Christmas dinners past hard to re-create

Christmas was a time of celebration in the 19th century South. And it was loud. Fireworks and tin horns would be heard well into the night and saloons stayed open to serve drams of whiskey to revelers.

The holiday feast would include – much as today – turkey or some other game bird, with ham on the sideboard. An array of vegetables, including sweet potatoes, peas and celery (frequently imported from New York), accompanied the bird. Dinner was finished with sweets – lots and lots of sweets – like fruit pies, cakes and candies.

But one thing that was mostly universal across Southern holiday tables was fruit.

“No Christmas dinner is complete without plenty of fruit. Get a barrel of sweet oranges or some of those luscious pineapples,” read an 1878 advertisement in the Charleston News and Courier.

“In the early 19th century, dried persimmons were the typical country/plantation accompaniment to a meal,” says David Shields, McClintock Professor of Southern Letters at USC and chairman of the Carolina Gold Rice Foundation. “Persimmon beer – more a soft drink than a fermented brew – was ubiquitous. In cities and towns, shipments of oranges appeared at the grocers, much of it imported from the West Indies or Jacksonville, Fla.”

He says a South Carolina holiday table also would have plenty of oysters – even in the Upstate.

Shields’ love of food and how it develops in a culture started when he was a young child living with his family in Tokyo.

“I grew up with a whole different palate of flavors,” he says. “I’ve always been interested in food in connection with place.”

When he moved to Charleston in 1984 to be an English professor at The Citadel, Shields wanted to recreate some of the recipes he found in classic Southern cookbooks, notably “Charleston Receipts,” which was first published in 1950 and is the oldest Junior League cookbook still in print.

“All these wonderful recipes and the ingredients were not available,” Shields says.

So he began working to help restore some of these ingredients and foodways that had been lost to time, automation and neglect, including South Carolina’s famed Carolina Gold rice from the 18th and 19th centuries.

His research took him to agricultural journals of the day, which discussed planting methods for specific seed types.

“There was such a range of seeds back then,” he says. “They had 19 different squashes, and chefs knew which ones to use for which recipes.”

Shields has now written, co-authored or contributed to about a dozen books, including one on Southern food coming out early next year.

“I’m not in this for the money,” he says. “I’m in this to see a cuisine restored.”

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