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A Grits Revival With the
Flavor of the Old South
By Kay Rentschler

Many of this country's most celebrated chefs have spent hours on the phone with a man in a derelict metal warehouse behind a carwash here. He teaches them how to cook grits.

Grits, particles of ground corn that cook into shiny, barely articulated little beads, holding forth in a stout pudding, have had legendary appeal in the South. But it is only in the last decade that they have been discovered by top chefs elsewhere. Grits cookery is not difficult, but these are not ordinary grits, and the chefs know it.

The man in the warehouse is Glenn Roberts, and his company, Anson Mills, has been the driving force in bringing old and nearly extinct species of heirloom corn back to health.

The effort is part of Mr. Roberts's grander mission: to restore the pedigree of antebellum low country cuisine.

Milled between wheels of native granite, the heirloom corn, grown at organic farms in six states, becomes the grits that beguile chefs like Charlie Trotter of Chicago, Thomas Keller of both Per Se in New York and the French Laundry in California and David Pasternack of Esca in New York.

The flavors swirling around a bowl of Anson Mills grits are heady, with sweet, roasted and cream corn flavors and a fine edge of something green and floral.

"Anson Mills grits are unparalleled," said Mr. Trotter, who pairs the humble grains and their resplendent "complex nutty-corn flavor" with all manner of fish, meat and game. They are on his menu every evening.

But how did those grits end up in Chicago in the first place? It has been, for Mr. Roberts, an odyssey of scholarship and sweat.

Mr. Roberts, 56, studied music and German literature at the University of North Carolina. But his overarching interests aligned themselves in the study of architectural history and the history of food.

"Food is central to the culture of the South," he said. Over the course of a 22-year career as a historic architecture restoration consultant, Mr. Roberts was often asked at the completion of projects to come up with authentic menus reflecting the architectural period. But only rarely could he find the ingredients he needed.

In the half-century since his mother grew up in Aiken, S.C., many ingredients that informed the character of regional cookery, known historically as the Carolina Rice Kitchen, were no longer available.

Mr. Roberts studied records of pre-Civil War agriculture and cooking literature, discovering accounts of corn varieties that had apparently passed into extinction.

"I vowed I would find or restore the quality ingredients of the Carolina Rice Kitchen and make them available," he said. So in 1998, he tossed out his business cards, donated his suits to charity, rented his 6,000-square-foot warehouse and bought four granite mills.

Among the missing heirlooms were dozens of varieties of antebellum sweet mill corn which was bred to ripen and dry in the field. These varieties possessed superior flavor and qualities suited for making grits or corn meal (ground corn products of different gauge).

Considered too labor-intensive for modern agriculture, once-honored varieties Carolina Gourdseed White, John Haulk Yellow, Burris White and Boone County White, among others had disappeared into the woods with families engaged in the bootleg whiskey trade.

Mr. Roberts went after them.

What he was looking for, specifically, was classic Southern dent corn, so-called because of the dent on top of each kernel. Naturally soft, dent corn is perfect for grinding into corn mash for whiskey and perfect for grits.

Mr. Roberts set out to find small mills in the woods that ground the bootleggers' seed. He found the seed, but his first crop, 30 acres, blew down in an August thunderstorm. His crop the following year, however, was magnificent.

"I started sharing grits from that corn with chefs in the Carolinas and Georgia," he said. "Everyone was knocked out by the flavor." He set an additional eight heirloom varieties into the ground in 2000.

"Great corn is like great wine," he said. "It gets its flavor from the flavor of the earth."

But heirloom corn needs more than good soil. Unlike high-yield commodity hybrids, bred to tolerate close quarters in the field, heirloom corn requires 18 inches of separation between plants. Yet it craves community: corn planted in groups of 100 or less does not pollinate properly and will ultimately die. Heirloom corn also ripens unevenly, so it must be harvested by hand.

Until the late 19th century, Southern farmers regularly took their corn to local millers. But by 1950, big roller mills had flattened the little stone mills (corn varieties themselves had long since succumbed to hybrids grown for shelf stability), and the era of uniform-size, flavorless grits and corn meal was off and running.

In the 1970's and 80's, efforts to preserve old mills brought artisanal whole grain milling back into public consciousness. But stone milling alone offered no solution: stone mills can damage corn flavor with high milling temperatures.

Mr. Roberts scoured additional historic documents and found a description of an 1850 yellow dent corn variety from Ohio that was milled frozen. This prompted him to freeze his own Carolina Gourdseed before milling it. The ensuing flavor was startling, so he began freezing all his mill corn.

Stone milling what Mr. Roberts calls two rocks and some grain is not rocket science. Much of the flavor development work takes place in the sifters after the grain is milled. Anson Mills uses combinations of screens to produce products of various consistencies and flavors.

Different size particles of the same corn possess markedly different flavors. Anson Mills grits, milled from one-sixth of an inch to one-26th of an inch in diameter, are the coarsest grits produced in this country. They contain pieces of whole germ, which is responsible for 90 percent of the flavor in fresh grits. The large and uneven particles are crucial. (When corn is finely milled, the germ explodes into dust.)

Anson Mills grits taste best when cooked slowly, so starches are released throughout the cooking process.

"Grits should not be gritty," Mr. Roberts said. "Ours come packaged with instructions. But busy chefs don't always read the collaterals. They call me and say, `These grits taste great, but the texture is horrible.' So I walk them through the cooking process they're at the stove, phone in one hand, spoon in another."

Bob Kinkead, the chef of Kinkead's in Washington, considers the beauty of grits "their ability to soak up massive quantities of butter." He added, "Anson Mills grits do that better than any others."

At Rialto in Cambridge, Mass., Jody Adams uses Anson Mills grits and polenta. "It is inspiring to find grains that haven't had the life ground out of them," she said.

Anson Mills has provided grants to farmers to resuscitate a dozen varieties of rare or endangered sweet mill corn. The company also shares its expertise in research, management advice and seed selection with growers who plant small plots of heirloom seed.

Anson Mills has in addition taken on research and production of organic heirloom wheat and Carolina gold rice.

Mr. Roberts said the work will be worth it if it offers future generations of Southerners a good, steady taste of the past.

Recipe: Creamy Grits With Fontina Fonduta and Mushroom Stew


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