Ark of Taste
Extracted from the seed of landrace West African benne (Sesamum indicum), benne oil is an aromatic oil that from 1810 to 1890 was preferred for salads and frying in the southern US. The plant from which it is extracted differs substantially from that employed by industrial processors of sesame oil from Texas and the West today. Since the 1940’s, a non-shattering family of sesame has dominated industrial production. The bitter flavor of oils produced from the plants in that family disqualifies it from culinary use. By contrast, benne oil is aromatic, lustrous, and mellow. It differs dramatically from the pungent oriental sesame oils, and is lighter and more pronouncedly aromatic that the current sesame oils produced from post 1940 stocks.
Introduced into the West Indies and the southern mainland of the United States by Africans in the late 17th century, benne oil was part of a complex cuisine centered on the benne seed. The benne plant was extensively grown in slave huck patches, and many records attest to benne’s importance in slave diets.
In the first decade of the 19th century, after the failure of southern experiments in olive culture, the plant was embraced by white planters as an oil seed. It became the preferred locally grown oil for nine decades. In the late 1880s agricultural chemist David Wesson refined the stink out of cotton seed, a waste product in the south, creating a cheap, virtually tasteless lipid. The tasteless "Wesson Oil" supplanted the lustrous benne oil for economic reasons--it transformed plantation by product trash (cotton seed) into cash.
The local growth of benne in the twentieth century dropped precipitously and was restricted to southern hunting plantations, where it operated as a seed crop for birds. The sesame landraces ceased being used for any culinary production, even home use, sometime in the mid-20th century. The benne wafer (signature cookie of Charleston, South Carolina) used sesame seeds imported from central America, not locally grown.
When the Carolina Gold Rice Foundation undertook the revival of the planting systems of Lowcountry rice plantations in 2003, the return of benne and its foodways were high on its agenda. It secured several strains of landrace benne and distributed seed throughout the south in 2009. This inspired a revival among southern chefs. It is now grown in modest quantities in several locales.
The benne plant - landrace sesame - is an annual that grows approximately 6 feet tall in areas warm enough to support its long growth period. The flowers are white or yellow. Sesame fruit is a capsule that naturally splits open to release the small seeds. Landrace benne is a hardy plant. It is allotropic, so kills competing weeds. It is drought tolerant. Its uptake of nutriment is so efficient that use of commercial fertilizer will make it undergo monstrous growth; therefore it is not suited for industrial agriculture, but is perfect for sustainable cultivation.
Oil may be worked from the benne seed in a low temperature boil and decanted (a West African technique) or extracted by pressure from an iron screw press, the favored method in the southern US. The initial pressing tends to be cloudy, with some fruit matter suspended in the oil. It is usual to let the pressing settle and then decant the clear light gold oil.
What oil production is now being done takes place in restaurant kitchens. Given the availability of table model screw oil presses for relatively small expense and the relative ease of growing benne, home production might easily be undertaken.
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