Home / General / Book Review: David S. Shields, Southern Provisions: The Creation and Revival of a Cuisine

Book Review: David S. Shields, Southern Provisions: The Creation and Revival of a Cuisine



David Shields is a food historian of the South, particularly the Carolina lowcountry, who has spent more than a decade working specifically on the recovery of Carolina Gold rice, a nearly lost breed central to Carolina cooking, particularly before 1900. He builds upon that work in Southern Provisions to provide a series of essays on southern food traditions, with an emphasis on the pre-industrial South. Shields’ primary concern is recovering and contextualizing the lost breeds of the agricultural South as his contribution to the larger project of revitalizing and recovering southern cuisine in all its complexities, fighting against the stereotype of it, outside of Louisiana, as nothing but BBQ and grits. Although he’s English professor at the University of South Carolina, he works in the primary sources and generally writes solid history. The breeding of plants in the 19th century South was exceptional. Early in the book, he lists the notes of a mid-19th century Georgia breeder, discussing 25 different pea breeds for their qualities. Of course, these are almost entirely lost to us today.

Shields however doesn’t make a fetish about lost breeds or tradition. In his chapter on truck farming, he notes that the goal of recovering the best of lost southern cuisine is about taste and as post-Civil War South Carolina farmers produced strawberries to ship to the north, they focused on breeds that would stand the trip more than taste. There’s not anything per se of culinary value there. Moreover, he dismisses those who don’t want to improve on his beloved Carolina Gold, because tradition for tradition’s sake will not keep rare breeds on the market. Shields is part of a movement focusing on breeding for taste and nothing else, one that reflects the water and soil of a particular place, something only recoverable with several plantings of organics to leech the pesticides and fertilizer out of the soil.

Fundamentally, reading about old recipes is just interesting. There’s a recipe for “Turkey, Oyster Sauce” that sounds like it would be good enough to make Thanksgiving a day not to dread if oysters were as common as in 1860. Basically you stuff the turkey with oysters, steam it, thicken the oyster gravy, add some cream, and pour it over the turkey. The chapter on everyday pre-Civil War food like possum and greens is just as fascinating, as are the various 19th century breakfast recipes using Carolina Gold.

It’s in the book’s final chapter that Shields’ real mission is best articulated. Titled, “The Return of the Tastes,” he makes a strong case for growing particular crops not to maximize nutritional value, but for taste, for understanding how soil can affect a crop, for cultural heritage. This doesn’t mean that all modern food is bad or worthless, but it states the inherent benefits of growing breeds for maximum flavor and preserving those breeds to produce a historically-grounded cuisine that tastes good. Shields is obviously frustrated with the current state of agricultural policy (for good reason) but also believes that once people taste this food, they will want more of it and that will help these breeds survive.

One rather major quibble. For a book that largely paints the pre-Civil War South in a positive manner, I am naturally going to examine the discussion of slavery and the plantation elite, who largely are his protagonists. It grates. Although I do not believe he is a native southerner, as he mentions his move from the Hudson Valley to South Carolina, his sympathies really are with those planters. For instance, in his chapter discussing a gigantic meal served at an elite Charleston club in 1860, he notes how it was discussed in a New York “sporting journal,” which I assume to mean a horse racing journal:

For the plantocracy to appear in a northern periodical as a class of humane, intelligent, and companionable human beings in 1860 was something of a minor miracle. The abolitionist press in the North had invested years of energy to envisioning the great planters as violent, grasping creatures of passion, sadistically obsessed with oppressing slaves. The Spirit of the Times supplied a rare discursive spaces in which the southern elite shared values of civility, good taste, sociability, and a love of sport with like-minded persons in other sections of the country. In the periodical’s pages, Saratoga Springs was in the same cultural vicinity as Washington Park. (133)

The problems with this paragraph are legion. I don’t have to go deep into the historiography to refute these points, I just have to link to the book reviews of other random books I have reviewed at this site. First, horse racing was a space where northern and southern elites often met and mingled. Second, the connections between cotton and violence are well-documented. Whether sadistic or not, South Carolina planters wrested every last drop of profit out of their slaves. Denying or trivializing that does no one any good, especially the author. Third, the idea that the North was completely filled with abolitionists demonizing the South was just not true, not when you had a whole generation of northern Democratic politicians and their newspapers more than willing to serve the slave masters’ cause. And if the abolitionists were envisioning the “great” planters as violent sadists, good! Many of them were.

