When guests reached the second course of the Carolina Rice Kitchen Dinner — presented last night by the Old Village Post House – table conversations veered sharply to the first softshell crabs of the season, superbly flash-fried by chef Forrest Parker’s team. The supporting Sea Island Guinea flint grits from sponsor Anson Mills barely merited a mention.
The grits’ fade-out was a kind of triumph for Anson Mills’ Glenn Roberts and University of South Carolina professor David Shields, who have jointly spearheaded the effort to resurrect Carolina gold rice and the crops which completed the agricultural system surrounding it. The results of their work, including Chinquapin chestnuts, benne seeds and James Island peas, formed the core of the Rice Kitchen Dinner menu.
But the revivalists’ overarching goal is for the nearly-forgotten grains to attain standard ingredient status. Roberts and Shields have no interest in making the plants cultivated generations ago by Lowcountry growers into untouchable relics; using heirloom grits in service of another regional delicacy is very much in line with their strategy.
“One of the things we’ve done is to restore what was, and try to put it in the hands of people, not to reenact, but just to have the flavor again to make use of,” Shields said. “Let the creativity of a Frank Lee be unleashed on the greatest food we’ve produced over the course of centuries.”
Lee and Parker’s creativity manifested itself in tiny chestnut flour pancakes, smeared with buttermilk crème fraiche and topped with smoked western North Carolina trout; a bouquet of jaunty collard hearts, nestled beneath a whole quail asea in oyster benne cream and a crème brulee, pebbled with West Indian white sweet potato and sweetened with sorghum. But the evening’s star ingredient was the newly-rescued African runner peanut; the South’s ancestral peanut was served atop a triggerfish crudo.
The peanuts were raised by horticulturist Brian Ward of the organic research farm at Clemson’s Coastal Research and Education Center, which was the dinner’s beneficiary.
“I’m a farmer, and I’m an excellent farmer,” said Ward, whose wife revealed he excused himself on their wedding day to water plants. “I can bring anything back if you just give me a chance. Trust me: I’m the captain of this ship now.”
To further advance Ward’s work, Roberts is heading up a series of events beyond the Lowcountry. “This has been the year we decided to support this nationally, because it’s not being done anywhere else,” he said.
An audience member, likely emboldened by wine and inspired by the project leaders’ infectious curiosity, piped up, “To what end do we see this progressing?”
Shields, stressing that their work shouldn’t be dismissed as a diversion for elite eaters, said, “The truth of the matter is nobody envisions supplanting conventional agriculture. What we envision is once again to have the gifts of our agricultural heritage made available so you can have, if you wish, the fundamental elements of American cuisine.”