s, sorghum. Each one of these plant types would undergo intensive breeding trials, creating new varieties that (a) performed more good for the soil and welfare of the rotation’s other crops; (b) attracted more purchasers at the market; (c) tasted better to the breeder or his livestock; (d) grew more productively than other varieties; and (e) proved more resistant to drought, disease, and infestation than other varieties.
From 1800 to the Civil War, the number of vegetables, the varieties of a given vegetable, the number of fruit trees, the number of ornamental flowers, and the numbers of cattle, pigs, sheep, goat, and fowl breeds all multiplied prodigiously in the United States, in general, and the Low-country, in particular. The seedsman, the orchardist, the livestock breeder, the horticulturist—experimentalists who maintained model farms, nurseries, and breeding herds—became fixtures of the agricultural scene and drove innovation. One such figure was J. V. Jones of Burke County, Georgia, a breeder of field peas in the 1840s and ’50s. In the colonial era, field peas (cowpeas) grew in the garden patches of African slaves, along with okra, benne, watermelon, and guinea squash. Like those other West African plants, their cultivation was taken up by white planters. At first, they grew field peas as fodder for livestock because it inspired great desire among hogs, cattle, and horses. (Hence the popular name cowpea.) Early in the nineteenth century, growers noticed that it improved soils strained by “exhausting plants.” With applications as a green manure, a table pea, and livestock feed, the field pea inspired experiments in breeding with the ends of making it less chalky tasting, more productive, and less prone to mildew when being dried to pea hay. Jones reported on his trials. He grew every sort of pea he could obtain, crossing varieties in the hopes of breeding a pea with superior traits.
- Blue Pea, hardy and prolific. A crop of this pea can be matured in less than 60 days from date of planting the seed. Valuable.
- Lady, matures with No. 1. Not so prolific and hardy. A delicious table pea.
- Rice, most valuable table variety known, and should be grown universally wherever the pea can make a habitation.
- Relief, another valuable table kind, with brown pods.
- Flint Crowder, very profitable.
- Flesh, very profitable.
- Sugar, very profitable.
- Grey, very profitable. More so than 5, 6, 7. [Tory Pea]
- Early Spotted, brown hulls or pods.
- Early Locust, brown hulls, valuable.
- Late Locust, purple hulls, not profitable.
- Black Eyes, valuable for stock.
- Early Black Spotted, matures with nos. 1, 2, and 3.
- Goat, so called, I presume, from its spots. Very valuable, and a hard kind to shell.
- Small Black, very valuable, lies on the field all winter with the power of reproduction.
- Large Black Crowder, the largest pea known, and produces great and luxuriant vines. A splendid variety.
- Brown Spotted, equal to nos. 6, 7, 8 and 14.
- Claret Spotted, equal to nos. 6, 7, 8 and 14.
- Large Spotted, equal to nos. 6, 7, 8 and 14.
- Jones Little Claret Crowder. It is my opinion a greater quantity in pounds and bushels can be grown per acre of this pea, than any other grain with the knowledge of man. Matures with nos. 1, 2, 3, 9 and 13, and one of the most valuable.
- Jones Black Hull, prolific and profitable.
- Jones Yellow Hay, valuable for hay only.
- Jones no. 1, new and very valuable; originated in the last 2 years.
- Chickasaw, its value is as yet unknown. Ignorance has abused it.
- Shinney or Java, this is the Prince of Peas.
The list dramatizes the complex of qualities that bear on the judgments of plant breeders—flavor, profitability, feed potential, processability, ability to self-seed, productivity, and utility as hay. And it suggests the genius of agriculture in the age of experiment—the creation of a myriad of tastes and uses.
