In their ongoing quest to revive and preserve ancestral grains, a Clemson University scientist and his collaborators have begun the process of restoring a nearly extinct variety of wheat that traces its American roots to the 1700s.
Purple Straw is the only heirloom wheat to have been cultivated continually in the South from the Colonial Period into the last quarter of the 20th century. While most other ancestral varieties of wheat were annihilated in the 19th century by a multipronged assault of pestilence and pathogens, Purple Straw continued to thrive. Perhaps, this was due to it being a short-growing winter wheat that matured before it could be seriously threatened.
Ironically, Purple Straw’s fall into disfavor came not from disease or infestation but rather from the rise of modern hybrid wheats and foreign introductions that were genetically designed for disease resistance, grain size and massive production using petroleum-based fertilizers. Even if fully restored, Purple Straw will not be able to compete with these hybrids when it comes to quantity, but it will stand out admirably in terms of flavor and nutrition.
“Purple Straw had certain culinary qualities that impressed people from the first,” said South Carolina food historian David Shields, who is the author of “Southern Provisions: The Creation and Revival of a Cuisine.” “It has a purplish stem and husk – hence its name. But it’s a high-protein, low-gluten wheat that mills white and is soft and easily handled, making it great for whiskey, cake flour and biscuits. And of course, what’s more Southern than whiskey, cake and biscuits?”