What Remains of the Flavors of the Eighteenth Century?
Mine is a culinary and an agricultural inquiry. I approach the question avoiding the narrowest way of construing what remains of the flavors of the eighteenth century? I can imagine a foodie magazine (Lucky Peach before its demise) commissioning an epicurean writer to secure fruit from the oldest bearing fruit trees in the world—from the Zenji-Muro Persimmon Tree at Ozengi Temple in Japan; the Pizzaro Fig planted at the Governor's Palace in Lima in 1540; the Breadfruit Tree at Galle, Sri Lanka; the Muso di Bui Apple growing in a seventeenth-century homestead outside of Foligno, Italy; the John Endicott Pear Tree in Danvers, Massachusetts planted in the 1640s; the Olive Tree of Vouves in Chania, Greece, reckoned to be well over two millennia old; or, one of the dozen James I Mulberries still living in Britain (planted to promote the silk trade though it was later discovered silk worms did not savor the leaves of the Persian Black mulberries that the king promoted).1 But I am aware this approach only invites precisionist objections: "Oh, the water of the 1640s contained less cadmium and so would have tasted different than that of 2016," or "Because accidentals of weather produce different epigenetic responses season by season, giving rise to greatly different tastes each year in crops, it is nonsense to speak of an enduring same flavor in even the same plant in the same place." I wish humans could taste cadmium, since it is toxic, and they, therefore, could detect and avoid it. [End Page 105]
There is, however, a set of questions about tasting and taste explored by Denise Gigante in her Taste: A Literary History that I think has traction in the inquiry we're about to make.2 Our reception, our basic understanding of what we are tasting, depends on expectations that are learned, indeed schooled. Of the ancient fruit listed above, I have only tasted one: the Endicott Pear.3 (Another person in the tasting party, upon biting into a ripe fruit, exclaimed "Oh—sour—terrible!" He had never tasted out of hand a fruit intended for making Perry before. Half of the first pear trees shipped to America were intended to generate fruit for cider-making. These varieties tend to have a pronounced sharpness to their flavor that becomes bright when processed into alcohol.)
In 2017, fifteen apple varieties accounted for 90 percent of production in the United States. They monopolize groceries' produce bins: McIntosh, Fuji, Red Delicious, Gala, Crispin (or Mutsu), Braeburn, Honey Crisp, Jonagold, Granny Smith, Empire, Golden Delicious, Cameo, Jazz, Macoun, Ambrosia, Paula Red, Cortland, and Pink Lady.4 The oldest is McIntosh, which was introduced in 1811.5 Ten of the fifteen date from the last half of the twentieth century. All of these fruits were designed for versatility: they are so-called all arounders. We have little experience of the old apples bred and finely attuned to specific purposes—for drying, making apple sauce, baking, eating out of hand. Not knowing ahead of time the particular use of the apple, an eater risks misapprehending its taste.
I suppose the most 2017 thing about the experience that I have described above is that my audience is envisioned exclusively in the position of a consumer. None of you did the breeding that shaped the flavor of an apple, vegetable, or grain. We all operate at a moment when the creation of plants is for the most part conducted by a scientific priesthood of geneticists and commercial plant breeders. This is a recent development in history: 1887 in the United States marks a demarcation point in plant creation, for, in that year, the U. S. government established the system of agricultural experimental stations. Prior to this time, most grains, vegetables, and fruits were farmer improved, shaped by seed selection, natural mutation, and cross pollination.6 The oldest and most enduring varieties of vegetables so created are called landraces.