At this juncture, we confront a problem of culinary history. If one writes the history of taste as it is usually written, using the cookbook authors and chefs as the spokespersons for developments, one will not register the multiple taste options that pea breeders created. Recipes with gnomic reticence call for field peas (or cowpeas). One would not know, for example, that the Shinney pea, the large white lady pea, or the small white rice pea would be most suitable for this or that dish. It is only in the agricultural literature that we learn that the Sea Island red pea was the traditional pea used in rice stews, or that the red Tory pea with molasses and a ham hock made a dish rivaling Boston baked beans.
Growers drove taste innovation in American grains, legumes, and vegetables during the age of experiment. And their views about texture, quality, and application were expressed in seed catalogs, agricultural journals, and horticultural handbooks. If one wishes to understand what was distinctive about regional cookery in the United States, the cookbook supplies but a partial apprehension at best. New England’s plenitude of squashes, to take another example, is best comprehended by reading James J. H. Gregory’s Squashes: How to Grow Them (1867), not Mrs. N. Orr’s De Witt’sConnecticut Cook Book, and Housekeeper’s Assistant (1871). In the pages of the 1869 annual report of the Massachusetts Board of Agriculture, we encounter the expert observation, “As a general rule, the Turban and Hubbard are too grainy in texture to enter the structure of that grand Yankee luxury, a squash pie. For this the Marrow [autumnal marrow squash] excels, and this, I hold, is now the proper sphere of this squash; it is now a pie squash.” No cookbook contains so trenchant an assessment, and when the marrow squash receives mention, it suggests it is a milder-flavored alternative to the pumpkin pie.
Wendell Berry’s maxim that “eating is an agricultural act” finds support in nineteenth-century agricultural letters. The aesthetics of planting, breeding, and eating formed a whole sense of the ends of agriculture. No cookbook would tell you why a farmer chose a clay pea to intercrop with white flint corn, or a lady pea, or a black Crowder, but a reader of the agricultural press would know that the clay pea would be plowed under with the corn to fertilize a field (a practice on some rice fields every fourth year), that the lady pea would be harvested for human consumption, and that the black Crowder would be cut for cattle feed. Only reading a pea savant like J. V. Jones would one know that a black-eyed pea was regarded as “valuable for stock” but too common tasting to recommend it for the supper table.
When the question that guides one’s reading is which pea or peasshould be planted today to build the nitrogen level of the soil and complement the grains and vegetables of Lowcountry cuisines, the multiplicity of varieties suggests an answer. That J. V. Jones grew at least four of his own creations, as well as twenty-one other reputable types, indicates that one should grow several sorts of field peas, with each sort targeted to a desired end. The instincts of southern seed savers such as Dr. David Bradshaw, Bill Best, and John Coykendall were correct—to preserve the richness of southern pea culture, one had to keep multiple strains of cowpea viable. Glenn Roberts and the Carolina Gold Rice Foundation have concentrated on two categories of peas—those favored in rice dishes and those known for soil replenishment. The culinary peas are the Sea Island red pea, known for traditional dishes such as reezy peezy, red pea soup, and red pea gravy; and the rice pea, cooked as an edible pod pea, for most hoppin’ John recipes and for the most refined version of field peas with butter. For soil building, iron and clay peas have been a mainstay of warm-zone agriculture since the second half of the nineteenth century.
It should be clear by this juncture that this inquiry differs from the projects most frequently encountered in food history. Here, the value of a cultivar or dish does not reside in its being a heritage marker, a survival from an originating culture previous to its uses in southern planting and cooking. The Native American origins of a Chickasaw plum, the African origins of okra, the Swedish origins of the rutabaga don’t much matter for our purposes. This is not to discount the worth of the sort of etiological food genealogies that Gary Nabhan performs with the foods of Native peoples, that Karen Hess performed with the cooking of Jewish conversos, or that Jessica Harris and others perform in their explorations of the food of the African diaspora, but the hallmark of the experimental age was change in what was grown—importation, alteration, ramification, improvement, and repurposing. The parched and boiled peanuts/pindars of West Africa were used for oil production and peanut butter. Sorghum, or imphee grass, employed in beer brewing and making flat breads in West Africa and Natal became in the hands of American experimentalists a sugar-producing plant. That said, the expropriations and experimental transformations did not entirely supplant traditional uses. The work of agronomist George Washington Carver at the Tuskegee Agricultural Experiment Station commands particular notice because it combines its novel recommendations for industrial and commercial uses of plants as lubricants, blacking, and toothpaste, with a thoroughgoing recovery of the repertoire of Deep South African American sweet potato, cowpea, and peanut cookery in an effort to present the maximum utility of the ingredients.
