For 10 years David Shields mined the esoteric ephemera of centuries-old agricultural journals and seed catalogs. He canvassed cornfields and rice paddies, sometimes sporting his signature tweed jacket and red bow tie like a modern-day Indiana Jones searching for lost culinary treasure. He teamed up with a wide variety of mutual investigators who could add to his knowledge and help him project a sweeping vision of Southern food culture so grand that it represents a veritable restart, a resurrection intent on fostering a re-emergent cuisine. The circle of influence that drove this investigation reflects its wide-ranging character. Farmers, botanists, archivists, celebrity chefs, horticulturalists, and both major research universities of this state lent efforts towards his mission: to return the lost legacies of a bygone cuisine to the modern culinary experience.
Shields new book, Southern Provisions, is as much manifesto as history, and it represents a solid cornerstone in the burgeoning effort to rediscover, recognize, and adapt the preindustrial agriculture of the South, particularly the Lowcountry region, into the modern culinary lexicon. A book about cooking, growing, and distributing foods native to the first several centuries of European expansion into the American South, Southern Provisions argues for "growing out a cuisine with the guidance of the historical record" and "maintaining an experimental openness to the possibility of improving soil, cultivar, taste, and cost." The effort is to "condition" a heritage appropriate to the future.
To do so, Shields looks to the past — particularly to biographies of cooks, purveyors, and ingredients — and by doing so demonstrates the intimate connections between agriculture, purveyance, and cookery that are obfuscated by modern industrial foodways. In Shields' world, if we are to return to a system of cookery based in an appreciation of quality and provenance, then we should begin by returning to the history of our place, its colliding cultural influences and local environmental condition, and the experimental spirits that drove the creation of a distinct Southern cuisine. And we should endeavor to invent them anew.
It's a journey that takes us through the eating houses of New Orleans in the 1800s, the primacy of Baltimore's haute cuisine in the late 19th century, and rural repasts of possum, tripe, and cow heel in the backcountry of Alabama, but lands squarely in the agricultural and culinary environs of Lowcountry rice, ribbon cane, and flint corn. Shields maneuvers through the frenzied promise of commercial sorghum sugar in the mid-19th century as adroitly as he describes the dark malice of pellagra, the nutritional deficiency disease that staple consumption of syrup, cornmeal, and salt pork engendered in isolated areas, ranging from Civil War prison camps to 20th century cotton mill villages.
But it's in the exhaustive examinations of Lowcountry rice culture, the fish markets of Charleston, and the long legacy of African-American caterers and cooks who largely developed Lowcountry cuisine, that the book reveals its promise. Shields aims to show readers that such a complex and classical cuisine of the area constitutes the documentable basis for what any modern Charlestonian rightly recognizes as Lowcountry cooking. He wishes to goad those interested in regional cuisines, Lowcountry or otherwise, into reexamining their preconceptions of the food they believe to be authentic. The bag of "Carolina" brand rice ubiquitous in the grocery store is held up to the legacy of Carolina Gold. The flavor of flint corn, alkalized into hominy and ground to grits, competes against the mass-produced mush much aligned by visitors from afar. The table reaches back to the farm, and the culture of Lowcountry foodways stands as an integrated whole.
If there is a weakness to Southern Provisions, it lies in the breadth of its subject. The wide-ranging constellation of topics that it seeks to amalgamate into a mythic narrative also serve to diffuse its focus. While promoting the formation of a new cuisine based on the ashes of the old, it wrestles with a divide between academic research and popular culture. But Shields remains attentive to the dangers of myth. He refuses to slip into that "golden haze of memory" that so many chroniclers of the South have often proffered. He walks a tight line anchored between colorful hypotheticals and weighty endnotes. Nevertheless, haughty academics will surely object to the occasional lapse into overt boosterim of celebrity chefs or fraternal food societies necessary to the commercial marketing of such a broad effort in the age of social media. Amateur readers may find themselves bored with esoteric lists of seed sources, agricultural regimes, and deep wanderings into the intricacies of crop rotation, corn lineage, and the vagaries of African-American politics amongst the wharfs of Reconstruction-era Charleston.
For folks like me and my good friend Sean Brock, it's the perfect treatment. And as Brock describes on the back cover: "The most important book written about Southern food." It's the ideal academic companion to Brock's recent James Beard award-winning cookbook Heritage (which we wrote together). Southern Provisions captures much of the research and culinary legacy that inspired the resurgence of Charleston's native cuisine, and with it the origination of adaptive culinary treatments currently championed at local restaurants such as Husk, The Ordinary, The Grocery, and Circa 1886.
Regardless of its future success in the mass market, Shields' contribution to the effort should be viewed as the first edition in a line of investigations that give cooks and farmers an exploratory window into an alternative world, where flavor matters and emergent cuisine expresses an adaptation of heritage that best captures the people and place in which it perennially resides. If, as he suggests, "cuisines thrive with the development of a consciousness," then it will only be through efforts such as his that we will regain the promise of the Lowcountry rice kitchen and the authentic path forward.