Since 2003, I have been closely involved in the preservation and restoration into cultivation of the landrace grains associated with southern food. In addition to my academic appointment, I head a non-profit organization, The Carolina Gold Rice Foundation, that has repatriated approximately thirty cultivars to American fields and tables.7 Our efforts have been chronicled in The New Yorker, The New York Times, The Wall Street Journal, NPR, the BBC, "The Mind of a Chef" TV show, Modern Farmer, and National [End Page 106] Geographic. Why the attention? Because invariably each restoration has been viewed as a recuperation of a splendid flavor in the face of an industrial food system that inveterately prioritizes the productivity, disease resistance, appearance, transportability, processability, and shelf life over the intrinsic taste of ingredients.8
When communities of farmers bred the grains that they consumed, they invariably bred for good flavor. The quality they sought was wholesomeness—an unsensational, satisfying, agreeableness that communicated rightness, healthfulness, and desirability. These judgments were rendered usually on the simplest of preparations—a whole grain porridge for instance. We should in no way regard flavor in this effort as an ornamental quality, an aesthetic supplement. For human beings, as with all biological entities, from paramecia to birds, taste was the means by which living beings determined what was edible and nourishing in their environment.9 We are chemically hard-wired to respond to certain flavors that clue us about their benefit to us. Landraces were edible plants tweaked by seed selection over hundreds, sometimes thousands of plant generations to be maximally wholesome.10 Sometimes, certain plants constitute a prehistoric culture's wisdom about human sustenance. The plants themselves are the books that contain the knowledge of physic, cultivation, and climate. The fifty-nine surviving maize landraces preserved in Mexico are strains that have come down to us from before the arrival of Cortez.11
Globally, the eclipse of the landraces began in the late 1960s when Norman Borlaug inaugurated the Green Revolution. It was the high point of twentieth-century salvific science, when farmers' traditional landraces were supplanted by new, high-yielding varieties (HYVs) of cereals, especially dwarf wheats and rices, in association with chemical fertilizers and agro-chemicals, with controlled water supply (usually involving irrigation), and new methods of cultivation, including mechanization. All of these together were seen as a package of practices to supersede traditional technology and to be adopted as a whole. Cereals planted for centuries were no longer cultivated, and the seed was no longer selected and preserved. Instead, a global rice or corn bred without concern for how it suited cultural foodways was disseminated by international agencies and large corporations. It promoted food self-sufficiency while putting the farmers in the developing world in a dependency relation with multinational seed and chemical companies. Cultivators who signed onto the global initiative surrendered control over seed. Seed saving and the farmer improvement of grains and vegetables ceased.12
There are four multinational corporations that control most of the crop seed in the world—over 75 percent: Bayer, Corteva (Dow & Dupont), Chemchina, and Limagrain-Vilmorin-Mikado.13 The companies have several [End Page 107] goals: the yearly purchase of seed from the company (no farmers saving seed); the yearly purchase of a package of soil supplementations, herbicide, fungicide, and insecticide; and, the elimination of competition from other companies. The genetic engineering of seed so that crop plants cannot be replicated, the creation of plants designed to convert the chemical mixtures in fertility packages into organic matter, and the buying up of all conventional and traditional seed companies to eliminate redundancy in the offerings of plants have led to a situation in which genetic bottlenecking is the norm. Because landraces are public domain—there is no proprietary claim to them—because their seeds can be saved—and because they were bred to interact with living soil rather than sterilized fields into which a chemical supplement package has been injected, the landraces have been everything industrial agriculture regards as recherché. But because these old plant strains have root systems much more intricate than modern cultivars designed to suck up fertilizer, the landraces have a greater capacity to interact with the fungal agents, microbes, and minerals in the soil to extract and produce nutriment.14
Landraces taste better and are more nutritious. So how did the industrial farming system direct its genius to breeding less tasty and less nutritious ingredients? A capsule history of a famous watermelon will suggest why.15 In the antebellum United States, Nathaniel Napoleon Bradford crossed the Lawson watermelon, a West Indian landrace, with the Carolina Long to produce the Bradford melon. Everyone concurred that it was the finest melon ever produced. The Civil War takes place. There is one intact rail line from the South heading northward, and it goes through Augusta, GA. In the spring and summer of 1865, the farmers of the South scrambled to produce anything that would generate revenue. They shipped boxcars of Rattlesnake and Bradford watermelons to Washington Market, New York City. New Yorkers had never tasted anything so heavenly and demanded more. So, southern truck farming for northern markets was born. But there was a problem—that fork tender, one-inch rind of the Bradford might make the perfect rind pickle, but it could not support the weight of a stack of melons on top of it. Farmers could not make a profit if 40 percent of the melons that they shipped north were destroyed. What to do? Well, why not cross the Bradford or the Rattlesnake with another melon with a skin as tough as a rhino hide? The Scaly Bark. This was done: the Kolb's Gem watermelon could be stacked four deep in a boxcar with no compression. It didn't taste as good as a Bradford—but, hey, it was New Yorkers who were eating it. (We grow Bradfords in our back patch.) But the truth of the matter is that farmers put their heart where the money was, and hundreds of square miles of Georgia and South Carolina were planted with Kolb's Gem. [End Page 108] Entire counties were converted to watermelon fields. And when farmers create hundreds of square miles of just one thing, sooner or later that pest or pathogen will show up and find the promised land. This happened in 1893 when fusarium wilt appeared in southern Georgia and began wiping out hundreds of square miles of fields. The cultivators began pleading for a disease resistant melon. So the Kolb Gem was crossed with a Congo. The Bradford, best tasting melon in the U.S., had its last commercial crop in 1920 until we rediscovered it in 2011.
