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Preserving the Seashore Black Rye

Jun. 10, 2016

Preserving the Seashore Black Rye

Slow Food for Thought • A Cut Above: Pine Street MarketSlow Food’s Ark of Taste registers the most flavorful, historically resonant, and imperiled of the world’s ingredients and dishes. Some items, such as the Atlantic Sturgeon, are so endangered that Slow Food urges non-consumption. Usually, preservation depends on a group willing to buy and eat these foods, perhaps at prices exceeding those on the mass market.

The most important category may be landrace grains, ancient grasses shaped into the oldest surviving cereals by past generations. These grains were processed into the breads, beer, porridges, and pastas fundamental to culinary cultures. A special effort must be made to preserve the old forms of wheat, oats, barley, maize, rice, and rye. Slow Food Southern Region has made the region’s landrace grains a priority, boarding Carolina Gold Rice, Sea Island White Flint Corn, and Purple Straw Wheat, among others. This year, the Southern Ark of Taste Committee is turning its attention to two rye landraces: Seashore Black Rye and Tall-growing Mountain Rye.

Seashore Black RyeIn 1900, USDA plant explorers secured Abruzzi rye from Italy and shortly after, introduced the crop to southern farmers who, due to the crop’s productivity, abandoned traditional varieties in favor of the new ones. However, the Appalachia and Piedmont South regions held onto the old whisky and forage variety, for it was nearly as productive as Abruzzi. Known as Mountain Rye, North Georgia Rye, or Southern Tall Growing Rye, it was cropped from the 1840s until the Depression. We are currently tracking reports of its survival in Western Virginia.

Another landrace in the Carolina Lowcountry, Florida, and parts of coastal North Carolina continues to survive. Resistant to salt and heat, this black seeded rye was introduced in 1831 and is quite versatile — a forage crop for livestock, a windbreak, a green manure, or for milling or distilling. It also bore a number of names, including Seashore in South Carolina, South Georgia Rye in Georgia, and Florida Black Seeded Rye in Florida. In 2016, we discovered Greg Johnsman growing the variety in the Carolina Lowcountry. Slow Food Charleston decided to sponsor its nomination to the Ark of Taste and aid its introduction into various culinary applications. The Carolina Gold Rice Foundation is supplying the scientific and seed security support.

“My father-in-law Adair Mckoy started farming at the age of 14 in Sumter, SC. He moved to Wadmalaw Island in the early 1960s to take up commercial farming. By the early 1970s, he shifted away from row crop and ventured into commercial tomatoes, but one thing he carried over was rye for wind breaks. In the coastal region, we have a lot of sand. Rye is grown to protect and stop the sand from blasting a vegetable crop. After years of wind breaks, I asked my father-in-law if I could mill some. We were blown away with the flavor of this rye. No other rye compares with its texture and non-tacky quality. I am blessed that he has planted the rye for over 40 years.  He never knew that his future son-in-law would make the rye into a finished good after all those years. Our goal is to preserve and continue to keep the strain.  I am excited to link his beginning as a farmer with the future.”
Greg Johnsman

Seashore Black Rye 3In the coastal South, where cornbread reigned as the bread of choice, rye bread was decidedly a secondary baked good. Rye went into other preparations like rye coffee (brewed with parched rye grains), rye wafers, rye waffles, rye cakes, rye pie crusts, as well as rye whisky and rye beer. Brewers and chefs are already lining up to use Johnsman’s Seashore Black to revive the old recipes and experiment with a signature local ingredient, brought once again into culinary notice.

David Shields

Chair of Slow Food Ark of Taste South

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