South Carolina's culinary history is a kaleidoscopic, brilliantly colored by a mix of grains, legumes, fruits and vegetables that nourished generations. Changes in farming practices, environmental issues and economic trends over the centuries had unfortunate consequences, erasing many of these crops from our agricultural landscape. A strengthening movement to cultivate these "lost" foods has been fruitful, leading to exciting expression in kitchens and restaurants across the state.
Reintroducing heirloom crops is a mission taken seriously by some of our most noted chefs, bakers, farmers, food historians and seed-savers. Through their passionate work, diners can thrill to an authentic taste of Southern history. Here, Dr. David Shields, Chairman of the Carolina Gold Rice Foundation and McClintock Professor of Southern Letters at the University of South Carolina, has been working with farmers and chefs to cultivate and reintroduce some of these heirloom stars.
Carolina Gold Rice
This delicately flavored, long-grain rice thrived in the bogs of South Carolina around 1865, but faced extinction by the end of the Great Depression. Once a major agricultural industry, rice cultivation in South Carolina was hit hard during the Civil War as slave labor kept rice plantations operational and lucrative. The resulting economic crash sent Carolina Gold into a death spiral. In recent years, a Georgia farmer took interest in the forgotten crop, secured seeds and began growing the rice along the Charleston coast, sparking a major comeback for the grain.
Shields says it is "the first of the classic Southern ingredients to be restored, becoming generally available a decade ago, and now a fixture from several sources." Carolina Gold Rice is grown in South Carolina by Carolina Plantation in Darlington County and throughout the state on organic farms operated by Anson Mills.
Jimmy Red Corn
The Native Americans were cultivators of this variety of corn, which arrived in South Carolina in 1910 via a Georgian named Richard Humphries. Once a mainstay of Georgia and South Carolina diets, Jimmy Red corn was a casualty of industrial farming practices that focused on other varieties.
Named for its hallmark red kernels, this corn is sweet and aromatic. It made a rousing comeback thanks to the efforts of Husk's chef Sean Brock, who secured the obscure seeds a few years back. With help from Shields, Glenn Roberts of Anson Mills and farmer Greg Johnsman of Marsh Hen Mill, he set into motion a plan to restore Jimmy Red to its former glory, and it's working.
Shields says this variety, available through Geechie Boy and Anson Mills, is "the Lowcountry's version of the classic Appalachian red dent corn," used initially as a meal corn. Its revival has piqued the interest of Charleston chefs who have broadened its uses by milling it for grits, he notes. Area distilleries, such as High Wire and Crouch, are making whiskeys and bourbons from Jimmy Red as well.
Seashore Black Rye
This heritage rye is packed with flavor, something missing from contemporary varieties of the grain. It was first grown in South Carolina in the early 1800s and was often grown as a cover used to shield vegetable crops from wind-hurled coastal sands or to protect cotton crops from the dreaded boll weevil. Today, it is lauded for its hardiness and nutty flavor.
"The tall-growing, heat-tolerant rye of the Southeastern Coast mills up fine, makes excellent bread, beer and whiskey," notes Shields, who cites Marsh Hen Mill as "the most reliable local source."
Sea Island Red Peas
Garden peas, cowpeas, field peas - a Southern pea by any name means good eating. One particular variety - Sea Island Red - is a storied part of South Carolina history. These legumes were put to tasty use by the Gullah, who would cook up a batch in iron pots, then ladle the tiny peas and their "gravy" over bowls of Carolina Gold rice. The resulting dish, called Reezy Peezy, is said to share similarities with an Italian dish of peas and rice called "Rize a Beze," leading some historians to link the two as there was an Italian presence on the Sea Islands in Antebellum days.
"The earthy-tasting, Gullah Geechee field pea is considered the essential Lowcountry pea for Hoppin' John," says Shields. Like its Carolina Gold partner, Sea Island Red Peas largely disappeared in the wake of war, failing economies and agricultural trends. Modern day seed-savers have given the Sea Island Red Pea new life, with a small number of farmers growing it for our enjoyment. You can usually find it in the product lineup of Anson Mills.
Predating the arrival of Europeans to our coast by 300 years, this Native introduction was also grown on the Sea Islands before gradually making its way to plantation fields. Prized for its nutritional value and flavor, it lost major crop status by 1910 thanks to industrial farming practices. Shields says this variety is regionally indigenous, traditionally used in the Lowcountry as a grits corn and considered "the most healthful and wholesome of Southern corn varieties."
It's not always easy to find a particular heirloom food. While some crops are still undergoing tweaking in the fields, others are grown in such small quantity that they come and go on menus like a blip on a radar screen. Here, Shields offers descriptions of a few to watch. If you happen to come across these, consider yourself lucky and don't pass up the chance to get a taste of these heirloom rock stars:
Benne - "The low oil sesame seed brought from West Africa is available in two forms: as oil from Oliver Farms in Pits Georgia and as seed from Anson Mills."
Rice Pea - "The delicate white field pea is the sweetest and most refined of the lady category of pea. The unripe pods were prepared in dishes. The peas themselves, after several years effort, have been made available to South Carolina chefs. They should become generally available next year (2018)."
Purple Straw Wheat - "Two years away from release, now in the process of a seed increase at Clemson and the University of Kentucky to obtain a commercial amount of seed. White, winter, soft wheat grown throughout the South since the 18th century. It was the original biscuit, cake and wheated whiskey variety."
Carolina African Runner Peanut - "The small, sweet peanut that was our region's ancestral nut has been brought back into commercial production by Dr. Brian Ward of Clemson. The first crop, last November (2016) was bought up by persons engaged in special projects or [who] were devoted to generating seed. Next year should see the first retail production of the peanuts."
Bradford Watermelons - "The classic South Carolina watermelon is maintained by the Bradford Family Watermelon Company. Their watermelon molasses, pickle and brandy (with Six & Twenty Distillery) make the flavor available year round. Numbers of growers will have fresh melons available at local produce stands on the last week in July."
Purple Ribbon Sugar Cane - "Dr. Steve Kresovich has been working with the residents of Sapelo Island and the Georgia Coastal Gourmet Farm to bring back into cultivation the famous crop cane of the Lowcountry. Great for cane syrup, sugar or rum."
Get a Taste of the Past
A growing number of South Carolina restaurants, distilleries and retailers embrace the heritage foods tradition. Here are a few that consistently use or sell heirloom corn, rice, rye and peas: