The benne (or sesame) seed has long been a staple in the traditional foodways of the South Carolina lowcountry. Most people here, especially tourists, first encounter this delicious seed in the benne wafer—sweet, crunchy, bite-sized discs that one finds everywhere in and around Charleston. In recent years, however, historically-minded chefs have been using benne in a wide variety of dishes, from pastries to main courses, in the effort to restore the tiny seed to its former place as a staple of lowcountry cuisine.
With this renewed interest in benne, I’ve heard a number of statements about its history in our community, some of which left me scratching my head. I’m not a culinary historian, but I do have a passion for tracking down documentary evidence that sheds light on the myths and realities of Charleston history. After a bit of archival digging, I can report that while there are still many unknown chapters in the story of benne in the lowcountry, the basic outlines of the story are clear.
Benne (also spelled bene, bennie, or benny in historical sources) is one of several West African words for what eighteenth-century Europeans called sesamum indicum, a tall, flowering annual plant that originated in sub-Saharan Africa and was first domesticated in India. As a rich and tasty source of oil and protein, benne seeds were a prized commodity that had spread throughout Asia and and Europe before Christopher Columbus sailed to the Americas. The plant was known to botanists in England and northern Europe, but the cooler climate of their region was not conducive to the cultivation and commercial production of sesamum. In sub-Saharan Africa, however, sesamum or benne grew wildly and for many centuries its seeds and its leaves were a staple in foodways, medicines, and rituals.
These traditions came with the enslaved people brought to the New World by European colonists, but we cannot be certain about who brought the first benne seeds to the Americas. It could have been the West African slaves themselves who transported the seeds, but there is no definitive evidence of this potential scenario. We know for certain, however, that by 1707 sesamum was being grown in Jamaica “by the Negroes in their Gardens” (Hans Sloane, A Voyage to the Islands Madera Barbados, Nieves, S. Christophers and Jamaica, London, 1707, vol. I: 161). Since there was much trade between Jamaica and South Carolina in the early eighteenth-century, the seed may have come to the mainland by way of our Caribbean neighbors.
The earliest-known documentary evidence of the presence of benne in South Carolina dates from August 1730, when Thomas Lowndes sent a brief description of its cultivation and recently-harvested samples to the Board of Trade and Plantations and to another correspondent in England. His objective was to demonstrate to British colonial officials that the oil derived from sesamum seeds represented a potential cash crop for South Carolina. Such a venture, Lowndes argued, would help Britain and its colonies break their dependence on olive oil imported from the Mediterranean region. Thus while Africans brought to the Americas by force continued to used sesamum in a variety of traditional ways, their English captors were focused on the seed’s oil as a potentially profitable stream of revenue.
The second quarter of the eighteenth century was a time of great agricultural experimentation in South Carolina. By the 1720s, rice was well-established as a viable and profitable export crop, and investors (planters) were searching for additional uses for our vast and fertile lowcountry soils. In addition, renewed war with Spain and France (the so-called War of Jenkins’ Ear) motivated British agents and colonists to search for ways to reduce their dependence on foreign imports. The plants sesamum and indigofera were our next big contenders and the subjects of many practical trials and theoretical discussions. Anyone with the least familiarity with South Carolina history knows that a deep-blue dye stuff made from indigofera became an important export beginning in the 1740s, but one doesn’t hear anything today about what we might call “the great sesamum experiments” of the the 1740s.
Capitalizing on the local availability of sesamum seeds and the knowledge of their African slaves, several lowcountry planters raised crops in the 1740s and pressed the seeds to extract the valuable oil. The earliest known evidence of this activity appears in late September 1746, when James Island planter Francis Gracia (ca. 1694-1764) first advertised his “Sallad Oyl” made from “Cessamum or Benny Seed.”
Over the next several years, Gracia, known primarily as a “joyner” in urban Charleston, advertised his salad oil in the newspapers, but the product failed to take root on a commercial scale. By 1749, profit-minded lowcountry planters were throwing their investment resources into cultivating and processing indigo for export, and the dream of a South Carolina benne oil industry fizzled. This commercial failure did not discourage enslaved Africans from continuing to sow, harvest, and enjoy the seeds, however, and so benne quietly thrived for several more generations in the small patches of slave gardens on various lowcountry plantations. Its presence was acknowledged by some white agriculturalists of the late-eighteenth century, but the mania for cotton in the 1790s and beyond quickly eclipsed any further serious consideration of benne.
In the early years of the nineteenth century, when the American economy suffered because of trade wars with Britain, lowcountry planters turned their attention to the small domestic gardens of their enslaved laborers in search of alternatives to expensive imports. Once again the humble benne seed became the object of attention, not only as a rich source of oil but also as a nutritious ingredient in a variety of dishes and a logical rotation crop for domestic provision gardens. From that point on, benne was on the radar, so to speak, of every lowcountry agriculturalist.
Following the end of the Civil War in 1865, one hundred and fifty years ago this month, the long-established agricultural traditions of coastal South Carolina began to crumble and disperse. In the ensuing struggle to create a new economy not based on slavery, many lowcountry residents turned away from agriculture, and the story of the humble benne seed was largely lost in the shuffle. Benne continued to be cultivated and used locally, of course, but mostly by those at the lowest end of the economic scale. As tourism began to emerge as a viable local industry in the early twentieth century, visitors embraced the small, sweet benne wafer as a deliciously curious souvenir of the lowcountry experience. In fact, for many tourists, the benne wafer, especially those crafted by our friends at Old Colony Bakery, is the signature taste representing Charleston in their memories.
Today the benne seed is found in a variety of dishes in a growing number of lowcountry homes and restaurants. Local chefs have embraced the seed, and culinary historians are busy tracing the story of its migration from Africa to the Americas. As the veneration of the humble sesamum continues to grow, I encourage everyone to learn more about its colorful history and the wide variety of uses for its seeds and leaves. If you’d like to hear more about the local history of this important plant, please join me for a program titled:
Benne Seeds in the Lowcountry: A Brief History
Thursday, April 30th 2015 at 6 p.m.
Charleston County Public Library auditorium, 68 Calhoun Street, 29401.
For more information, please contact Dr. Nic Butler at butlern[at]ccpl.org or 843–805–6968