We see how flavor is marginalized by other matters, called by breeders, "harvestibles." But you know, someone kept the Bradford alive. There was something about its taste. And that is a truth manifested in many places around the world: if a fruit, grain, or vegetable is truly the most flavorsome or wholesome of its category, there will be some true believer somewhere who defies the international agencies, the American USDA, and the seed companies who keeps the strain alive. Sometimes, the agencies themselves do—because the qualities of some ancient things have been so superlative that they were used to breed novelties. This is what happened with the landrace rice Carolina Gold that was the staple of the southern Lowcountry from 1786 to 1918. It was a funny thing—in the 1990s, old people who had tasted the classic recipes from Charleston, SC and Savannah, GA—rice pudding, hopping john, perloo, chicken bog—found that they just didn't taste right. Not as good. They had the recipes right. The bag of rice at the grocery store had Carolina Rice printed on it. But it was a charade. It was a brand name for Cocodrie, a long grain HYV crop rice. It doesn't matter how accurate a family recipe is if the ingredients are all wrong; the taste just won't come right.
Charleston's chefs demanded that something be done. They wanted real Carolina Gold Rice. This demand was in the wake of chef Alice Waters's campaign to focus on the quality of the vegetable in cookery. Those in the culinary-know knew something was wrong—something had vanished. What had been lost? What needed to be returned? Unfortunately, these are questions that have never mattered much in agricultural history. Glenn Roberts, a miller of heirloom grains, took the initiative, founding Anson Mills and searching for survivals. Oddly enough, he found me in 2003.16 He had determined that the only way out of the quagmire was to delve into old agricultural journals and seed catalogues, to learn the growing systems that gave rise to Lowcountry cuisine. Archival research required the investigation of multitudes of sub-literary texts: grist for a book historian, not a miller or a chef. I descended into the microfilm bunker of the University of South Carolina library—three years later, I emerged with a list of what we had lost. Then, we went searching for germ plasm, trying to see if and where [End Page 109] something survived. While this story purportedly has a local focus (we were recuperating southern cooking and Lowcountry cuisine after all), the searches necessarily involved us in webs of commerce that spanned the Atlantic and the hemisphere.
Perhaps the story of our most recent recuperation will suggest something of the nature of this quest. Thomas Jefferson thought that one of his greatest accomplishments was introducing dry cultivation upland rice to the United States.17 Growing rice like a garden plant, not in a water impoundment, avoided the scourge of malaria and made rice growing affordable to farmers lacking the huge capital resources of coastal rice planters. It could be grown in the Piedmont South and not just the tidal zone of coastal rivers. It could be cultivated by any farmer with access to seed of a rice strain bred to thrive in upland settings. In the third world today, dry cultivation garden style rice (also called System of Rice Intensification or SRI cultivation) is the cutting edge of rice growing systems. Jefferson had been inspired to search out upland dry culture rice from reports on its existence in Cochin China (Vietnam) published in the 1770s. Despite diplomatic overtures, he could not secure the rice from Asia, but he learned of an upland rice growing on another continent.