While part of this study does depend on the work that Joyce E. Chaplin and Max Edelson have published on the engagement of southern planters with science, it departs from the literature concerned with agricultural reform in the South. Because this exploration proceeds from the factum brutum of an achieved regional cuisine produced as the result of agricultural innovations, market evolutions, and kitchen creativity, it stands somewhat at odds with that literature, arguing the ineffectuality of agricultural reform. Works in this tradition—Charles G. Steffen’s “In Search of the Good Overseer” or William M. Mathew’s Edmund Ruffin and the Crisis of Slavery in the Old South—argue that what passed for innovation in farming was a charade, and that soil restoration and crop diversification were fitful at best. When a forkful of hominy made from the white flint corn perfected in the 1830s on the Sea Islands melts on one’s tongue, there is little doubting that something splendid has been achieved.
The sorts of experiments that produced white flint corn, the rice pea, and the long-grain form of Carolina Gold rice did not cease with the Civil War. Indeed, with the armistice, the scope and intensity of experimentation increased as the economies of the coast rearranged from staple production to truck farming. The reliance on agricultural improvement would culminate in the formation of the network of agricultural experimental stations in the wake of the Hatch Act of 1886. One finding of our research has been that the fullness of Lowcountry agriculture and the efflorescence of Lowcountry cuisine came about during the Reconstruction era, and its heyday continued into the second decade of the twentieth century.
The Lowcountry was in no way exceptional in its embrace of experiments and improvement or insular in its view of what should be grown. In the 1830s, when Carolina horticulturists read about the success that northern growers had with Russian strains of rhubarb, several persons attempted with modest success to grow it in kitchen gardens. Readers of Alexander von Humboldt’s accounts of the commodities of South America experimented with Peruvian quinoa in grain rotations. Because agricultural letters and print mediated the conversations of the experimentalists, and because regional journals reprinted extensively from other journals from other places, a curiosity about the best variety of vegetables, fruits, and berries grown anywhere regularly led many to secure seed from northern brokers (only the Landreth Seed Company of Pennsylvaniamaintained staff in the Lowcountry), or seedsmen in England, France, and Germany. Planters regularly sought new sweet potato varieties from Central and South America, new citrus fruit from Asia, and melons wherever they might be had.
Because of the cosmopolitan sourcing of things grown, the idea of a regional agriculture growing organically out of the indigenous productions of a geographically delimited zone becomes questionable. (The case of the harvest of game animals and fish is different.) There is, of course, a kind of provocative poetry to reminding persons, as Gary Nabhan has done, that portions of the Southeast once regarded the American chestnut as a staple and food mapping an area as “Chestnut Nation,” yet it has little resonance for a population that has never tasted an American chestnut in their lifetime. Rather, region makes sense only as a geography mapped by consciousness—by a community’s attestation in naming, argumentation, and sometimes attempts at legal delimitation of a place.
