John Morel in 1769 pronounced benne oil “equal in quality to (olive oil), and some say preferable,” according to a quote included in University of South Carolina professor David Shields’ new book “Southern Provisions: the Creation & Revival of a Cuisine.” But because the flavor of benne was mutilated in the process of becoming American sesame, which involved reworking the African seed for greater yield, modern eaters have long had to take Morel’s word for it.
But now, for perhaps the first time since the antebellum era, benne oil is being sold commercially. Oliver Farm, an artisan oil producer based in central Georgia, is offering eight-ounce bottles of the vaunted oil for $20.
“It has a really bright, peppery flavor,” says Clay Oliver, who also makes pecan oil, pumpkin seed oil and almond oil, among other products. “At first, I wasn’t sure about it, but the more we’ve used it, it has its own unique flavor. I also do sesame and there’s a vast difference between them.”
At a recent tasting convened by Post and Courier food section contributors Nathalie Dupree, Marion Sullivan and Deirdre Schipani, the consensus was that the oil is very appealing when sampled straight from the bottle, whether because of its distinctive lightness or grassy character. Oliver is more apt to use the oil for cooking: He likes it on carrots with ginger and honey, although he’s also experimented with dipping chicken in it.
During benne oil’s domestic heyday, white gourmands such as Thomas Jefferson drizzled it over raw vegetable salads. But it was ultimately displaced by cottonseed oil, developed as a way to wring value from a byproduct that wasn’t previously considered fit for human consumption. Throughout the past century, benne oil has existed mainly as a culinary curiosity, sought out by only the most motivated chefs.
That group included Travis Grimes of Husk and Chris Shepherd of Underbelly in Houston, who a few years ago arranged for Oliver to produce toasted benne seed oil for their restaurants. Oliver had been in the oil business since 2008, when he started researching the possibility of making biofuel on his family farm and learned there was a market for food-grade oils.
“I realized it was something no one was doing, and once we tasted the first batch we made, I was hooked,” he says. “We’re a Georgia Centennial Farm, so farming’s in my blood. And this still allows me to grow my sunflowers and my peanuts.”
Anson Mills sold Oliver the benne, which in 2013 he transformed into untoasted benne oil at the request of Daniel Heinze of McCrady’s. “The neat thing is it’s as old as time what I’m doing,” Oliver says. “We’re using friction and pressure. There are some things that work for us to maximize oil extraction, and yet leave the great flavor there, and the freshness that people are wanting.”
In June, Anson Mills supplied Oliver with another batch of benne for a research project, inspired by conjecture about what elite planters preferred in the 18th century. Since the plantation owners swapped first-run oil within their social circles, Oliver and Glenn Roberts of Anson Mills decided to try obtaining unfiltered oil from viable benne seeds — without using heat or pressure.
“It turned out better than we thought, and we don’t know where we are with it yet,” says Roberts, who’s planning to send samples to hundreds of chefs. “It’s got a flavor that knocks your socks off: We’re thinking if you poach quail in it, it would be amazing.”
Yet Roberts’ interest in recipes pales compared to his interest in the thin, tahini-like substance that rose to the top of the oil. “It’s extraordinary,” he says. It’s also confounding, because it doesn’t match up with any antebellum documentation. Since Roberts and Shields mapped out the restoration of the crop system surrounding Carolina gold rice according to knowledge gleaned from contemporary letters, diaries and agricultural journals, the benne cream is an unexpected party guest.
Meanwhile, Oliver is trying to interest more restaurants in benne oil. “It’s one of the coolest oils I make,” he says, acknowledging it’s also significantly more expensive than his other oils. “I love connecting the past to the present as much as I like selling oil.”