Slow Food is biodiversity, history and culture on the Table in Charleston.
Interview and words by Vivian Whitney
Edited by Giselle Kennedy Lord
Photos by Lindsay Shorter
“It’s a really great opportunity to introduce people to new foods. So much care is taken in highlighting the ingredients themselves. They’re not muddled with seasonings and spice where the whole dish might taste kind of the same. One of the biggest focuses is the ingredients — and then the community [and story] surrounding that ingredient.”
When your taste buds first fall in love with something like Carolina Gold Rice, “you realize that you need the resources and support of things like the Ark of Taste to make sure that it doesn’t disappear from [your] foodways,” says Carrie Larson, board chair of Slow Food Charleston. The Ark of Taste Dinners hosted by the chapter are helping to do just that.
Every summer, members of Slow Food Charleston come together for an annual Ark of Taste Dinner, where a team of chefs works together to create a menu that highlights Ark of Taste ingredients from the region. Carrie has helped plan all but the inaugural dinner and notes that each year looks (and tastes) a little different. Carolina Gold Rice was an integral part of that first dinner.
“There is a genuine excitement when people, especially in Charleston, [recognize] such a rich food history. Even though many Charlestonians know Carolina Gold Rice, they want to learn more about how integral a part of our culture it is, not only today but even 100 years ago. It was not just an export crop, but shared by [people from] all walks of life. It was a way to support families and the community at large, but also to nourish them every day,” says Jacques Larson, a member of the Slow Food Charleston chapter and Ark of Taste Dinner chef.
Each dinner is prepared by some of Charleston’s best chefs, each tasked with showcasing a different Ark of Taste ingredient from the area in their dish. One dinner assembled chefs from six different states in the southeast, to highlight Ark of Taste ingredients from each of those neighboring states. “We had some beautiful Crowder peas, and we had an Ossabaw hog, and a lot of really cool different foods representative of different parts of the southeast on the table. That was just stunning,” says Carrie.
Besides one great meal, the goal of these dinners is to support and promote ingredients that are fundamental to the food culture of the region and its biodiversity. Chefs source ingredients locally from places like Anson Mills, founded by Glenn Roberts, who has dedicated the historic mill to Carolina Gold Rice and other heirloom grains of the South. Since meeting Carolina Gold Rice for the first time, Jacques Larson has embraced the grain for both its flavor and its place in South Carolina’s history and culture.
While most people recognize the role of cotton in the Antebellum South, many people outside of the region don’t realize rice was king in South Carolina in those days. (Learn much more about this stark but important history in our conversation with Charleston Chef Kevin Mitchell.) Carolina Gold Rice was once South Carolina’s biggest export but, after the Great Depression, Carolina Gold rice lost its prominence to new varieties and became virtually extinct. Jacques reflects that “It gives us all a deeper understanding of where we live and how things evolved. The mission isn’t only to propagate these ingredients more easily attainable and used. Any Ark of Taste ingredient I’ve had, there’s another reason why it’s special.”
Histories like that of Carolina Gold Rice are part and parcel to the Ark of Taste and efforts to preserve these significant ingredients, and the Ark of Taste Dinners educate people about these histories while they’re eating the foods they’re learning about. Carrie says “it’s a really great opportunity to introduce people to new foods. So much care is taken in highlighting the ingredients themselves. They’re not muddled with seasonings and spice where the whole dish might taste kind of the same. One of the biggest focuses is the ingredients — and then the community [and story] surrounding that ingredient.”