So that’s a problem. That’s not to say that Shields doesn’t give African Americans and Native Americans some credit for their role in developing southern cuisine. In his chapter on citrus on the Florida coast, he notes how what Europeans thought was a wild, native orange was the descendants of Spanish-planted oranges Native Americans brought north, but here again, his hero is a white ex-Confederate citrus breeder named Colonel F.L. Dancy. He also writes on how Charleston lacked a decent fish market or tradition of cooking fish until the African-American Charles Leslie developed one during Reconstruction, building an empire because now black people could choose their own work and diets and because he sought to expand the number of species available for consumption through working closely with fishing crews.

In the end, this is a pretty interesting group of essays. Yes, it’s marred a bit by the author sympathizing with his subjects a bit too much, a problem when those subjects are slaveholders who would commit treason to defend slavery. But anyone interested in American food cultures will like Southern Provisions.

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  • J. Otto Pohl

    In the over five years I have lived in West Africa I think I have come across the indigineous original of a lot of popular Southern US food. Fried chicken, okro stew, rice, groundnuts, and watermelon are all extremely common foods here.

    • BiloSagdiyev

      Yep. Many of the crops, and the expertise in how to grow them, were brought from there to here. (The latter in the form of certain slaves.)

      • The Dark God of Time

        My Chinese ancestors were eating watermelon when Jottos’ were bitching about not being selected for replacement training by the village shaman.

        • galanx

          The watermelon is thought to have originated in southern Africa, where it is found growing wild. It reaches maximum genetic diversity there, with sweet, bland and bitter forms. In the 19th century, Alphonse de Candolle[1] considered the watermelon to be indigenous to tropical Africa.[2] Citrullus colocynthis is often considered to be a wild ancestor of the watermelon and is now found native in north and west Africa. However, it has been suggested on the basis of chloroplast DNA investigations, that the cultivated and wild watermelon diverged independently from a common ancestor, possibly C. ecirrhosus from Namibia.[3]

          Evidence of its cultivation in the Nile Valley has been found from the second millennium BC onward. Watermelon seeds have been found at Twelfth Dynasty sites and in the tomb of Pharaoh Tutankhamun.[4]

          In the 7th century, watermelons were being cultivated in India and by the 10th century had reached China, which is today the world’s single largest watermelon producer.

          Tell me, oh expert in the wisdom of your ancestors, what is ‘watermelon’ in Chinese? Oh right, ‘xi gua” , that is, “western melon”; something introduced into China from the west.

      • Quite Likely

        How / why were the crops brought over? Did slaves somehow do so themselves, or were slave traders bringing them over as an additional thing to sell?

        • BiloSagdiyev

          My fuzzy memory of it all is that it was quite intentional. “Get me some of those tribe, who can grow these crops.”

    • Thom

      The groundnuts (peanuts) came from the New World, though. Influence, along with plants, animals and people, have moved in both directions.

      • J. Otto Pohl

        I thought they came from Africa. But, of course cassava, plantains, maize, tomatoes, and chili peppers came to Africa from the New World as did cacao. Absent the Columbian exchange Ghanaian food is reduced to millet with no peppers to flavor it.;-)

        • Thom

          Yes, I have often had the same thought about pre-Columbian European food.

          • delazeur

            The Roman idea of a pastry was bread baked with (what we would call) white flour rather than whole wheat.

  • BGinCHI

    “Although he’s [an] English professor at the University of South Carolina, he works in the primary sources and generally writes solid history.”

    As opposed to his colleagues, who write about medieval and early modern literary history by making shit up.

    Geez, Erik, really?

    • Richard Hershberger

      I wondered about that, too, I think the distinction is between an English professor, who would be expected to be involved in an ongoing discussion with his predecessors about some primary text, and a history professor, who would be expected to comment directly on a collection of primary sources, albeit informed by his predecessors. The point seems to be that, even though this guy is an English professor, here he is using the tools more typically used by historians. But yeah, the wording was not entirely winsome.

      • Thom

        Since the development of the New Historicism in literary studies, however, there is a lot of overlap between the work of literary scholars and historians.

      • so-in-so

        When I was in college (many years ago) the results when an English professor decided to dip into “history” in a lecture would have either amused or horrified any member of the history faculty. Most likely the latter.

        • BGinCHI

          Anecdotes starring idiots are really useful for proving something, though I don’t know what.

          • so-in-so

            The original argument seemed to be it was unsurprising that ANY English professor was equipped to produce solid history.

            The anecdote shows that somewhere, at sometime, there was at least one historically ignorant English professor. Sorry I’m unaware of any statistical analysis of the competent historians working in English departments.