We can see the inflection of territory with consciousness in the history of the name “Lowcountry.” It emerges as “low country” in the work of early nineteenth-century geographers and geologists who were attempting to characterize the topography of the states and territories of the young nation. In 1812 Jedidiah Morse uses “low country” in the American Universal Gazetteer to designate the coastal mainland of North Carolina, South Carolina, and Georgia. Originally, the Sea Islands were viewed as a separate topography. “ The sea coast,” he writes, “is bordered with a fine chain of islands, between which and the shore there is a very convenient navigation. The main land is naturally divided into the Lower and Upper country. The low country extends 80 or 100 miles from the coast, and is covered with extensive forests of pitch pine, called pine barrens, interspersed with swamps and marshes of rich soil.” Geologist Elisha Mitchell took up the characterization in his 1828 article, “On the Character and Origin of the Low Country of North Carolina,” defining the region east of the Pee Dee River to the Atlantic coast by a stratigraphy of sand and clay layers as the low country. Within a generation, the designation had entered into the usage of the population as a way of characterizing a distinctive way of growing practiced on coastal lands. Wilmot Gibbs, a wheat farmer in Chester County in the South Carolina midlands, observed in a report to the US Patent Office: “ The sweet potatoes do better, much better on sandy soil, and though not to be compared in quantity and quality with the lowcountry sweet potatoes, yet yield a fair crop.” Two words became one word. And when culture—agriculture—inflected the understanding of region, the boundaries of the map altered. The northern boundary of rice growing and the northern range of the cabbage palmetto were just north of Wilmington, North Carolina. The northern bound of USDA Plant Hardiness Zone 8 in the Cape Fear River drainage became the cultural terminus of the Lowcountry. Agriculturally, the farming on the Sea Islands differed little from that on the mainland, so they became assimilated into the cultural Lowcountry. And since the Sea Islands extended to Amelia Island, Florida, the Lowcountry extended into east Florida. What remained indistinct and subject to debate was the interior bound of the Lowcountry. Was the St. Johns River region in Florida assimilated into it, or not? Did it end where tidal flow became negligible upriver on the major coastal estuaries? Perceptual regions that do not evolve into legislated territories, such as the French wine regions, should be treated with a recognition of their mutable shape.
Cuisines are regional to the extent that the ingredients the region supplies to the kitchen are distinctive, not seen as a signature of another place. Consequently, Lowcountry cuisine must be understood comparatively, contrasting its features with those of other perceived styles, such as “southern cooking” or “tidewater cuisine” or “New Orleans Creole cooking” or “American school cooking” or “cosmopolitan hotel gastronomy.” The comparisons will take place, however, acknowledging that all of these styles share a deep grammar. A common store of ancient landrace grains (wheat, spelt, rye, barley, oats, corn, rice, millet, faro), the oil seeds and fruits (sesame, sunflower, rapeseed, linseed, olive), the livestock, the root vegetables, the fruit trees, the garden vegetables, the nuts, the berries, the game, and the fowls—all these supply a broad canvas against which the novel syncretisms and breeders’ creations emerge. It is easy to overstate the peculiarity of a region’s farming or food.
One of the hallmarks of the age of experiment was openness to new plants from other parts of the world. There was nothing of the culinary purism that drove the expulsion of “ignoble grapes” from France in the 1930s. Nor was there the kind of nationalist food security fixation that drives the current Plant Protection and Quarantine (PPQ ) protocols of the USDA. In that era, before crop monocultures made vast stretches of American countryside an uninterrupted banquet for viruses, disease organisms, and insect pests, nightmares of continental pestilence did not roil agronomists. The desire to plant a healthier, tastier, more productive sweet potato had planters working their connections in the West Indies and South America for new varieties. Periodically, an imported variety—a cross between old cultivated varieties, a cross between a traditional and an imported variety, or a sport of an old or new variety—proved something so splendid that it became a classic, a brand, a market variety, a seed catalog–illustrated plant. Examples of these include the Carolina African peanut, the Bradford watermelon, the Georgia pumpkin yam, the Hanson lettuce, Sea Island white flint corn, the Virginia peanut, the Carolina Long Gold rice, the Charleston Wakefield cabbage, and the Dancy tangerine. That something from a foreign clime might be acculturated, becoming central to an American regional cuisine, was more usual than not.
