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American Heritage Vegetables

Digital Humanities Projects

American Heritage Vegetables

Sponsored by the Office of the Provost, the American Heritage Vegetables project provides historical information and culinary recipes of early American foodstuffs in the Carolinas.

American Heritage Vegetables documents the cultivation practices, popular varieties, and cookery of vegetables found in American kitchen and market gardens before the twentieth century. We have not included landrace grains—corn, rice, wheat, rye, barley, oats—or field crops such as sugar cane and sorghum since these will be treated in a separate website in the future. The vegetable profiles, composed by David Shields, derive from articles in agricultural journals, horticultural manuals, newspaper articles, and gardening encyclopedia published during the 'age of experiment'—from 1810 to 1886—in the United States. All the works of the canon of American gardening—Bernard M'Mahon's The American Garden Calender (1806), William Cobbett's The American Gardener, Thomas Fessenden's The New American Gardener (1835), Thomas Bridgeman's The Young Gardeners Assistant (1837), Francis Homes's The Southern Market Gardener (1842), L. D. Chapin's The Vegetable Kingdom (1843), Robert Buist's The Family Kitchen Gardener (1850), William N. White's Gardening for the South (1857), Alexander Watson's The American Home Garden (1859), Fearing Burr, Jr., American Garden Vegetables (1866), and Burr's Field and Garden Vegetables (1874) have been consulted.

The experimental age saw the expansion of cultivars and the intensive breeding of new vegetable varieties by private farmers, commercial seed companies, educational institutions, and kitchen gardeners. Listings of the most significant varieties, compiled by Stephen Spratt, have been drawn from seed catalogues, manuals on market gardening, and agricultural books.

Nineteenth-century recipes have been supplied verbatim from cookbooks, magazines, and agricultural journals. Those that predate 1840 were designed for hearthside cooking; those post-dating 1840, for cookstove preparation. They are intended to serve as starting points for 21st century cooks to engage with the culinary tradition. Recipes were prone to extensive uncredited republication during the 19th century. Certainly many ultimately had English, European, or African origins. Kitchen gardens were cosmopolitan places, filled with cultivars that had during their histories traversed the planet. Recipes, too, reflected this global history. Of the vegetables discussed here only the Jerusalem artichoke was indigenous to North America. So the national character of these vegetables and their modes of preparation is that of a naturalized world traveler. The source used for a recipe is supplied at the end of an entry. We have attempted to supply representative recipes from every family of preparation associated with a vegetable.

In composing the profiles, we have sought the sort of readability that 19th-century agricultural men and women of letters employed addressing general readers. I have minimized the use of scientific nomenclature while preserving the most important insights about growth and culinary preparation. If readers think more need be said about insect depredations and their prevention, I will supply it. This site is a work in progress.

Wendell Berry insists that what is most necessary for American cuisine is an understanding that "eating is an agricultural act." This site purposely links growing to cooking. It also documents the most distinctive development of American cuisine—its extraordinary expansion of flavors occasioned by the success of plant breeders and markets creating and popularizing multitudes of new vegetable varieties during the 19th century. The era documented in this site is that when the genius of horticulture encountered the curiosity of home cooks encountering new ingredients and the gastronomic innovations of hotel chefs supplied by the bounty of the great urban markets.

We offer the information here as a public service in accordance with the mission of the University of South Carolina. The instructions upon farming encountered herein all accord with the practices of current organic farming. The lists of vegetable varieties will aid the current effort to preserve the diversity of edible cultivars. The recipes will aid the current popular effort to explore the various traditions of regional and ethnic cookery in North America.

Related Publications

Ferris, Marcie Cohen. The Edible South: The Power of Food and the Making of an American Region. Chapel Hill: UNC Press, 2014.