David Shields a finalist for James Beard Media Award – WLTX.com

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Retired University of South Carolina professor Dr. David Shields talks about his latest book

COLUMBIA, S.C. — David Shields is a recently retired professor of English at the University of South Carolina and an author of several books related to Southern food. His latest, The Ark of Taste: Delicious and Distinctive Foods that Define the United States, is a finalist for the 2024 James Beard Media Awards in the Reference, History, and Scholarship category.

This is Shields’ second nomination in that category. In 2017, his collection of biographies of 175 American chefs, The Culinarians, was also a James Beard Media Award finalist.

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The Slow Food Ark of Taste is a catalogue of food ingredients that were once thought to be lost to the world, but through careful research have been reintroduced to production.

Shields explains, “Slow Food, of course, is the movement which is interested in just, fair, and good food. It’s an international movement that was founded in Italy. And a number of years ago, the head of Slow Food decided that there should be a global register of the most historically significant, flavorful and endangered foods and a special effort made to recognize them, and to save it by eating to sort of promote their quality.”

There are approximately 6,000 items in the global Ark of Taste, and about 600 in the United States. Shields’ book highlights the most significant foods from each region in the country.

Shields describes himself as a “very odd English professor” in that he specializes in the literature of agriculture.

“I read everything that was written about farms, from seed catalogs, to ag journals and celebrations of rural life,” he says.

Shields recalls when Glenn Roberts, of Anson Mills, reached out to him in 2003 on the prospect of bringing back Carolina Gold rice, “(Roberts) said, ‘I want to bring back Carolina Gold rice, the classic rice of the Lowcountry, into cultivation and to use. And I also want to bring back all of the other ingredients that were grown along with it. But we’ve lost so much, that we don’t know what to bring back and you do research, maybe you could help us.’ And so I had, you know, one of those moments where I thought, you know, go down into the library, maybe do a month of work and have free restaurant dinners for the remainder of the year or something like that. But I went down and discovered I was really in need of some education in order to understand what I was looking at. And it took me three years. But after that we had 46 ingredients, which had been sort of standard elements of the food of South Carolina. And we formed a foundation, the Carolina Gold Rice Foundation. And we started looking for them, because most of them were functionally extinct.”

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So how does one go about trying to find something that everyone thinks is gone off the face of the Earth?

“It’s a very interesting question,” replied Shields, “because the answer is not the same for every category of item.

“One of the things we did, we checked all of the seed banks and germ plasm catalogs and some of the things actually did survive there. That’s where Carolina Gold rice survived, for instance. But other times, we actually went on campaigns.”

For example, “The South had one kind of cherry, the Dye House cherry, which I talked about in the Ark of Taste,” said Shields. “And I got in touch with every county agent in Kentucky. We went on the radio, and finally, a man named Dan Dutton in Somerset, who was an artist who worked for Rookwood Pottery, called up and said, ‘I’ve got a tree on my family land, and I think it may be the Dye House cherry’. So, I zoomed down to Somerset and he served me a Dye House cherry pie and sure enough, that was it. And it began the revival of this one type of sour cherry. That is Appalachians’ signature cherry that was offered by every nursery from the 1870s to about World War II and then the entire cherry industry was taken by Michigan and the Pacific Northwest.”

Sometimes a fruit or vegetable or other ingredient may go out of favor because of its commercial value on the market. In the case of the Dye House cherry, Shields says, “once Michigan decided to cover entire counties with orchards of Montmorency cherries, and could offer a sour cherry canned, that undercut even fresh produce cherries from your local producers by half the price. The market for local cherries just died. And it wasn’t until the revival of heirlooms and the late 1990s and 20 years ago, when people wanted to taste their place, the things that they grew up with the type of collards, the turnips, that they had the kinds of cow peas, and the kinds of fruit. You know, who loves those Dye House cherries the most? The preserve makers and pie makers of Appalachia who are looking for a product that they can say ‘this is ours,’ and it’s different from anything else you get anyplace else in the United States.”

In South Carolina, Ark of Taste ingredients include the American Guinea hog, Cocke’s Prolific corn, Bradford watermelon, Carolina Gold rice, Dutch Fork pumpkin, and the Carolina African Runner peanut.

Shields says one of the questions he’s asked the most is where to get heirloom plants. He says, “There are categories of plants which are cheap. Heirloom cow peas, Sea Island red peas, purple hull peas… All these wonderful old Southern peas are available. They don’t cost you very much. And most of the varieties of turnips that you get …those are classics, and most collards that you grow are heirlooms. So those are things not going to empty your wallet, and they’ll make dinner just fine.”

He also offers this advice, printed on the back of The Ark of Taste, “eat it to save it because if you eat it, you like it, save a seed.”

Where to buy heirloom seeds:

Sow True Seed: Asheville, NC sowtrueseed.com

Heavenly Seed: Anderson, SC heavenlyseed.net

Southern Exposure Seed Exchange: Mineral, Virginia www.southernexposure.com

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