With the rise of the commercial seedsmen, naming of vegetable varieties became chaotic. Northern breeders rebranded the popular white-fleshed Hayman sweet potato, first brought from the West Indies into North Carolina in 1854, as the “Southern Queen sweet potato” in the hope of securing the big southern market, or as the “West Indian White.” Whether a seedsman tweaked a strain or not, it appeared in the catalogs as new and improved. Only with the aid of the skeptical field-trial reporters working the experimental stations of the 1890s can one see that the number of horticultural and pomological novelties named as being available for purchase substantially exceeds the number of varieties that actually exist.
Numbers of plant varieties enjoyed sufficient following to resist the yearly tide of “new and improved” alternatives. They survived over decades, supported by devotees or retained by experimental stations and commercial breeders as breeding stock. Of Jones’s list of cowpeas, for instance, the blue, the lady, the rice, the flint Crowder, the claret, the small black, the black-eyed, and Shinney peas still exist in twenty-first-century fields, and two remain in commercial cultivation: the lady and the Crowder.
In order to bring back the surviving old varieties important in traditional Lowcountry cuisine yet no longer commercially farmed, Dr. Merle Shepard, Glenn Roberts, or I sought them in germplasm banks andthrough the networks of growers and seed savers. Some important items seem irrevocably lost: the Neunan’s strawberry and the Hoffman seedling strawberry, both massively cultivated during the truck-farming era in the decades following the Civil War. The Ravenscroft watermelon has perished. Because of the premium placed on taste in nineteenth-century plant and fruit breeding, we believed the repatriation of old strains to be important. Yet we by no means believed that skill at plant breeding suddenly ceased in 1900. Rather, the aesthetics of breeding changed so that cold tolerance, productivity, quick maturity, disease resistance, transportability, and slow decay often trumped taste in the list of desiderata. The recent revelation that the commercial tomato’s roundness and redness was genetically accomplished at the expense of certain of the alleles governing taste quality is only the most conspicuous instance of the subordination of flavor in recent breeding aesthetics.
We have reversed the priority—asserting the primacy of taste over other qualities in a plant. We cherish plants that in the eyes of industrial farmers may seem inefficient, underproductive, or vulnerable to disease and depredation because they offer more to the kitchen, to the tongue, and to the imagination. The simple fact that a plant is heirloom does not make it pertinent for our purposes. It had to have had traction agriculturallyand culinarily. It had to retain its vaunted flavor. Glenn Roberts sought with particular avidity the old landrace grains because their flavors provided the fundamental notes comprising the harmonics of Western food, both bread and alcohol. The more ancient, the better. I sought benne, peanuts, sieva beans, asparagus, peppers, squashes, and root vegetables. Our conviction has been—and is—that the quality of the ingredients will determine the vitality of Lowcountry cuisine.
While the repertoire of dishes created in Lowcountry cuisine interested us greatly, and while we studied the half-dozen nineteenth-century cookbooks, the several dozen manuscript recipe collections, and the newspaper recipe literature with the greatest attention, we realized that our project was not the culinary equivalent of Civil War reenactment, a kind of temporary evacuation of the present for some vision of the past. Rather, we wanted to revive the ingredients that had made that food so memorable and make the tastes available again, so the best cooks of this moment could combine them to invoke or invent a cooking rich with this place. Roberts was too marked by his Californian youth, me by formative years in Japan, Shepard by his long engagement with Asian food culture, Campbell Coxe with his late twentieth-century business mentality, to yearn for some antebellum never-never land of big house banqueting. What did move us, however, was the taste of rice. We all could savor the faint hazelnut delicacy, the luxurious melting wholesomeness of Carolina Gold. And we all wondered at those tales of Charleston hotel chefs of the Reconstruction era who could identify which stretch of which river where a plate of gold rice had been nourished. They could, they claimed, taste the water and the soil in the rice.
