Getting the flavor of two important new food books

Southern Provisions

The “meats” section of Charleston Receipts includes plenty of references to the spice rack. Cooks are instructed to add a pinch of nutmeg to baked calf’s head; two twigs of thyme to Faber’s pilau and a sprinkling of nutmeg to turkey tetrazzini. Beef a la mode gets a bay leaf.

Almost none of the recipes call for seasonings measured out in cups or tablespoons. That’s because in the first part of the 20th century, Americans applied spices sparingly. According to Mark Schatzker’s new book, “The Dorito Effect,” the average American in 1918 used half a pound of spices a year.

By contrast, one of the most popular meatloaf recipes now posted on Allrecipes.com includes more than eight ounces of cumin, nutmeg, various peppers and garlic, as well as two bay leaves, a tablespoon of hot sauce and andouille sausage. Even if the cook doesn’t sprinkle garlic salt on the mashed potatoes, the meal represents 10 percent of an American’s annual spice consumption a century ago.

Spice consumption is up about 500 percent, Schatzker writes. He attributes the surge to flavor chemicals, which have helped hook eaters on tastes they can’t find in nature. “Most people recognize this as junk food,” he writes. “But it’s happening to food served at restaurants and the food people buy at the supermarket, from scratch, at home. It’s happening to blueberries, chicken breast, broccoli, and lettuce, even fennel. Everything is getting blander and simultaneously more seasoned.”

Schatzker takes a chatty approach to his subject, which leads him from McCormick & Company headquarters to a Napa Valley farm. He’s serious about restoring real flavors, though: His highly readable book concludes with an appendix outlining “How to Live Long and Eat Flavorfully,” in which he pleads with eaters to buy costlier tomatoes; shun squeezable yogurt and avoid restaurants that order their sauces in buckets and bags. He believes it’s possible to return to a food system in which chicken tastes like chicken, even without a shot of MSG.

But what did chicken taste like before chemists and agronomists started tinkering with it? In the Lowcountry, the restoration of flavor is associated with Glenn Roberts and his academic ally, David Shields. Shields, a history professor at the University of South Carolina, recently published “Southern Provisions: The Creation & Revival of a Cuisine,” an ambitious survey of regional food production, distribution and consumption prior to the advent of big ag. Needless to say, most of the recipes Shields quotes don’t call for a surfeit of spices – although he gives readers a pretty good idea of where they could have bought them in Charleston in the 19th century.

When Shields comes across a crop with a flavor he reveres, he can write movingly about it. Carolina gold rice, in his telling, has “the luster of an antique wedding ring rather than the yellow glare of the sun.” But he makes clear at the outset that he doesn’t believe a plant or animal is worth bringing back to the collective pantry just because it turned up on plates a long time ago.

Shields doesn’t sentimentalize. He points out that even in the age when cooks had access to scores of different vegetable varieties, cookbook authors didn’t always specify which kind was best. They had a tendency to glance over the details that have become a touchstone of the farm-to-table movement (and speaking of farm-to-table, Shields is an advocate of a table-to-farm mindset, since “we must know the traditional table to know what to restore to the farm.”)

That doesn’t mean that yesterday’s eaters didn’t have strong preferences for certain oysters, ducks and cakes. Unlike many contemporary historians, Shields chooses to trust the written record created by newspapers and farming journals, rather than dismissing it as the narrow fantasy of wealthy white landowners. He uses the texts to produce lengthy charts showing what was sold where and when, and evocative descriptions of elaborate banquets. If Shields ever stages a Maryland Club Feast, a once-standard menu featuring canvasback ducks, terrapin stew, fried hominy diamonds and backfin crab salad, I’d highly suggest finagling a seat at the table.

In its comprehensiveness, enthusiasm for minutiae and catholic subject matter, “Southern Provisions” resembles nothing so much as the nineteenth-century agricultural publications that Shields quotes. The monumental book also shares a certain confidence and optimism with those early American periodicals.

“I don’t feel compelled by righteousness to rip the bag of Cheetos from someone’s fist and replace it with a Dancy tangerine,” he concludes. “Those who seek a finer taste will be gratified; those who don’t suffer an unwitting purgatory of the commonplace.”