CLEMSON — For David S. Shields, history is a banquet.
The scholar has explored life in the antebellum South by researching its crops, meals and the people who prepared them.
The Carolina Distinguished Professor in the College of Arts and Sciences of the University of South Carolina will speak at 4 p.m. Oct. 4 in room 118 of the Academic Success Center at Clemson University. His talk “Foodways, Folkways, and Flavors” is one of the Humanities Hub events made possible by the Clemson Humanities Advancement Board.
In the address, Shields will focus on how the current revival of certain heirloom vegetables and landrace grains is tied to the retention of flavors that various cultures developed through hundreds of years of seed selection.
Shields said these vegetables and locally adapted grains are resources of extraordinary interest to chefs. The foods also have attracted recent attention from geneticists who wish to restore flavor to current crops such as tomatoes, where flavor has been marginalized by breeding that focused on other traits.
A taste for history
Shields was well known for his scholarship on early American culture, photographic history and other subjects before his attention turned to food.
“Everyone’s life is touched by food, and the experience of food touches upon pleasure, cultural identity, nourishment, well-being and commerce,” Shields said, “so its cultural importance commands attention.”
He has published more than 80 articles and a dozen books, including the landmark history “Southern Provisions: The Creation and Revival of a Cuisine” (University of Chicago Press, 2015). And beyond his writings, Shields has made tangible, edible contributions to Southern cuisine.
In 2003, Anson Mills founder Glenn Roberts enlisted him for research that would enable the restoration of heirloom rice and other historical Lowcountry grains. Shields dug in, combing all of the surviving agricultural literature.
After three years of systematic reading, he knew of all the crops that had once been famous but had become supplanted over time. “We then set about searching for the germ plasm, or the plants themselves,” Shields said.
Clemson University scientists Stephen Kresovich, Amy Lawton-Rauh and Brian Ward of Clemson University have all been instrumental in this large-scale project, Shields said.
Shields serves as chair of the Carolina Gold Rice Foundation board and the Slow Food: Ark of Taste for the South project.
Through his research and hands-on work, the Carolina Gold Rice Foundation has been able to save and market many of the key ingredients of traditional Southern cuisine, including Carolina Gold Rice, benne, the Carolina African Runner Peanut, Sea Island White Flint Corn, the Bradford Watermelon and Purple Ribbon Sugar Cane.
These lost foods are remarkable not only for their past importance in diets, but also for their rich flavors. Carolina Gold Rice, for example, is a nutty and versatile grain that can be cooked into fluffy pilafs, creamy risottos or prepared in the style of Asian sticky rice.
Like a detective, Shields has investigated recovered heirloom seeds to trace histories of migration.
His research also has recovered the stories of people who were important culinary forces in their time. His new book, ”The Culinarians: Lives and Careers From the First Age of American Fine Dining,” will be released Oct. 24 by the University of Chicago Press.
Shields has assembled brief biographies of 175 cooks and restaurateurs who were America’s tastemakers between 1790 and 1919.
Some figures, like Nat Fuller, made their mark while enslaved. Shields described him as “a visionary man.”
Fuller became the master of Charleston’s game market, the city’s chief event caterer and a restaurateur, all while he remained in bondage. At the end of the Civil War, the newly liberated Fuller hosted a reconciliation feast at his restaurant, seating the city’s white and black citizens side by side.
Shields also recounts the remarkable career of the French-trained chef Jules Arthur Harder.
Harder worked at the two greatest restaurants in the country, Delmonico’s and the Maison Doree in New York City. He spent a year learning Southern cooking in Savannah in the 1870s. Moving on to California, he became the first chef of San Francisco’s flagship hotel, The Palace, and instructed farmers about what vegetables to grow and how to grow them. Harder wrote “The Physiology of Taste,” the only comprehensive cookbook about the preparation of vegetables that was produced in the 19th century. He opened the first luxury hotel restaurant in Los Angeles and ended his career in Hawaii imaging what its cuisine might be.
“There are many memorable Culinarians,” Shields said, “but for me, one of the ones who matters most is Jules Arthur Harder.”
Shields at Clemson
David S. Shields’ Oct. 4 talk, “Foodways, Folkways, and Flavors,” is free and open to the public.
The Humanities Hub, created in 2016, aims to advance the outreach, scholarship and teaching of the humanities at Clemson. A schedule of upcoming events is available on the Hub website and Facebook page.