In 1789, Jefferson secured upland rice from West Africa through Captain Nathaniel Cutting. This bearded rice with a red bran sheath around the grain subsequently would be distributed throughout the South. Abraham Baldwin, founder of University of Georgia, shipped seed throughout Alabama, Mississippi, and Georgia. Eventually, it spread to Tennessee and Kentucky.18 Sometime in the early twentieth century, it disappeared, driven from the landscape by cheap white rice grown in Texas and Arkansas. Though historians often speak of enslaved West Africans bringing their native glaberrima rices to the New World, all of the great crop rices (Carolina Gold, Carolina White, and their offspring) were sub-tropical Japonicas whose genetic lineage led back to South Asia—except, perhaps, for this one upland rice grown widely in the non-coastal South.
In the twenty-first century, upland bearded rice was no longer found anywhere in North America. In late 2016, The Carolina Gold Rice Foundation went looking for it as part of an effort to document and restore the African rice heritage of the South. Gullah chef B. J. Dennis and I encountered it in December in Trinidad, where it is called Merikin Hill Rice. Ethnobotanist Francis Morean had invited us to Arima, Trinidad, to participate in the Inaugural Trinidad and Tobago International Hill Rice Symposium and Festival. I went because I suspected the Hill Rice that Dr. Morean had been studying might be the lost bearded upland rice from West Africa. [End Page 110]
How did the bearded upland rice get to Trinidad? Apparently, it was taken there from coastal Georgia in 1816. During the War of 1812, the British recruited enslaved Africans to fight against their masters with the promise of liberation and settlement somewhere in the empire. These Georgia coastal recruits made up the 4th British Marine Company. In 1816, the British fulfilled their promise and settled the ex-soldiers in southern Trinidad. Since that time, they have called themselves the Merikins (i.e,. Americans) and they have grown the crops that their ancestors grew in lowcountry Georgia: benne, okra, tanya, and rice—including the bearded dry patch rice now lost in the South.
Figure 1 depicts John Eliot, a sixth generation descendent of one of the 4th regiment soldiers, working his rice field.19 How do we know that what John Elliott holds aloft in his hands is the same as the product brought to North America in 1789? Well, it is not the same, just as any sexually propagated creature introduces variability with each generation. But landraces are shaped by a traditional sense of what is pertinent in a plant. It becomes more of what made the plant originally valuable. And since Moruga Hill Rice has been bred and propagated by farmer seed selection since 1816 in Trinidad (there are no commercial suppliers of seed), there has been a communal endeavor to keep its qualities.
For an integral, traditional community of long standing to maintain a landrace is not so unusual. There are places all over the world where a favorite cereal has been kept by a district of farmers, sometimes a family. When Portugal made the island of Madeira its bread basket at the end of the fifteenth century, it secured durum wheat from Sicily. Approximately sixty landraces have survived to the present day. Some were imported in later centuries from the other parts of the Iberian empire, particularly during the era when the thrones of Portugal and Spain were combined, and numbers of landraces arose from crosses of the earliest varieties that were seed selected for qualities. These landraces became of interest for me because of the report of the early naturalist Mark Catesby, who, in the 1720s, observed the wheat being grown in the Carolina Lowcountry: "That which is propagated in Carolina, came first from the Madera Island, none being found so agreeable to this Country, it lying in a parallel Latitude. The Grain has a thinner Coat, and yields more Flour than that of England."20 The wheat of England here referenced was White May wheat, which did not thrive in the hot climates of the deep South. Durum wheat is a hard wheat, ideal for breads and pastas; White May was a soft white wheat, suited for cake, confections, and, after the invention of chemical leavening in the late eighteenth century, biscuits.
