When University of South Carolina professor and cuisine revivalist David Shields asked Brian Ward to grow 40 seeds for him, the Clemson University researcher didn't exactly fixate on the meaning of the task.

Heritage dinner

The Old Village Post House is planning an April 16 dinner in conjunction with Anson Mills to benefit Ward's work on Southern heritage grains, oil seeds, canes and vegetables.

Chef Forrest Parker will prepare "the various kinds of grains and vegetables that Brian Ward grows at the Clemson Station Organic beds," David Shields says.

Further details, including menu, price and start time, weren't available at press time. Call 388-8935 for more information.

As a horticulturist, Ward is accustomed to being assigned random gardening projects. Doctors are drawn into cocktail party conversations about hip pain, bankers get hit up for stock tips and plant scientists are handed magic beans.

"I didn't think too much of it," Ward says of the relatively puny peanuts he dutifully cultivated. "They wanted organic, but I grew them conventionally. I had no clue what they were."

As he later learned, the seeds were Carolina African runner peanuts, hailed by Shields as "the ancestral peanut of the South." And Ward had been entrusted with about half of the world's sum total of them, and the only ones outside of a university freezer.

"I didn't know I had all that were said to exist, OK?" Ward says, moving quickly through one of his labs, where plastic tubs of dusty indigo and various soils hint at future agricultural breakthroughs. Once Ward realized he'd been made guardian of a peanut that officially vanished from Southern fields nearly a century ago, "I was really protective of it. I wouldn't let anyone near the plants. I was looking at them every single day."

Ward successfully coaxed about a dozen healthy plants from the seeds. When he and Shields last November upturned the ruggedly matted bushes, their sunrise harvest produced 1,500 peanuts. Now Ward is raising the next generation of Carolina African runners in a greenhouse, with an eye toward getting the peanuts to eaters as early as next year.

"There are a lot of people very interested in this peanut," Shields says. "I get inquiries all the time from chefs and farmers. Every historic site wants this peanut. This is where it all began."

The original peanut

When Americans picture peanuts, they tend to think of the flamboyantly dumbbell-shaped nut, famously caricatured as an orange-tinted marshmallow candy (and provided with a top hat and monocle by the Planters company). But the peanut they have in mind is the Virginia peanut, which arrived in the U.S. by way of Bolivia in the 1840s. "It appeals to eye-fixated people," Shields says, leaving little doubt he doesn't consider himself a member of that group.

The National Peanut Board's online history of the American peanut begins in the 19th century, when Virginia farmers started growing peanuts for profit. Warm air and sandy soil helped launch commercial peanut farming, but the Virginia peanut really owes its early success to the three big C's: the Civil War, circuses and George Washington Carver, who championed the largish peanut when boll weevils threatened to decimate the South's cotton crop. Today, the Virginia peanut is responsible for $2 billion in annual retail sales.

Unlike the Virginia peanut, the Carolina African runner was never the centerpiece of a robust industry. It was brought to North America by enslaved West Africans, who upheld their tradition of growing peanuts in their gardens. White plantation owners were briefly interested in the nut as an oil source - in the late 1700s, The Royal Society of London deemed the contents of a sample vial "almost as good as olive oil" - but enthusiasm for the crop waned after planters figured out Spanish and Valenica peanuts made better butters, and the small size of the disease-prone Carolina African runner complicated its harvest.

Yet Carolina African runners (sometimes referred to as Carolina runners, African runners or just plain runners, depending on the grower's whims) continued to flourish on small farms and in backyard plots. The peanut inspired an entire class of early American cookery, including peanut fritters and the peanut soup familiar to every Colonial Williamsburg visitor.

When Charleston's Sarah Rutledge in 1847 advised readers of "The Carolina Housewife" to mix beaten groundnuts with an oyster slurry and boil, she had Carolina African runners in mind.

Hidden behind No. 4

Shields and Glenn Roberts, founder of Anson Mills and partial funder of the peanut project, years ago began trying to reassemble the flavors that defined the antebellum South. They chased down near-extinct melons and peas that had quietly withstood the region's collective culinary amnesia, either in the wild or under a single family's care. The Carolina African runner, written off in the 1950s as forever lost, sat near the top of their wish list.

Almost out of habit, Shields asked Tom Isleib, a peanut breeder at North Carolina State University, whether his institution had anything called a Carolina runner in its collection.

"He said, 'We've got two,' " Shields recalled.

According to Shields, NCSU in the 1930s jump-started its breeding program by collecting all kinds of bush peanuts, including a Carolina African runner. To keep the seed viable, researchers grew it every few years. "They preserved the seed, but it was just called Number Four," Shields says. "The memory that this was the original peanut of the South didn't stick."

Suspicions about the peanut's true identity were confirmed when the seeds bloomed. "It has a very distinctive structure," says Shields, who compared the peanut to a photograph of a British Library specimen collected by Sir Hans Sloane, who served as the physician for the governor of Jamaica in the late 1680s. Its measurements and appearance matched up precisely with the Number Four.

"This meets all of the classic descriptions," Shields says.

At the U.S. Vegetable Lab's open house this winter, Ward had to shoo away hungry visitors from his peanut display. Even Shields wasn't permitted to taste the peanut until almost four months after the initial harvest. Its flavor isn't radically removed from the Virginia peanut that lands in boiled peanut bags and peanut butter jars: The Carolina African runner has a mustiness that's slightly reminiscent of a walnut.

"I tasted one right out of the ground, and it was nutty," Ward says. "I'm not a foodie, so to speak."

But after this peanut feat, food lovers may very well speak of him.

Reach Hanna Raskin at 937-5560.