Sunday, June 28, 2015

7 Questions with David S. Shields, Author of Southern Provisions

David S. Shields is the Carolina Distinguished Professor and the McClintock Professor of Southern Letters at the University of South Carolina and chairman of the Carolina Gold Rice Foundation.  His books include Still:  American Silent Motion Picture Photography and his most recent book, Southern Provisions:  The Creation and Revival of a Cuisine.
1.      How and/or when did you get you hooked on history?
I grew up in a house full of books and my favorite books were about archaeology—the European and Egyptian ancient world.  I wanted to become an archaeologist, and worked briefly as an excavator on historical sites at Williamsburg when an undergraduate and William and Mary.  My closest friend in college Bernie Herman was an architectural historian and owned a Federal era house on the VA eastern shore.  Going there to work on the house made me grasp ways of life that were traditional. 

2.      What role does history play or has it played in your personal life?
I became a historian of writing—not simply literature—but all forms of writing.  I wrote a dissertation at the U of Chicago about the origins of diary writing, asking how a private kind of writing became conventional in the absence of published instructions over a wide geographic area.  As a professor I wrote books about how writings were produced, distributed, and understood—general histories; and I became affiliated with the History of the Book movement as it was being organized.  The first decades of my career were spent as a sociologist and historian of the culture of writing and printing—and I published numbers of books on the subject.

3.      How is/How was history a part of your professional life/career?
After I received tenure, I decided that I would develop an expertise for each one of my senses.  Taste was one of those senses.  I was working at The Citadel in Charleston and became interested in the history of Charleston cuisine.  At a conference I ran in 2003 devoted to the Cuisines of the Lowcountry and the Caribbean, Glenn Roberts, America's foremost miller of ancient grains, approached me saying that we can pretend Charleston food is a cuisine, but it isn't; a cuisine is an expression of a growing system of a locale.  All of the classic ingredients used to create the famous recipes of Lowcountry cooking had ceased being grown—Carolina Gold Rice, benne, sea island rice peas, Carolina African peanut.  He said the amnesia about what was once grown was so great that we don't even know what we lost.  Would I help by doing the agricultural and culinary history?  So I spent the next years doing just that.

4.      Why is studying/knowing history of agriculture important?
Plant breeding since the 1890s has stressed durability, process ability, appearance, shelf life, productivity, and disease resistance over flavor.  Pre 1890s cultivars made flavor a topmost priority.  That is why we seek historical cultivars (That said, there are some wonderful plant creations of the 20th century and not every early plant was tasty).  
5.      What is your favorite period or aspect of history to learn about and why?
As to what is my favorite historical period, I can only answer that in a variable way:  for photography, the 1905-1930 period, for agriculture the 1830-1880 period, for intellectual history, the Enlightenment, for religion, the Reformation.  

6.       In your new book Southern Provisions:  The Creation and Revival of a Cuisine, you researched antebellum southern agriculture and cooking. Traditional southern cuisine is extremely popular.  Based on your research, how traditional is today’s “traditional” ?
Since good heirloom ingredients have been available to chefs for about eight years, and the old flavors have come back very authentically in southern cities and towns.  But I don't think these ingredients should be limited to performing the old dishes.  Traditions extend the best things of the past into the future.  What excites me most are the way these ingredients and flavors are being renovated in new creations.  

7.      What lost foods and traditions should be revived?
There are numbers of lost food ways that need cultivation.  At some juncture soon the American chestnut will be reintroduced in a blight resistant form.  There was a very rich up country set of food ways associated with it—from chestnut skillet bread, to chestnut souffl√©, to chestnut fed venison and pork.  They will need to be revived.

I am interested in the hyper aromatic strawberries of the early 20th century—the narcissa and redstar—the Klondike.  Their varieties were abandoned in the 1970s.  But there is nothing now that can create that cloud of fragrance that draws every nose in the room when the lid of a jar of strawberry preserves is unscrewed.  

Appalachian cookery is undergoing an interesting revival at the moment—there is no more diverse spot for beans anywhere on the planet—and the old dent meal corn varieties still thrive and make the best cornbread meal around.  

I want to see vinegars made from the old southern fruit wines.  
Southern Provisions (March 2015)
Still (May 2013)


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