by Alyson Beveridge
“You have to know something is lost in order to find it” -David Shields
How do you find something when you didn’t even realize it was missing? This has been the essential question facing southern chefs and diners for years. Sometime during the 20th century, lowcountry food–recipes from South Carolina and Georgia–a genre of cooking that had remained unchanged for generations, began to taste markedly different to those who had distinct memories of how dishes were “supposed to taste.” Because culinary techniques had not changed for centuries, the only reasonable explanation for the difference in flavor had to be the ingredients. This flavor gap has been one that David Shields, our 2018 SnailBlazer for Biodiversity, and others like him have been trying to fill for decades. The first step in solving the problem was realizing that flavor had been lost to begin with.
“The only things that are growing now that were growing when lowcountry cooking became famous, were okra and collards. Particularly rice was gone,” says Shields who is the Carolina Distinguished Professor at the University of South Carolina.
Then the issue became not knowing which ingredients to bring back. That’s why Glenn Roberts, Founder of Anson Mills, an heirloom grain purveyor most notable for helping revive Carolina Gold Rice, initially approached Shields, a professor of American literature, about tracking down heirloom crops.
Shields recalls, “He pointed to me and said you do research. You can help us find out what we need to do!”
Shields initially agreed although he admits he believed, as he says, “stupidly” that the work would be done in a month and would involve lots of free meals along the way. Over a decade later, Shields is now Chairman of the Board of the Carolina Gold Rice Foundation and Chair of the Ark of the Taste–Southern Region. Since he began the work of searching for lost seeds, he has helped revive over thirty crops.
“It started with reading 19th century seed catalogues. I took 3 years to instruct myself on how and why crops were grown. I read everything, even the chemical theories of the 1820’s, to understand why things played out the way they did,” Shields says.
Understanding the historical context of the seeds and digging through the literary records of the time, is why a literary historian like Shields has been such a crucial component to reviving so many heritage seeds. Part of understanding how to find seeds today is understanding why seeds were lost in the first place. The answer for the most part can be distilled down to one thing: economic value.
Shields says, “In the later half of the 20th century we strove for productivity, disease resistance and early maturity. For example purple straw wheat was grown in large quantities into the 1970s. It was the original cake, whiskey, and biscuit wheat. But when farmers realized that they could grow three times as much wheat during a year, this better tasting wheat was driven off the market.”
However, even though these newer crops were more productive, they were often not as hearty as the older varietals of seeds that had been refined and adapted for generations into landraces.
“The problem that always occurs with monocropping is that pests or diseases wipe them out more easily. That problem didn’t occur to purple straw wheat because it could survive when it was too cold for extraordinary pathogenic spread,” Shields explains.
As we have streamlined our agricultural processes, focusing on producing the greatest quantity of crops in the quickest way possible, flavor has been the real loser, when it was formerly what guided how we ate.
Shields asserts that flavor and nutrition are naturally linked: “Nature does not have a manual for nutrition, it is hardwired into our system as taste. Humans and ants are the only animals that have the ability to alter food before they ingest it, to make it taste better. For hundreds of generations, grains have been made increasingly wholesome through taste, but at some point in the 19th century those practices get sidetracked.”
Instead farmers started using more productive seeds that rely on petroleum-based fertilizer rather than “older varieties which relied on complex root systems for nutrient uptake” as Shields puts it. However there are other advantages that go beyond taste to using older varieties.
“Modern crops are bottlenecked genetically and adapted to one particular environment. While you may lose an entire field of #2 yellow dent corn. If you a field of Leamings yellow corn, the ancestor of the dent corn, and it was a really rainy season, instead of having the entire field wiped out by the rain, you would still have 30% of the field. And that 30% would have the ability to survive extraordinarily wet conditions. You could therefore adjust yourself to more extreme wet conditions by using those plants that have genetic ability in them,” Shields explains.
This flexible environmental adaptability makes heritage crops important to consider as our weather becomes increasingly unpredictable due to climate change. Even without the threat of climate change, Shields would still be doing this work to promote ancient crops and the Ark of Taste.
Shields explains, “Good flavor, which is of course one of the things that the Ark of Taste is all about, is the wisdom of an entire culture of nutrition embodied in plants and not in books. That’s why I think it’s important to do what you can to recognize the oldest forms of what the plants are, clean them up, and make use of them,”
The Ark of Taste is about preserving flavor, flavor that has indicated good nutrition, environmental adaptability, and heartiness to farmers, chefs, and eaters for generations and for generations to come. Participate in the preservation of biodiveristy of ancient flavor yourself through this year's Plant a Seed campaign featuring seeds from the Ark of Taste.