USC professor leads quest for the lost flavors of the South.

PositionUniversity of South Carolina

When diners at Terra restaurant in West Columbia sample a distinctive dessert featuring a local pumpkin variety few have ever tasted, they'll have David Shields to thank.

The Dutch Fork pumpkin is one example of once-indigenous ingredients that Shields, a University of South Carolina professor and chairman of the Carolina Gold Rice Foundation, and like-minded colleagues are reintroducing in places where they once flourished before succumbing to the demands of industrialization. The foundation's namesake grain is one of its most well-known success stories, but Shields travels the globe, poking into agricultural nooks and crannies in search of others.

"He's like the Indiana Jones of Southern food," Terra head chef Mike Davis said. "He goes and finds these things. It really is remarkable that he can track them down."

The search for flavor

The gustatory odyssey began in 2003 when Shields, an English professor who has published numerous works detailing the history of regional food, was approached by Glenn Roberts, founder of Columbia artisanal mill Anson Mills, at a Charleston conference exploring Lowcountry cuisine.

"He informed me that it was no longer a cuisine," Shields said. "It had declined to a potpourri."

This was not news to Shields. As South Carolina chefs joined a growing movement in the 1980s to showcase local ingredients, Shields said, they encountered a problem.

"They had all of the old recipes that had been passed down, but the oldest generation of diners told them that the hoppin john, the shrimp and grits, were flavorless," Shields said. "The chefs looked into it and they found that all of the ingredients which the classical recipes had called for were no longer grown in the Lowcountry, except for okra and collards.

"The chefs sort of pleaded for the return of all the classic ingredients, but the problem was that so much had been lost in the last half of the 20th century that we didn't even know what had to be restored."

That included Carolina Gold rice, a long grain with a rich, starchy texture that was once a staple of Southern cooking. Roberts' mother, who grew up in the Lowcountry, used Carolina Gold to make delicacies such as the rice bread her son remembered fondly but could find nowhere.

"If you want to reduce the Southern ethos down to one thing, it would be Carolina rice bread," said Roberts, president and CEO of the Carolina Gold Rice Foundation. "When I met David, there was no place you could go to buy rice bread."


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