Scientists and specialists serve up low-oil African benne as the missing link in historical Lowcountry cuisine
After the rediscovery of the original African benne, Anson Mills’ Glenn Roberts is working to build up a surplus of the wild seed so that chefs might reinvent some of the most popular savory dishes from before the Civil War. “I’m hoping to be able to plant a crop in late March 2010 as part of our four-acre seed-saving garden project,” says McCrady’s chef Sean Brock. Photograph by Christopher Nelson
DECEMBER 9, 2009
Seeds of Change Scientists and specialists serve up low-oil African benne as the missing link in historical Lowcountry cuisine
WRITTEN BY LAUREN BROOKS JOHNSON
During this season of holidays and end-of-year fêtes, we find ourselves baking from generations-old receipts and gathering round tables laden with traditional dishes. Exactly how authentic are these foods,though? Here in the Lowcountry, popular benne confections, from brittle to pralines to wafers, have been sweetening celebrations since the late 19th century. But with a bit of digging into the history of Southern plantation life, experts in the food field have discovered that benne’s benevolence to the South actually began centuries before and was of a much heartier sort.
Arriving with enslaved Africans from the region of present-day Sierra Leone and Liberia, the nutty seed, a high source of protein, provided sustenance straight from the skillet; as a condiment to greens; and in the form of benne mash, cakes, and soup served over hominy. “There was no meat ration on most plantations—sesame would serve as a meat substitute in a dish,” writes Dr. David Shields, McClintock Professor of Southern Letters at the University of South Carolina and chairman of the Carolina Gold Rice Foundation (CGRF).
It was the sesame’s nectar, however, that drew the attention of growers, who bred the plant to optimize oil content, stalk strength, and disease resistance. By the mid-1900s, the sesame seed as we know it today—a bitter-tasting, oily raw seed classified as the Kansas 10—was in full production across the United States. The original African plant, with its nutty yield, seemed all but lost. And disappearing with it were the savory benne dishes that once populated community tables.
Fast forward to the present day, when Dr. Merle Shepard of the Clemson Coastal Research and Education Center acquired the unbred and untainted Sesamum indicum, the original benne from the USDA’s National Germplasm Resources Lab, which procured the seed through an exchange with Africa.Shepard, vice president of the CGRF, shared this new old seed with CGRF president Glenn Roberts, Anson Mills founder and careful propagator of heirloom grains. Now, as part of his Antebellum Crop Rotation plan, Roberts is growing the low-oil benne on four farms across South Carolina, working to build up a surplus of the seed and return the staple to its rightful place among the soups and mash of the South. And McCrady’s chef Sean Brock is getting the culinary world pumped up to receive it.
In September at the annual Starchefs.com International Chefs Congress, Brock presented this resurrected dimension of benne cookery to 1,500 pros from around the globe who had gathered in New York’s Park Avenue Armory to discuss discoveries and trends in American cuisine. “We’ve forgotten how significant benne is to the history of agriculture in the Carolinas,” he says. “Benne is the missing link to Lowcountry cuisine.
“The doors are wide open right now for recreating and refining and updating those old dishes that had benne in them,” asserts Brock, noting that it seems every other entry in pre-Civil War cookbooks involves the ingredient. To show off the wild seed’s earthy-flavored goodness, he stood on the conference’s main stage and concocted a vegetable garden dish with a foamy emulsified benne broth. And right there, in 21st-century New York City, participants gathered round their tables with a modern interpretation of a forgotten traditional dish, and celebrated.
To read more about Glenn Roberts’ efforts in preserving heirloom grains, click here.
To read more about Dr. Merle Shepard’s work at the Clemson Coastal Research and Education Center, click here.