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2-time James Beard Book Award finalist rescues food staples of yesteryear

portrait of david shields

Not unlike those fictional Jurassic Park scientists who somehow coaxed dinosaurs back from extinction using DNA sampling, USC Carolina Distinguished Professor David S. Shields is rediscovering long-lost legacy seed collections and bringing them back into cultivation. For real. And the bottom line is taste.

The author of dozens of books on a variety of historic topics, Shields recently was named a finalist for the James Beard Book Award in the category of Reference, History, and Scholarship. His co-author on the nominated project, The Ark of Taste, is Portland gastronomy scholar Giselle Kennedy. Beard award winners will be announced June 9 in Chicago.

Working with geneticists and growers worldwide, Shields has long been on a mission to save heritage foods from extinction. In so doing, he has delighted serious foodies who are bent on preserving rich flavors from ingredients that are unavailable or difficult to find.

It’s not enough to have centuries-old recipes. They simply won’t work without the original, locally sourced ingredients. “All they have is the formula, and the original ingredients that made the thing taste good are gone,” Shields told an interviewer in 2016.

book cover with drawings of food and the words the ark of taste and

This is the second time Shields, a professor in the College of Arts and Sciences, has been a Beard finalist. In 2018, his book, The Culinarians: Lives and Careers from the First Age of American Fine Dining, was a Beard finalist as well. Since beginning his lengthy culinary scholarship, Shields has been named chair of the Carolina Gold Rice Foundation, which is dedicated to sustainably preserving the origins of local culinary heritage.

One reason heirloom ingredients fall out of circulation while the recipes survive, Shields noted, is that the recipes are passed down verbally through generations, but there often has been no formal documentation of the original ingredients or managed conservation of genetically pure seed stocks. The struggle is real for a man who reads old agricultural journals for fun.

Specific food crops Shields has helped rejuvenate include Cocke’s Prolific Corn, Benne, or sesame seeds, (who doesn’t love Charleston Benne Wafers?), Sea Island White Flint Corn, and the Bradford Watermelon. While he continues to rescue hidden seed stashes of heirloom grains and vegetables, Shields acknowledges the imperative of supporting agricultural biodiversity that is vulnerable to industrialization and climate change. Genuine flavor, however, is a key motivator in his work.

“I’m basically known as the flavor saver,” he said, “the person who goes out to hunt ingredients down and gets people to grow them and chefs to use them.”

Earlier this year, Shields and collaborator Kevin Mitchell announced they have teamed up to host a new show on S.C. ETV appropriately titled "Flavor Savers." Stay tuned.