          • delazeur

            What is the experience of life but a collection of anecdotes?

            • Life’s but a collection of anecdotes; it is a tale
              Told by an unreliable narrator, signifying tenure.

              • The Temporary Name

                That’s great.

                • so-in-so

                  But have they lighted fools the way to dusty death? Have they?

                  +3 weird sisters for Lee, by the by.

        • Thom

          When I was in college (early to mid 70s), professors in English and in Philosophy were completely uninterested in the historical context in which the works they discussed were created.

    • If I wrote a book of literary criticism and a professor of English reviewed it, I would expect said professor to comment on the matter.

      • BGinCHI

        All English professors who research and write work with historical materials, to a greater or lesser extent. And if, like me, you are an early modernist, you work with primary historical/archival materials a great deal.

        Not all historians work on subjects that entail literary materials, but some certainly do, and I’m glad they do. Hayden White obviously comes to mind, and lots of French historians, and the work of Paul Strohm, for example, is a terrific example of a historian who does vital work with literary texts.

        Reviews of Strohm’s works might acknowledge that he is a historian, but they would never do this to lessen or qualify negatively his work in literary studies.

        There is lots I’m leaving out, but literary scholarship is by its nature historical. If there is work on literary texts that ignores historical context, it doesn’t mean that it is “proper literary criticism.” The New Criticism’s efforts to hermetically seal the work from the world were a station on the line, and no one is going there any more.

        • delazeur

          You seem to be enjoying getting upset about this, but it’s a stretch to claim his comment is a criticism of literary scholarship in general. (Perhaps you are uncharitable because you dislike Loomis; I’ll say that I’m not a huge fan myself, but that doesn’t mean I will simply write off anything he has to say.)

          Loomis said that Shields “works in the primary sources” and “writes solid history” despite being an English professor. That means that Loomis believes that Shields’s work generally meets the standards of the historical discipline despite the fact that he is a member of another discipline. Do you disagree that different disciplines have different methods and standards? Do you have any real grounding for your assertion that the historical context provided in literary criticism meets the standards of professional historians? (E.g., have you published well-reviewed works of history unrelated to literary criticism?) Given the modern fad of calling everything “interdisciplinary,” do you believe that a collaboration between a historian and a literary critic is not interdisciplinary?

  • BGinCHI

    Aside from the backhanded compliment above, this is a great post about an important foodways writer. Shields, John T. Edge, Sue Bailey Thurman, and others have made important contributions to understanding the history and importance of southern food and folk traditions, especially in the Af-Am community.

    Also worth reading is Judith Carney’s Black Rice: The African Origins of Rice Cultivation in the Americas (Harvard UP, 2002).

  • BiloSagdiyev

    A decent article about this rice’s revival can be found here:


    It is a nice rice. And if you are in the Myrtle Beach-to-Georgetown area, you can buy it at Pawley’s Island General Store! <— BLATANT SELF-INTERESTED PLUG

    As for that author not getting it, Oh! The mansions! With huge spaces for entertaining! And elaborate spreads of food for guests! Uh, yeah, I’d sure like to get all Dennis the Constitutional Peasant on this guy. I say we make him write another book, take all the money, and if that book sells, make him write another book, and if he doesn’t like that, we whip him!

  • BiloSagdiyev

    Meanwhile, in Minnesota, some Ojibwe are harvesting the native rice and making a living from it:


    • Thom

      As indigenous people did in various parts of the New World since precolonial times. See Walter Hawthorne, From Africa to Brazil (which also modifies Carney’s Black Rice thesis by showing that in Amazonia, African labor was deskilled, and rice was grown using Portuguese techniques, even though the enslaved people came from a culture in Upper Guinea that had long grown rice using elaborate systems of dikes and controlling water flow.

      • delazeur

        As indigenous people did in various parts of the New World since precolonial times.

        What time period are you describing as “precolonial?” There was no rice in the Americas before European contact.

        • BiloSagdiyev


          “Wild rice (also called Canada rice, Indian rice, and water oats) are four species of grasses forming the genus Zizania, and the grain that can be harvested from them. The grain was historically gathered and eaten in both North America and China. While it is now a delicacy in North America, the grain is eaten less in China,[2]:165 where the plant’s stem is used as a vegetable.

          Wild rice is not directly related to Asian rice (Oryza sativa), whose wild progenitors are O. rufipogon and O. nivara, although they are close cousins, sharing the tribe Oryzeae. Wild rice grains have a chewy outer sheath with a tender inner grain that has a slightly vegetal taste.”

