The most prized ingredient in the larder of chef Sean Brock, avant-garde wunderkind at Charleston's McCrady's restaurant, isn't the fresh foie gras or the black truffles, or even the methylcellulose powder—that staple of the molecular gastronomist's kitchen. It's sesame seeds, or as we say here in the Lowcountry: benne.
"I've got about a cupful of them left," Brock said recently, "and I'm guarding them with my life."
Granted, Brock's seeds aren't your grocery-store Sesamum indicum. 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."
The story of how Brock got his hands on PI 601236 01 SD involves the work of David Shields, an English professor at the University of South Carolina, Merle Shepard, an entomologist at Clemson University's Coastal Research and Education Center, and Glenn Roberts, founder and owner of Anson Mills, in Columbia, South Carolina.
Southern-food fans may recognize this crew as the gang who brought Carolina Gold Rice back from the edge of extinction and onto the menus of restaurants from Chicago to the Napa Valley (Carolina Gold was a culinary mainstay in South Carolina until the late nineteenth century). Benne is the second antebellum ingredient they've taken on, and in doing so, they're on the verge of recovering a lost cuisine, solving mysteries held in old recipes, not to mention making the lives of contemporary home cooks and restaurant chefs a lot more interesting.
It was Professor Shields who played the role of provocateur in the benne restoration. A recent recipient of the South Carolina Governor's Award in the Humanities, Shields's interests range from still photography of early theater and cinema to Russian piano music. But it's his passion for agricultural literature—farm journals and correspondence among plant breeders (famous ones like Thomas Jefferson, as well as lesser-known Georgians and South Carolinians)—that led to his current project: a plant-by-plant history of agricultural experimentation and the development of American cookery.
"Nineteenth-century plant breeders tended to breed for taste—the vegetables they produced were vetted strongly for palatability," Shields says. "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."
In his research into olive-oil production in the Carolinas and Georgia two centuries ago, Shields learned olives were mostly abandoned when benne was found to make an oil that was preferred by many producers: It was an excellent salad oil; it had a higher smoke-point so could be used for frying; and it had more antioxidants, which meant that it was less subject to rancidity given the climate of the Carolinas (this was an altogether different oil from the dark-colored, deeply flavored sesame oil we know from Asian cuisine, the one used drop by drop). Shields also found that a by-product of oil production—the spent benne mash cake—was used as a condiment, or as a feed for livestock. Shields discovered recipes for dishes that had vanished from American tables and menus: benne soup, benne and hominy, benne and greens. And he identified references to benne being ground with a mortar and pestle, then combined with cornmeal or wheat flour and used as a thickening agent—a process that would be impossible with the modern Kansas 10 seeds due to their higher oil content.
Shields shared his research with Shepard, who then decided to track down an heirloom sesame seed with traits of the African variety. Shepard located the early seed at the USDA's Agricultural Research Service germplasm bank in Aberdeen, Idaho, and planted it in his research plots south of Charleston, producing enough seeds in two four-week generations to distribute among several test-plots.
Glenn Roberts of Anson Mills had been intercropping modern hybrids of benne with Carolina Gold Rice for years, and he's overseeing the planting of Shepard's seeds in three parcels in the ACE Basin—the coastal plain named for the Ashepoo, Combahee, and Edisto rivers that meander through the land. Growing the heirloom seeds presents more challenges than the new: It grows taller, so it is more susceptible to wind damage, and its pods shatter when mature, loosing the seeds propulsively (an unshattering hybrid was discovered in 1943 and has been the industry standard ever since). The old benne must be harvested when green, then dried and threshed.
But Roberts says the difference in flavor is worth the trouble.
"Untoasted, it has a subtle, almondish perfume," Roberts says. "And then on the way to toasting, its minerality and floralness come out front. When you're making benne soup with it, you walk by the pot and think: Did someone put lavender in there?"
Shields and Roberts firmly believe that those subtleties of flavor and the lower oil content (which allows it to be ground and blended with other flours) hold the key to why some antebellum-era recipes have fallen out of favor with contemporary home cooks. Carolina Rice Bread, which today is all but extinct, was a staple of traditional Southern cookery. Roberts posits that benne-rice flour—a combination of ground African benne and wheat flour—may be the missing element in a successful rice bread.
Shields is confident that South Carolina will return to being a benne-producing state on a commercial scale, and he is eager to find out what will happen when the Old South benne seed and by-products like sesame oil and mash cake become folded into twenty-first-century cuisine.
"Will it approximate the three-dimensional cookery of the antebellum South?" he asked, "Or will it be a postmodern refraction of it?"
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.