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Grains and grits

The food in the Deep South of America is getting back to its agrarian roots, with a twist

Jon Fasman | July/August 2012

In a nondescript warehouse tucked behind a defunct car wash on the outskirts of Columbia, South Carolina, Glenn Roberts holds the American South in his hands. Roberts is a former hotel and restaurant designer who now runs Anson Mills, which distributes and mills heirloom seeds and grains. He has a shock of silver hair, blue eyes and a jovial and expansive manner. His speaking style could be called "discursive" in the same way the ocean can be called "a bit damp".

Laid out on his cluttered desk are several sealed plastic bags that he picks up and displays, one by one: rice, milled rice, sesame seeds, and the bedrock grain of the American South, the finely milled corn known as grits. Rice, sesame seeds and grits, of course, are available at any American grocery store. But Roberts’s grains are not grocery-store products. They are more irregular, some smaller and some larger. And they certainly do not taste like grocery-store fare. The sesame seeds have a nutty, grassy scent; they smell like ordinary sesame seeds much as a freshly cut summer lemon smells like washing-up liquid, while his grits have an earthy sweetness, an essence-of-corn flavour.

These are some of the earliest crops grown in the South—not pale imitations of those crops but the actual seeds. And in those bags, in his hands, are a snapshot of the land, its history and what its people ate: a botanical daguerreotype of a vanished world. The sesame seeds are genetically close to what west Africans, seized and forcibly taken to America to toil in the plantations, brought with them on their passage. Africa also provided okra, as well as other foodways—look closely at Jollof rice from Nigeria and jambalaya, from Louisiana, and you’ll barely be able to tell the difference.

In South Carolina, sesame seeds are still called by their Bantu name (benne). Rice reportedly came to America when a British ship sailing from Madagascar ran aground near Charleston in the late 17th century. As payment for fixing his ship the captain gave some seed rice to a local farmer. It was an opportune gift. Growing rice was labour-intensive and costly. It required a large amount of land and people to cultivate it, but fetched a good price when sold. It was, in short, the perfect crop for a slave-based economy: planters paid nothing in labour costs and reaped the marketplace benefits. The origins of corn date back much further than either of the other two crops. Native Americans were growing corn a thousand years before Christ handed out the loaves and fishes.

Africa, Europe, Native America. That they combined to form the mainstays of southern cuisine is hardly surprising; they combined to form America.

For centuries southerners ate grits not because they were southern, but because they were there. Southern food was close to the land; it was an agricultural region, and largely a poor one. The reason Cajuns eat gumbo over rice and not with a baguette, despite their Francophone origins, is because rice, not wheat, came from southern Louisiana. Greens (collards, usually, or some other hardy dark green) cooked with smoked pork became a staple of the African-American table—because the habit of eating long-cooked greens came from Africa, because collards grow almost anywhere and require little tending (perfect for a people whose working day never ended and the pay-cheque never arrived) and because slaves tended to get the less appealing bits of meat after butchery, and stewing was a way to stretch them.

Today the South is far less agricultural than it was. Today there are grocery stores everywhere. Today grits—indeed, southern food—is not southern so much as it is "Southern". In Atlanta, where I live, the two most renowned southern places—Mary Mac’s and the Colonnade—are often considered a bit naff; locals feel about them more or less the same way a Londoner would about touring Buckingham Palace, or a Parisian about going up the Eiffel Tower. And in a sense, those landmarks on the plate are not all that different from those iconic buildings. Britain is a monarchy in name only. Fin-de-siècle Paris is more than a siècle past. The contemporary South is profoundly different from the region it was a century ago, yet—like Paris and London—it retains an essential core: something to do with manners, rootedness, civility. And, of course, food.

Where the south begins and ends is an open question. Richmond, Virginia, was the capital of the Confederacy; today, though, it is barely beyond the orbit of the Washington suburbs. Texas was part of the Confederacy, but Texas is Texas. Northern Florida certainly is the rural South; southern Florida is basically Havana, Port-au-Prince and the Bronx mashed together (and I mean that as the highest of compliments).

And for all the stereotypes—Spanish moss, antebellum mansions, hazy fields—the South is hardly heterogeneous. Among my favourite aspects of travelling in the South is the way that geography has ensured that each state can contain multitudes. Knoxville, in eastern Tennessee, is part of Appalachia: rugged, mountainous and hard, its population mostly white, of Scottish-Irish heritage. Memphis, in south-western Tennessee, is often considered the northernmost part of the Mississippi Delta, home of America’s first music, the blues. The two cities share nothing but the two-letter postal code TN. You could say the same about Bristol, in Virginia’s Appalachian, south-western corner, and upmarket Fairfax, a northern Virginia suburb of Washington; or about swampy, low-lying, seafaring eastern North Carolina and its majestically beautiful hardscrabble western twin.