The quality of ingredients depends upon the quality of the soil, and this book is not, to my regret, a recovery of the lost art of soil building. Though we have unearthed, with the aid of Dr. Stephen Spratt, a substantial body of information about crop rotations and their effects, and though certain of these traditional rotations have been followed in growing rice, benne, corn, beans, wheat, oats, et cetera, we can’t point to a particular method of treating soil that we could attest as having been sufficient and sustainable in its fertility in all cases. While individual planters hit upon soil-building solutions for their complex of holdings, particularly in the Sea Islands and in the Pee Dee River basin, these were often vast operations employing swamp muck, rather than dung, as a manure. Even planter-savants, such as John Couper and Thomas Spalding, felt they had not optimized the growing potential of their lands. Planters who farmed land that had suffered fertility decline and were bringing it back to viability often felt dissatisfaction because its productivity could not match the newly cleared lands in Alabama, Louisiana, Texas, and Mississippi. Lowcountry planters were undersold by producers to the west. Hence, coastal planters heeded the promises of the great advocates of manure—Edmund Ruffin’s call to crush fossilized limestone and spread calcareous manures on fields, or Alexander von Humboldt’s scientific case for Peruvian guano—as the answer to amplifying yield per acre. Those who could afford it became guano addicts. Slowly, southern planters became habituated to the idea that in order to yield a field needed some sort of chemical supplementation. It was then a short step to industrially produced chemical fertilizers.
What we now know to be irrefutably true, after a decade of Glenn Roberts’s field work, is that grain and vegetables grown in soil that has never been subjected to the chemical supplementations of conventional agriculture, or that has been raised in fields cleansed of the chemicals by repeated organic grow-outs, possess greater depth and distinct local inflections of flavor. Tongues taste terroir. This is a truth confirmed by the work of other cuisine restorationists in other areas—I think particularly of Dan Barber’s work at Stone Barns Center in northern New York and John Coykendall’s work in Tennessee.
Our conviction that enhancing the quality of flavors a region produces as the goal of our agricultural work gives our efforts a clarity of purpose that enables sure decision making at the local level. We realize, of course, the human and animal health benefits from consuming food free of toxins and chemical additives. We know that the preservation of the soil and the treatment of water resources in a non-exploitative way constitute a kind of virtue. But without the aesthetic focus on flavor, the ethical treatment of resources will hardly succeed. When pleasure coincides with virtue, the prospect of an enduring change in the production and treatment of food takes on solidity.
Since its organization a decade ago, the Carolina Gold Rice Foundation has published material on rice culture and the cultivation of landrace grains. By 2010 it became apparent that the information we had gleaned and the practical experience we had gained in plant repatriations had reached a threshold permitting a more public presentation of our historical sense of this regional cuisine, its original conditions of production, and observations on its preparation. After substantial conversation about the shape of this study with Roberts, Shepard, Bernard L. Herman, John T. Edge, Nathalie Dupree, Sean Brock, Linton Hopkins, Jim Kibler, and Marcie Cohen Ferris, I determined that it should not resort to the conventional chronological, academic organization of the subject, nor should it rely on the specialized languages of botany, agronomy, or nutrition. My desire in writing Southern Provisions was to treat the subject so that a reader could trace the connections between plants, plantations, growers, seed brokers, markets, vendors, cooks, and consumers. The focus of attention had to alter, following the transit of food from field to market, from garden to table. The entire landscape of the Lowcountry had to be included, from the Wilmington peanut patches to the truck farms of the Charleston Neck, from the cane fields of the Georgia Sea Islands to the citrus groves of Amelia Island, Florida. For comparison’s sake, there had to be moments when attention turned to food of the South generally, to the West Indies, and to the United States more generally.
In current books charting alternatives to conventional agriculture, there has been a strong and understandable tendency to announce crisis. This was also the common tactic of writers at the beginning of the age of experimentation in the 1810s and ’20s. Yet here, curiosity and pleasure, the quest to understand a rich world of taste, direct our inquiry more than fear and trepidation.
To read more about Southern Provisions, click here.