Peanuts, Potatoes, and Plantations: Southern Foodways on the WPAMC Field Study

The finished product of our cooking demonstration at Gullah Grub Restaurant in St. Helena Island, South Carolina

A Gullah shrimp boil, prepared in front of us by local chef Bill Green on St. Helena’s Island, South Carolina

The Southern field study encouraged WPAMC fellows to continue expanding our definitions of material culture—specifically thinking about foodways as an expression of history and heritage. From the soil to the table, growers and cooks represent the craftspeople in the study of foodways. While other forms of material culture survive intact for study, food can be fleeting and ephemeral. We consume much of the evidence, often leaving bones and plant matter to survive in the archaeological record. Our experiences in the South showed us that foodways connect many disciplines including history, horticulture, agriculture, and anthropology. Recipes, oral histories, food preparation implements, and heritage plants and animals all provide rich sources of information for scholars to study.

The fellows and trip leader Tom Guiler look over a rice field at the Clemson University Coastal Research and Education Center.

Visiting a rice field planted with heirloom varieties at the Clemson University Coastal Research and Education Center

In Charleston, South Carolina we spent time with foodways historian Dr. David Shields of the University of South Carolina. Dr. Shields took us to the Clemson University Coastal Research and Education Center outside of Charleston. There, we met one of the Center’s research specialists, Dr. Brian Ward, who showed us where researchers are growing historic South Carolina crops such as the Bradford Watermelon, African Runner Peanut, and Carolina Gold Rice.

What were a bunch of material culture students doing on a research farm? Well, studying heritage crops helps us understand what people ate and how they prepared it. Heritage crops act as a form of primary source evidence. Historic foodways make more sense when you can understand factors like what it takes to grow the crops, and how they taste, feel, and look. Contemporary interpretations of heritage crops and historic recipes capture people’s imaginations by providing a sense of place and tradition through food. We saw the intersection of history and science at work in the identification and cultivation of heritage crops.

Drs. David Shields and Brian Ward show the group harvested Carolina Gold Rice. Photo credit Catharine Dann Rober

Drs. David Shields and Brian Ward show the group harvested Carolina Gold Rice. Photo by Catharine Dann Roeber

Dr. Shields also joined us for lunch at Husk, a restaurant known for regional dishes and ingredients, like stone ground corn in skillet baked cornbread, shrimp and Edisto grits, and South Carolina heirloom tomatoes. Chefs, historians, scientists, and growers are all part of the process of recreating historic food ways. The historian figures out what was grown when and where, while the growers and scientists reintroduce heritage crops to regions where they were historically grown. Local chefs intrigued by flavor, create historically inspired contemporary dishes that draw from methods of historical food preparation.

Our Lunch guest David Shields contributed to the menu at Husk. Benne is the Southern term for Sesame Seeds.

One of David Shields’ rescued heirloom crops, benne or sesame seeds, appeared on the menu at lunch

While in the low country of South Carolina, we spent an afternoon experiencing another form of historic food interpretation with Gullah chef Bill Green at his restaurant on St. Helena Island. Bill showed us traditional methods of Gullah cooking with fresh ingredients and a ready smile. Bill has a passion for encouraging young people in the preservation of Gullah tradition by teaching them gardening and traditional Gullah cookery. While putting together his shrimp boil, Bill taught us that love and kindness are the most important ingredients in any dish.

Gullah Grub Restaurant in St. Helena Island, South Carolina

Bill Green’s Gullah Grub Restaurant on St. Helena Island, South Carolina

Our Charleston experience showcased university and commercial collaboration, while Bill’s cooking at Gullah Grub featured one person who draws from personal memories of how food was grown and prepared through Gullah tradition. Bill does a lot of the same things that Husk, Clemson, and David Shields do in capturing heritage and tradition through contemporary interpretations of traditional Gullah cooking.

Bill Green prepares a Gullah shrimp boil for the fellows at his restaurant Gullah Grub in St. Helena South Carolina.

Bill Green preparing a Gullah shrimp boil for the Fellows at the St. Helena Food Center

Pulling these experiences together, the fellows discovered the importance of understanding where and when food comes from. While the physical product is long since digested, we can learn more about historic foodways through the preservation of heritage crops, the exploration of traditional cooking methods, and the interpretation of historic growing sites. From growers, to chefs, to consumers, the materiality of food and food preparation is an integral part of the fabric of our cultural experience, and it was fascinating to learn more about Southern culture through food.

By Sarah Berndt, WPAMC Class of 2017


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