As originally appeared in the Charleston Post & Courier, 7/22/16.
(Editor’s note: South Carolina Chef Ambassador Forrest Parker, most recently of Old Village Post House, sent this report from Iowa.)
by Forrest Parker
It’s a testament to seed savers’ enthusiasm that when David Shields posted on Facebook a speech he planned to deliver at one of their most anticipated annual meetings, he could be sure many of them would read it in advance. “I think I’m going to deviate from the script,” Shields joked when I asked him about it. “That may shake things up a bit.”
Shields, Carolina Distinguished Professor at the University of South Carolina, was in Decorah, Iowa with Glenn Roberts, founder and chief visionary of Anson Mills, the Columbia, S.C.-based heirloom grain company. They came for the annual Seed Savers Exchange Conference and Campout, a June 15-17 gathering of “impassionistas” dedicated to the preservation and exchange of heirloom and vegetables, grains and legumes, sometimes known as “landrace.”
“Landraces are the cultivars that embody the wishes of hundreds of generations of human culture; they are the books of preliterate societies, the selections of seeds that have come down to the present age,” Shields said.
Seed exchangers and preservationists convened from across New England, the Midwest and from as as far away as Napa Valley. They’ve been gathering for 36 years to hear high-level overviews of apple culture; attend workshops on tomato breeding and take deep dives into preserving seed biosecurity. Seemingly all of the attendees waited eagerly for the keynote address by Roberts and Shields.
The head of the Seed Savers Exchange, John Torgrimson, arranged for them to deliver the keynote address. “We really hit the jackpot!” he said after seeing Roberts on the Charleston episode of Anthony Bourdain’s “Parts Unknown.”
In his introduction, Roberts illustrated the importance of seed saving by noting the cataclysmic 1816 “year without summer.” He drew a parallel between the crop failures of that year (due to the volcanic eruption of Mount Timbora in the Dutch East Indies) to the crop failures in South Carolina during last year’s floods. He noted that until now, he has never been reduced to critical seed reserve levels.
Shields described the South Carolina Lowcountry as home to a great cuisine and a culinary reputation that extends beyond the region, reflecting interplay between sophisticated and countrystyle cooking, and unique methods of cultivation.
In his 1992 treatise “Hoppin’ John’s Lowcountry Cooking,” John Martin Taylor shared that while recipes could be resurrected, Lowcountry farmers of the time were growing little more than okra and collards specific to the canon. Taylor, whom Shields regards as the “John the Baptist” of the moment to come, inspired Shields. In 2003, along with Nathalie Dupree, Marion Sullivan and others, he hosted an interdisciplinary conference in Charleston; that meeting gave rise to the group that would become the Carolina Gold Rice Foundation.
The next hour was a recap of familiar success stories from Charleston that remain unknown elsewhere: the Bradford watermelon, the Carolina African runner peanut, Purple Straw wheat, Purple Ribbon sugarcane, Sea Island flint corn. For those from off, these stories remain legendary, but the connecting thread of restoration resonates with Mid-westerners whose own historic flavors may wait to be restored.
There are many questions for the South Carolinians: Attendees ask about seed sourcing, preservation, grafting and cloning methods. There’s strong interest in the Palmetto State’s wheats, the return of seashore rye and in particular the Bradford Watermelon. “Excuse me,” says a voice behind me. “I have some questions about that melon. Would it grow in Napa?” I turn to see a gentleman roughly my height, a little younger. His hand is extended with a business card: The familiar clothes pin icon of the French Laundry.