However it looks, it’s booming. In recent decades no region in America has grown as quickly, in population or wealth, as the South. In the middle of the last century, Atlanta was a modest little railroad city that happened to be the capital of an agricultural state; today it is a thriving, sprawling, multicultural city that is home to dozens of Fortune 1000 companies.

The 2010 census found that the South’s minority populations in particular were growing quickly. Older black Americans born here are returning; others are moving for the first time. Cascade Heights, a neighbourhood in south-western Atlanta, is among the wealthiest areas in the city; it is predominantly black. Most black members of Congress hail from the South, and Mississippi, of all places, now claims to have more black elected officials than any other state.

It’s not just black Americans. Buford Highway—once a poky little secondary road heading northeast out of Atlanta, now culinary home to Atlanta’s booming immigrant population—is lined with Central American and Mexican restaurants, the latter often distinguished by state. In them you can find later avatars of those same foundation seeds, used in different ways: corn in tamales rather than grits, rice spiked with lard and chillies or ground and soaked into horchata, sesame seeds ground into mole sauce. Today southerners consider such food Mexican; in another few decades, that may seem as pernickety as considering frankfurters German.

Glenn Roberts got out of hotel design 14 years ago, and started Anson Mills, devoted to producing and selling grains that predate mass production. Much of what he sells are landrace crops, meaning they developed naturally, rather than being selectively bred. Anson Mills has contracts with—and usually provides seed to—southern farmers who grow acres of landrace crops, at yields far lower but with demands far higher than their more common counterparts.

He insists that landrace crops like these are essential for food security. Genetic diversity among flora is a good thing, and landrace varietals vary wildly not just from continent to continent but often from field to field. Roberts’s clients, who include many of America’s most prominent chefs, like his products for another reason: they taste good. And that is what got Roberts into the business.

"My mother was Geechee," he explains (a Geechee is someone from south-eastern coastal South Carolina, often called the Lowcountry). "She grew up in Edisto, South Carolina, and she couldn’t find rice that tasted the way it used to."
That is not an uncommon complaint from someone looking back at childhood from a distance. Mrs Roberts, however, happened to be right, and she happened to be from a particular hotbed of American deliciousness. Many things from the Lowcountry taste better than similar products from elsewhere.

Much like Cajun and Creole cuisine of southern Louisiana, which is geographically similar, Lowcountry cuisine shares much with the rest of the South, but is distinct: more vibrantly seasoned, with an emphasis on seafood. The shrimp that feast on the eelgrass and brackish Lowcountry water are the sweetest I have ever tasted. The area is also renowned for its crabs and oysters, but at the risk of causing a stir, those are better farther north—the blue crabs in the mid-Atlantic, as close to the Chesapeake Bay as possible, and the oysters from New England or eastern Canada.

Then there is the rice. Roberts came around to his mother’s view when he was putting together an historical dinner in Savannah, Georgia, often considered the Lowcountry’s southern boundary. On the menu was red rice, a Lowcountry dish in which rice is fried in bacon fat with onions, garlic and celery, then cooked in a heavily seasoned tomato broth. Properly made, it is smoky, sweet and spicy; expertly made, it will have a savoury crust on the bottom of the pan.

But without first-rate rice, the dish is forgettable, and Roberts could not find first-rate rice. Alas, that is not unusual, even in the Lowcountry, which was founded, settled and made rich on rice—specifically, on Carolina Gold Rice brought over on that ailing ship from Madagascar, planted in the late 17th century, exported worldwide in the 18th and 19th centuries and now largely extinct as a commercial crop. Roberts says he was in despair: red rice without good rice was not worthy of inclusion. But then he heard that someone was growing Carolina Gold Rice across the river. "I went to look," he says, his eyes wide at the memory, "and I saw the halo. The seeds are golden, and it made this golden rainbow over the field."

Indeed, Carolina Gold is beautiful in the field, and exceptional on the palate. It has a full, subtle flavour, clean and pure with almost herbal undertones. As a modern commercial crop, however, it has two major problems: it is exceptionally perishable, and the grains break easily (Carolinians made a virtue of the latter problem, turning the broken grains, called “middlins”, into rice grits). For the diner, the advantages in taste far outweigh issues of storage and tensile strength; for the industrial farmer or agribusiness, making something a little worse (or in the case of most long-grain American rice, a lot worse) and much hardier wins every time.

