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A Taste of the Antebellum South

 by Danielle Maestretti


Tags: Great Writing, food, Southern food, sesame seeds, benne, heirloom seeds, Oxford American, Danielle Maestretti,

One of the many mouth-watering pieces in the Oxford American’s new Southern Food issue reveals Charleston chef Sean Brock’s secret ingredient: a very special, and very old, variety of sesame seeds:Oxford American Southern Food issue

According to the USDA Agricultural Research Service, they’re PI 601236 01 SD, a variety that hails from the turn of the century and is a very near cousin to the seeds brought over to America in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries by enslaved Africans from modern-day Sierra Leone and Liberia. Lighter in color than contemporary sesame, PI 601236 01 SD have none of the overpowering bitterness of seeds such as Kansas 10, a hybrid developed in the 1940s whose high oil content lends itself to industrial applications such as cosmetics, paint, and soap.

Chef Brock claims the flavor of the old seeds is nothing short of a revelation. “It goes in layers,” he said. “The first thing you taste is this grassiness, and you think, This isn’t sesame seed. Then you get this cool, earthy nuttiness, followed by the most pleasant bitter you’ve ever tasted.”

Brock’s heirloom sesame seeds were tracked down by a motley crew of South Carolinians—an English professor, an entomologist, a mill owner—with a special interest in finding and restoring antebellum ingredients. “Nineteenth-century plant breeders tended to breed for taste—the vegetables they produced were vetted strongly for palatability,” University of South Carolina English professor David Shields tells the Oxford American. “In the twentieth century, they’re more concerned with transportability, shelf life, eye-appeal. What interests me is trying to recover the vegetables and grains from the nineteenth century that were known to be linchpins of the American table.”

Chef Brock’s take on Brown Oyster Stew, a classic antebellum recipe made with toasted sesame and oysters, may offer some indication of what’s to come. Brock purees Carolina Gold Rice and PI 601236 01 SD in a blender to a paste, which he then dehydrates and fries until it puffs “like pork rinds,” and scatters over the stew as a garnish.

In Brock’s kitchen, at least, the way forward seems to be neither antebellum nor postmodern, but futurist.

Source: Oxford American