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Columbia Business Monthly

Seed Researchers Reviving Food Traditions

Mar 06, 2018 11:20AM ● By Emily Stevenson
By Emily Stevenson
Photos provided by Clemson University

As high-end chefs are regarded as demi-gods and diners require more and more from their culinary experiences, ingredients beyond the generic, flavorless grocery-store staples are in hot demand. Researchers and scientists across the state are helping revive crops and food traditions from the antebellum era and beyond that were thought to be gone with the wind.

Brian Ward, a research scientist with the Plant and Environmental Science Department, Coastal Research and Education Center of Clemson University, is one of those folks.

“I specialize in organic vegetable production and also in old heirloom crops, bringing back crops that have gone away because modern lines have been bred to be more productive,” he says.

One such example is the Carolina African Runner Peanut.

Brought over to the United States by slaves in the 1600s, it was the premier peanut in the south, beloved for its sweet flavor and high-quality oil. However, the crop was nearly extinct by the Great Depression, overlooked in favor of the Virginia or Valencia peanuts.

To bring back the peanuts, at the urging of chefs such as Husk’s Sean Brock, Ward collaborated with David S. Shields, a historian specializing in both food and agriculture. Only 40 seeds of the Carolina African Runner Peanuts remained on earth, but Shields tracked them down, where they were preserved in a cold-storage seed vault at North Carolina State University in Raleigh.

He and Ward were eventually given 20 of the seeds to grow. Of the 20, 12 lived the first year, resulting in a harvest of 1,200 seeds. The next year, Ward planted 900 of the 1,200, with a resulting 60,000 seeds. The third year, Ward planted 45,000 seeds. The yield was more than one million.

At that point, it was safe to start distribution.

“That’s when I distributed all over the Southeast to peanut butter companies, candy companies, vaccine companies to test out,” says Ward.

Another distribution point for Ward’s peanut crop: chefs such as Brock. In a Jan. 19 article for Food and Wine magazine, Brock admits that if one of the peanuts happens to fall to the floor, the staff knows not to throw it out. Instead, they wash it off carefully and put it right back in the ingredient lineup.

History & Heritage

The importance of heirloom crops goes further than mere culinary decadence.

“In the beginning, the great impetus was the demand from the chefs, but what happens is that people go to the restaurants and taste the stuff and realize there are tastes there that they remember from their grandmothers, or something like that,” says Shields, a Carolina Distinguished Professor at the University of South Carolina’s College of Arts and Sciences, and the chairman of the Carolina Gold Rice Foundation.

He traces the search for heirloom crops back to the 1990s, when people began looking at the food being made in the Lowcountry - and found it lacking.

“They knew they had the recipes right, but the flavor wasn’t coming out,” Shields says. “We took a look, and the problem was that people were making Hoppin’ John using California canned black-eyed peas and mahatma rice. They weren’t using the things that originally made Hoppin’ John savory.”

Glenn Roberts, founder of Anson Mills and president of the Carolina Gold Rice Foundation, puts it this way:

“When I first moved to Charleston, everyone said they ate rice and worshipped their ancestors, but it was Uncle Ben’s,” he says. “Now they’re eating Carolina Gold or Charleston Gold [rice].”

Roberts describes the “Carolina Rice Kitchen,” or the cuisine native to Georgia and South Carolina, as a fully formed cuisine, meaning that it is a place-based culturally identifiable food system, from the ground up, that was shared by a large population. Although prevalent throughout the 18th and 19th centuries, it was essentially lost by World War II.

“There wasn’t a lot of, ‘Oh, I can’t wait to have indigenous Carolina cuisine,’” says Roberts. “The idea of Carolina rice having an identity disappeared almost completely for decades.”

The crucial bit, though, is that the state had the cuisine - and has the documentation to prove it.

“We’re one of the few places in America where the documentation is rock-solid,” Roberts adds.

There are plenty of primary sources referencing well-known crops and recipes. Shields says it’s these flavorful, original heirloom crops that built the original cuisine of the Lowcountry and made it famous.

“The loss of flavor, in a way, caused those cuisines to decline into mere cookery,” he says. “We want them to be cuisines again and to have all the potentials that existed prior to that.”

Further, traditional Carolina cuisine was shared by everyone across the state—rich, poor, free, slaves, and everyone else.

“This is everybody’s history who grew up during those periods,” says Ward. “It wasn’t just one group of people. The historical aspect is important.”

Roberts says that understanding the genetic system behind the cuisine is still the biggest challenge in resurrecting lost ingredients. But the reemergence of these crops brings with it a host of other questions: How to make it fair to all communities, not just researchers and scientists? How to make these ingredients fair-trade food for everyone, not just the wealthy? How to honor food that may or may not have belonged to any one sector of society at any given time?

“There’s a whole canon of the Carolina Rice Kitchen that belongs to slaves and freemen that was not shared in the planters’ society, and vice versa,” he says. “How do you untangle that? It goes to social and political things that are way above my pay grade, but you can’t ignore them.”

Dollars & Sense

In the world of heirloom agriculture, there’s more than just nostalgia and history at play. Agriculture is one of South Carolina’s largest industry clusters, with a roughly $3 billion impact annually. Heirloom crops, especially if grown organically, demand extremely high prices compared to traditionally grown modern crops.

“The aspect to give growers another niche or opportunity to make money is important,” says Ward. “There’s a huge monetary incentive for growers.”

One of Ward’s current projects includes work on organic watermelons. Until now, organic melons haven’t really existed because they are susceptible to disease, particularly soil-borne diseases. Ward has experimented with grafting, taking a watermelon top and grafting it to the bottom of a squash or gourd plant, which are in the same family. However, the squash has a large amount of disease resistance in its root system, making the watermelon suddenly resistant to soil-borne diseases.

Ward and his team received good yields, particularly by the third year of planting. A grower saw the yields and decided to plant 10 acres of the organic grafted watermelons. He had a fair amount of success - both harvest-wise and monetarily.

“The current price of watermelons was 10 cents a pound,” says Ward. “But to sell organic watermelons, he got 46 cents a pound. He was getting tremendous return.”

According to Ward, that’s not an uncommon phenomenon.

“There’s so much money to be made by growers,” he says. “There’s paperwork involved, but it’s not overwhelming like a lot of growers think it is, and the profits can be quite lucrative. There’s money to be made in organics.”

Be that as it may, those who work in agriculture often do so for the love of the industry, not monetary gain. Roberts says that they don’t typically monetize the heirloom seeds they’ve revived.

“We want to make it available to everyone,” he says. “We work for public good, pro bono.”

Shields agrees.

“I do this thing as a pro bono expression of my responsibility as a Carolina Distinguished Professor,” he says. “I let the farmers profit because they’re putting their time and labor on the line.”