Nashville-based writer Chris Chamberlain profiles chefs and restaurants with particular talents for classic and reinvented Southern dishes. Now, he’s taking his investigations another link up the food chain as he travels to visit with some of those chefs’ favorite farmers, ranchers and purveyors from across the South. In a new Food Republic series, Southern Grown, find out what makes these suppliers so special that chefs will go the extra mile to use these products in their kitchens.
To the average person, grains and beans might be the most prosaic foods imaginable. Fortunately, Glenn Roberts of Anson Mills has more imagination than most of us, and he recognizes the history that lives within the DNA of rice, corn and field peas. Roberts is striving for no less than the rebirth and preservation of generations of heritage grains. And his signature stone-ground organic meal products are utilized in some of the premier kitchens across the country.
Yet despite his success and newfound cult-hero status, Roberts still clings to that old-timey Southern virtue: modesty. “I didn’t come into this business as a wealthy person, and I spent everything on mills and farming,” says Roberts, who founded his company in 1998. “I set out with a mission to make really good grits and meal while controlling the farming myself.”
Roberts, 67, grew up in the hospitality business, working in his mother’s restaurant in California as a young man. So he understands the language of the chef. Just don’t expect him to cook. “You know how some people are color-blind? Well, I’m cook-blind,” he says. “I can stand next to a chef and give him all sorts of ideas, but I have no cooking chops.”
Luckily for him, and the culinary world at large, he found his niche in farming instead. Of course, Roberts is more than your average Old McDonald. Really, the man has the mind of a geneticist. (During our recent 90-minute phone interview, peppered with talk of polycrops, cryogenics and other scientific jargon, this reporter quickly developed a newfound appreciation for his high-school biology curriculum.)
Roberts’s agricultural enlightenment is born out of his experiences discovering the abundant and amazing field products of the region around Charleston, South Carolina. He first encountered the legendary but once-scarce Carolina Gold rice while helping out in the kitchen at a charity event. Unfortunately, the rice was lousy. And by lousy, he means that it was filled with weevils that necessitated picking the bugs out of the grains by hand. “The rice was buggy because it was so limited in availability and so greatly in demand, there was a waiting list to buy it,” Roberts recalls. “By the time it got to us, there was no way it could still have been fresh.” So he set out to find a solution to the problem and bring Carolina Gold back into large-scale production and usage.
“My original plan was to make money selling corn and use the money to work on rice,” Roberts says. “It was a stupid idea, but it let me sleep at night.” Roberts swapped long missives with Southern Foodways Alliance director John T. Edge, talking about seed-saving and heritage grains to help concretize his ideas. “I didn’t really know about the concept of heirloom back then,” he says. “I just knew it had to be old because rice was really old and that my mom liked varieties of corn that I couldn’t find anymore, so I went looking for old corn.”
With the popularity of genetically modified broadleaf corn, which grows close together in tight rows on huge factory farms, “old corn” was difficult to source at first. Roberts started to hang around old gas stations in South Carolina, where he met families that were still farming the same varieties of corn that had grown on their home plots for generations. “They grew it for themselves and never went to the store for any of their food,” he says. By camping out on the front stoop of a Gulf station, he discovered varieties of vegetables, barley, wheat and rye that he’d never seen before.
His big breakthrough came when he started talking to bootleggers. “Once the word got around that I wasn’t going to bust anybody, I got more and more,” he says. The Carolina Gourdseed White corn that he discovered in a bootlegger’s field near Dillon, South Carolina, in 1997 was a variety that dated back to the 1600s. The unique properties of Carolina Gourdseed made it an ideal choice for a family farm, since it was known as a “keeper corn.” The leaves on the plant are thin and grow down toward the ground, meaning that a strong wind wouldn’t blow down an entire field and leave the family hungry. Cobs are still viable on the stalks as late as March, so a farmer could just harvest the corn as needed instead of cribbing it for the winter. It also grinds into fantastic grits.
His next major development was the practice of planting what locals referred to as “kitchen gardens.” Instead of monocropping, which is the preferred method of most rice and corn megafarmers, Roberts learned about the benefits of planting multiple species in small plots. Small family farmers grew different types of plants in the same field to provide food for their own needs. These gardens often featured what Native Americans called “The Three Sisters” — maize, beans and squash. The corn stalks support the growing bean vines like a terrace, while the beans fix nitrogen in the soil. The large decomposing leaves of the squash provide mulch after harvest to retain moisture in the soil. The practice provided the added benefit of actually changing the flavors of the crops, especially once Roberts began to substitute local benne seed plants for the traditional squash. “What you plant together affects the flavors, even if they don’t actually cross genetically,” he notes.
The polycrop process was known by the French term triage long before the word took on a medical connotation, and Roberts went after it full bore. “I had more than 60 varieties of maize and 20 different buckwheats, and I had to try to figure out which one went with which corn,” he says. “I really wish I was a Native American girl 300 years ago who just knew this intuitively.” In fact, Roberts even offered grants to Native American groups to try to glean this part of their history, but he soon discovered that most of the information was so site-specific that it wasn’t very useful to him in South Carolina.
His particular strain of Carolina Gold has been selected as the base genome for U.S. rice, and scientists intend to study the genetic drift from that standard. “We took a 150-year vacation from passing these seeds from hand to hand, so now we have to involve geneticists,” he says. “We can actually see empirical proof of something that was spiritual to the Native Americans. It’s really pretty stunning, philosophically.”
Some of Anson Mills’ most drought-resistant strains of old wheat were recently tested by farms in Southern California, producing the first wheat grown in the Los Angeles area in more than 75 years. These crops of Roman rye, Glenn, Sonora and Red Fife wheat brought grains back to Kern and Santa Barbara counties, locations that had been a major part of the California wheat belt that existed until the beginning of the 20th century. Local California chefs and bakers are excited about the prospect of being able to use local grains to cook and bake with once again.
This sort of symbiotic relationship between Anson Mills and the culinary community is an integral part of Roberts’s business strategy, especially because all of his research and meticulous farming practices lead to high prices for his wares. “We tell chefs that this stuff is frighteningly expensive,” he notes. “Chefs have to understand the cost of conservancy and research. But even at ten times the normal cost, we’re offering them more than just great-tasting rice and corn meal. We’re sharing palate memory from antiquity.”
One chef who is lucky enough to be in Roberts’s Rolodex is Jeremiah Bacon of thhe MacIntosh and Oak Steakhouse in Charleston. “The work he’s doing is phenomenal,” Bacon says of Roberts. “We’re very blessed to have such a rich agricultural history in this state, and for this guy to drop what he’s doing to just grow rice and bring back these heirlooms is remarkable. He’s a bit of a cult hero for all of us down here.”
Bacon first encountered Anson Mills products while working in the kitchen at Thomas Keller’s acclaimed New York restaurant Per Se. “I saw a bag of grits and thought, ‘What’s this?’ Now I give them two big orders a month for five different items on the MacIntosh menu,” he says. One novel dish is what Bacon calls “rice grits.” These rice grits, made with the broken pieces of Carolina Gold rice that are left over from the milling process — called “middlins” by locals — have a unique texture and a powerful flavor. “It cooks a little differently since the starches release faster,” notes Bacon. “We mix a cup of middlins with a quarter teaspoon of red quinoa, and the flavors are just outrageous!”
Bacon is exactly the sort of customer that Roberts seeks out for his products. “It’s easy to talk to chefs who are at the top of their game and the chefs who read a lot,” says Roberts. “Part of our marketing ideal is to talk about the process instead of the product. I never intended to just sell something. ConAgra already does that really well.”
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