The kind of latitudinal thinking we find among the early Lowcountry planters is found in others. The Salzburgers, the group of Austrian dissenters who settled in Georgia in the 1740s, knew that the wheat of their old [End Page 111]
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home would not serve in their settlement at Ebenezer. So they used their connections to secure a landrace durum from Sicily, Timilia.21 They were the finest millers and bakers in the British American southern colonies, and their three mills produced wheat until the dissolution of their group during the American Revolution.
What happens when cultivators do not take climatic difference into consideration? Well—what happened in Virginia with the White May wheat that the colonists brought from Lincoln in England: it became prone to diseases, such as rust, and insects, such as the joint worm, and, finally, it crashed entirely in the 1820s—a genetic collapse. Disgruntled farmers in the eighteenth century, tired of the declining vitality of their wheat, secured another seed stock—one with an extremely short time to maturity. They planted it in the winter, harvesting it before it was warm enough for bugs to thrive or disease to flourish. It took on a number of names: purple straw, blue stem being the commonest, and it survived in the southern landscape from the 1770s to the 1970s, supplanted only because hybrid wheat varieties were more productive per acre. The Amish in southern Ohio still grow it. This was the original biscuit, cake, and whiskey wheat of the South.22
And, White May wheat? What happened to it? Some was brought into the American Southwest by Spanish missionaries for communion bread. It was adopted by native Americans and survived in plots in Arizona and New Mexico as Sonora White wheat. Early in the nineteenth century, Australian colonists grew the English strain, improving it, and, in the mid-nineteenth century, shipped it to California, where it was known as blue stem wheat (not to be confused with blue stem purple straw wheat). And a third trajectory: in the 1810s, some of the Virginia germ plasm was sent out to plant the fields around Fort Vancouver, the British fort and trading post in the Pacific Northwest. White May wheat was planted as Washington's major variety into the twentieth century. A USDA plant hunter secured germ plasm in 1909. Ten years ago, Richard Scheurman and the Palouose Heritage project secured seed from the USDA and restored White May in Washington state, the botanical people at Monticello in Virginia secured seed from him, and we did as well.23 But if it crashed 200 years ago, then I'm in no way sanguine about how it will prosper now.
I have told this story because three landraces of White May wheat crossed the globe and the continent to survive into the twenty-first century. Since it was one of England's staples and extensively grown for centuries, we can look at the genetic deviation of these three strains from material secured by thatch archaeologists in Great Britain. And what do we find? As with all landraces, the populations possess some genetic diversity. This is what allows the plants to adapt to conditions more readily than modern hybridized [End Page 113] varieties. But the family resemblance remains pronounced. Furmity—wheat porridge (cream of wheat) made from the three different populations—tastes exactly the same. Can the flavors of the eighteenth century still be tasted? Yes.
David S. Shields is the Carolina Distinguished Professor at the University of South Carolina and Chairman of The Carolina Gold Rice Foundation. He is the 2018 Slow Food USA Snailblazer for Biodiversity. His most recent book, The Culinarians: Lives and Careers from the First Age of American Fine Dining (2017) was 2018 finalist for the James Beard book award for Food Scholarship. His previous book Southern Provisions (2015) earned him the Southern Foodways Alliance "Keeper of the Flame" honor.
1. Widget Finn, "The turbulent history of the mulberry," The Telegraph (10 September 2015); Lifestyle, 1. This newspaper story sparked a major increase in tourist visitation of the various mulberry sites in England.
2. Denise Gigante, Taste: A Literary History (New Haven: Yale Univ. Press, 2005), 140–41, 166–72.
3. Katharine Stanley Nicholson surveyed all of the important old stone fruits standing from the colonial period in Historical American Trees (New York: Frye Publishing, 1922), 96. Of the pear trees discussed—The Stuyvesant Pear Tree (1644) on 18th Street in Manhattan, the Old French Pear Trees in Water Works Park in Detroit (1722), the Petre Pear Tree in Bartram's Garden in Philadelphia (1760), the original Seckel Pear south of Philadelphia (1819)—only the Endicott Pear in Danvers, Massachusetts now stands. S. P. Flower supplied the background of the tree in "Gov. Endicott as Horticulturist," The New England Farmer 4, no. 9 (September 1852), 429–30.