One of Roberts's biggest fans is Sean Brock, whose two celebrated restaurants, McCrady’s and Husk, are in Charleston, a couple of hours south-east and a world away from Columbia. Columbia is quiet and unremarkable; Charleston is something else entirely. In any list of America’s most charming cities, Charleston must surely rank near the top. Palm trees line its cobblestone streets. Its housing stock is old and stately, and as a multicultural, wealthy port city it feels more like free-spirited New Orleans than anywhere else in strait-laced, agrarian South Carolina.

The food served at McCrady’s seems spiritually more like the high-end, farm-to-table restaurants of San Francisco or New York than what you’d get at a standard “meat-and-three” (the typical southern lunch or dinner plate, consisting of one portion of meat and three vegetables). The entrance, tucked down an alley, feels like a secret. Inside, the decor is high-end neutral: lots of earth tones, heavy cutlery, expensive tablecloths and linens. A recent four-course meal there began with an intense, earthy salad of winter brassica: lightly steamed broccoli, thinly sliced raw cauliflower and cabbage, dressed with buttermilk blended with Meyer lemons and garlic. For the fish course, the chef poached tilefish in olive oil, and served it with a little knot of perfectly cooked spinach, along with artful sauce-stripes of Kaffir limes, Meyer lemons and black garlic—garlic that is left to dry and ferment for 40 days. The meat course was the standout winner: three cuts of lamb cooked in different ways, including a cube of braised, compressed shoulder and neck, served with a homemade sambal that had been aged for two years. Dessert, after that dazzling, varied assault, was austere, perfect: a dish of lemon-verbena sorbet with slices of sweet apple and thin rounds of kumquat.

But consider: much of the produce and herbs came from Brock’s own gardens. The tilefish was caught just off the coast, in or very near South Carolina waters, and the "Certified Natural Grown" lamb came from Border Springs, a 60-acre farm in deep south-eastern Virginia. Most of the farmers who supply the restaurant, according to the list proudly displayed on the menu, come from South Carolina. Brock has a near-fanatical devotion to southern soil. At his other restaurant, he refuses to use any non-southern ingredients: olive oil did not make it into the kitchen until he found a Texan source (whether Texas is in fact part of the South is an ongoing, unanswerable debate; for vinaigrette purposes, it seems best to err on the side of openness). Brock himself hails from rural Virginia. If McCrady’s is not a southern restaurant serving genuine southern food, then the phrase "southern food" refers not to a living cuisine but to a museum piece.

The South needs no more museum pieces. It has history instead. Take a leisurely stroll beneath the Spanish moss in Savannah and gawk at the gabled mansions. Take Route 80 from Montgomery, Alabama, west through Alabama’s Black Belt—so named for its rich, loamy soil—and you’ll pass through Uniontown, Demopolis, Cuba: little towns with little downtowns of single-storey brick storefronts.

But the New South is right on top of it. Stand at the grave of Margaret Mitchell, who wrote "Gone with the Wind", and you’ll see Atlanta’s skyscrapers looming behind you. A few months back I was in Nashville, and after a day of perusing some country-music shrines—the Grand Ole Opry House; Bobby’s Idle Hour, one of the world’s greatest dive bars—I had a wonderful dinner at Dunya Kabob, one of Nashville’s many Kurdish restaurants. A year back I found myself in Oxford, Mississippi, surely one of Charleston’s most fearsome rivals for the title of the South’s most charming town. I was on my way to Parchman Farm, Mississippi’s state penitentiary, where prisoners still wear black-and-white jumpsuits.

It was sundown, and in an unremarkable little strip mall I discovered the best bar snack in Mississippi, if not the entire planet: thinly sliced pig’s ears, fried crisp, laid on a bed of braised, tonic collard greens and tossed with a tamarind vinaigrette. That is the creation of Vishwesh Bhatt, a Gujarati who has been cooking in Oxford, Mississippi, for the last decade. The dish is both authentically southern—witness the greens and ingenious use of odd bits of the pig (southern cuisine, coming as it does from agricultural poverty, is inherently thrifty)—and authentically Indian: the tamarind and the chickpea flour with which Bhatt coats the ears. As I emerged from the restaurant, the muggy, fragrant Mississippi evening wrapping itself around me like a sweater, the taste lingered, but so did the idea behind the taste.

Is it new? Of course, just as Brock’s cooking is new. But that makes it neither untraditional nor un-southern. After all, those seeds that Glenn Roberts held in his hand produce crops at once ancient and—precisely because they are so ancient, because the South is no longer a region of small farmers growing their own grains and taking them to the local mills, because even in the rice-loving Lowcountry most people eat supermarket rice and in the rest of the grits-loving South people eat supermarket grits—new to the palates of almost everyone who tries them. The past is never dead. Neither is it past. 

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