    • Jhoosier

      I’ve always wondered about rice in the Americas. How did it get there? Did humans carry it over from Asia? Because it doesn’t seem terribly useful in the Arctic.

      • The Dark God of Time

        The migration to the Americas took place well before rice was cultivated as a crop.

        Rice is not native to the Americas but was introduced to Latin America and the Caribbean by European colonizers at an early date. Spanish colonizers introduced Asian rice to Mexico in the 1520s at Veracruz; and the Portuguese and their African slaves introduced it at about the same time to colonial Brazil.[65] Recent scholarship suggests that enslaved Africans played an active role in the establishment of rice in the New World and that African rice was an important crop from an early period.[66] Varieties of rice and bean dishes that were a staple dish along the peoples of West Africa remained a staple among their descendants subjected to slavery in the Spanish New World colonies, Brazil and elsewhere in the Americas.[50]


      • Thom

        There are many species of rice. Rice was domesticated in East Asia (that is the kind of rice most of us now eat) and in West Africa (different species, reddish in color and doesn’t mill as well). The rices in the New World were not domesticated.

    • Wild rice isn’t really related to what we think of as rice — it’s another form of grass seed.

  • Jhoosier

    I’ve only listened to a few episodes, but the podcast Gravy deals with southern cuisine and how it’s changing. One really good one dealt with Thai food in one of the Carolinas. I need to listen to more, since I’ll be driving from Indy to Savannah to stay with family this summer. I need to find some foodie places to visit. We’ll be travelling the Interstate down, and I think we’re meant to stay a week on Tybee (island?), so recommendations are welcome.

    Link: https://www.southernfoodways.org/gravy-format/gravy-podcast/

    • Romanes Eunt Domus

      This is a little bit late but here are some great places to eat in Savannah and Tybee (it’s formally Tybee Island but everyone in the area calls it Tybee):

      -Sisters of the New South for soul food, it’s a short drive from downtown, off of Victory.
      -Sandfly BBQ at the Streamliner, just on the edge of the historic district.
      -Coffee Fox for good coffee drinks downtown.
      -Zunzi’s for sandwiches (pro-tip: avoid them at lunch, call in and order sandwiches from Zunzi’s 2 for dinner).
      -Pizza: Vinnie Van Gogos, Sweet Melissa’s are both good.
      -Angel’s BBQ is excellent and tucked away in the heart of the historic district.
      -PJ Thai is the best in town.
      -Pink House Restaurant for an evening event—what most people think of as “southern food” but very good.
      -Cotton Exchange for shrimp and grits, or Alligator Soul.
      -Fire just off of Bull for Asian-inspired street food.
      -Goose Feathers for lunch, but they close early (I believe 2:30pm).

      -North Beach Grill is one of the best.
      -Tybee Social Club is up and down depending on how they are doing. I’ve had one of the few good burritos outside of the Southwest there.
      -Huck-a-poos has great pizza.
      -Fish Camp is great.
      -Breakfast Club does great breakfast, just make sure to get there early if it’s a weekend.

      -Paula Deen

      Hope this helps. Savannah is one of the great food cities in the country, so ask other locals when you get there.

  • Richard Hershberger

    Writing of a New York sporting journal in 1860 named “Spirit of the Times” is surprisingly ambiguous. There are three possible publications this could be describing. Their publication histories are intertwined and complicated, and confusion among modern writers is not uncommon. For our purposes, however, it doesn’t really matter which of the three is under discussion. The oldest of them started out as primarily a horse racing journal, but it always dabbled in other sporting activities such as boxing, hunting or quoits (which was inexplicably popular, including among the upper classes). The 1850s saw a massive increase in interest in sports of various types, so by 1860 The Spirit of the Times (whichever one we mean) would have ample coverage of stuff like rowing and yachting (collectively, “aquatics”), cricket, baseball, “athletics” (what we would call “track and field” today), etc. But racing (both thoroughbred and harness racing (then called “trotting”) were still major parts–a strong plurality, if not an actual majority–of what was covered.

    And yes, the idea that the horse racing community was a hotbed of abolitionism is risible.

  • Origami Isopod

    A foodie with blinders on about social justice issues? I am shocked, shocked.

  • mch

    Belle Waring has just started a really interesting conversation at Crooked Timber on related matters. On other occasions she has written there about the careful records kept by ancestors (by one female ancestor in particular, as I recall) who owned a large plantation in South Carolina — records about rice planting, cultivation, so forth.

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