5. Rowan Jacobson, Apples of Uncommon Character: 123 Heirlooms, Modern Classics, & Little-Known Wonders (New York: Bloomsbury, 2014), 137.
6. Noel Kingsbury, Hybrid, the History and Science of Plant Breeding (Chicago: Univ. of Chicago Press, 2014), 55–76.
7. Mission: The Carolina Gold Rice Foundation is committed to rebuilding the fundamentals of local culinary heritage through scholarship, research, farming, exploration, pro bono rare seed distribution, and good wholesome food: http://www.thecarolinagoldricefoundation.org/.
8. I documented the historical reasons for the marginalization of flavor in plant breeding for commercial scale food production in Southern Provisions: the Creation and Revival of a Cuisine (Chicago: Univ. of Chicago Press, 2015).
9. John McQuaid, Tasty, the Art and Science of What We Eat (New York: Scribner, 2016), 17–23.
10. A term in use in biology since 1908, landrace is summarized in Francesc Casañas, Joan Simó, Joan Casals, and Jaime Prohens, "Toward an Evolved Concept of Landrace," Frontiers of Plant Science 8, no. 145 (6 February 2017): https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC5296298/.
11. Mexico's maize legacy is overseen by the International Maize and Wheat Improvement Center (CIMMYT). Forty-five of the landraces appear on the organization's homepage: https://www.cimmyt.org/maize-from-mexico-to-the-world/.
12. This critique of the cost of green revolution being the loss of biodiversity was first fully formulated in Vandana Shiva, Monocultures of the Mind: Perspectives on Biodiversity and Biotechnology (London & New York: Zed Books Ltd., 1993).
13. Phil Howard of Michigan State has mapped the commercial ecology of the world seed industry: https://philhoward.net/2018/12/31/global-seed-industry-changes-since-2013/.
14. Alexander Shaposhnikov, A. I. Morgounov, Beyhan Akin, I. A. Tikhonovich, "Comparative Characteristics of Root Systems and Root Exudation of Synthetic, Landrace, and Modern Wheat Varieties," Agricultural Biology (January 2016), 68–78.
15. Jill Neimark, "Saving the Sweetest Watermelon the South Has Ever Known," The Salt (National Public Radio, 19 May 2015): https://www.npr.org/sections/thesalt/2015/05/19/407949182/saving-the-sweetest-watermelon-the-south-hasever-known.
16. Glenn Roberts articulated his vision of the ingredient revival in a series of videos published by Big Think in 2010: https://bigthink.com/videos/the-miller-who-tilts-at-windmills. Anson Mills remains the foremost miller of landrace grains in the United States: http://ansonmills.com/.
17. Lucia Stanton, "Rice," Thomas Jefferson Encyclopedia. Originally published as "Cultivating Missionaries," in Spring Dinner at Monticello, April 12, 1990, in Memory of Thomas Jefferson (Charlottesville: Thomas Jefferson Foundation, 1990): https://www.monticello.org/site/house-and-gardens/rice.
18. David S. Shields, "The Merikans of Trinidad Preserve Upland Bearded Rice," News Feed, The Carolina Gold Rice Foundation (27 December 2016): http://www.thecarolinagoldricefoundation.org/news/.
19. Kim Severson, "Finding a Lost Strain of Rice, and Clues to Slave Cooking," The New York Times (13 February 2018): https://www.nytimes.com/2018/02/13/dining/hill-rice-slave-history.html.
20. Mark Catesby, Natural History of Carolina, Florida, and the Bahama Islands (London, 1729–1747), xviii.
21. Samuel Urisperger, George Fenwick Jones, Renate Wilson, Detailed Reports on the Salzburger Immigrants who Settled in America, 17 vols. (Athens, GA: Univ. of Georgia Press, 1968), 11: 44.
22. Dan Nosowitz, "University Farmers Bring Heirloom Purple Wheat Back From Brink of Extinction," Modern Farmer (22 June 2016): https://modernfarmer.com/2016/06/purple-straw-wheat/.