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

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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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