Glenn Roberts: My name is Glenn Roberts. I’m Owner of Anson Mills and President of the Carolina Gold Rice Foundation.
Question: What does the term “heirloom” mean when applied to crops?
Glenn Roberts: “Heirloom” is an interesting concept and only in the country of India have they bothered to delineate the real definitions by law. An American parlance here in the North American continent, we generally assume the term “heirloom” to mean any plant, or possibly animal, that was in production and broadly popular prior to 50 years ago. In 2010, that means 1960. That would include parts of the green revolution and hybrids now. So there’s some controversy surrounding the word “heirloom.” Good, bad, indifferent, it's probably above my pay grade. We prefer to use the word “land-raised” to delineate the fact that older seeds, plants, animals are developed on a farm over ages, not just lately with the intervention of modern science.
Question: What is the term for crops bred with scientific intervention?
Glenn Roberts: Well, we generally use the word around the globe, “Green Revolution,” but the advent of industrialization coincided around the world at different times, but certainly between, say the late 1700’s and the late 1800’s, in that century you saw tremendous industrial development everywhere, and it seems to be matched hand-in-hand with scientific advances, and it’s not to qualify whether it’s good or bad, but the scientific advances in seedsmanship, in my field, where you are dealing with grains, where a scientist is actually “improving,” and I put that in quotes, what had heretofore been only land-raised plants.
Question: Are scientifically “improved” crops superior to the land-raised kind?
Glenn Roberts: I think—and I think that I can repeat what geneticists that are associated with breeding and addressing famine and addressing plant disease worldwide, in their later years seem to drift into where, I believe, the answer to your question lives. And it’s a tough question. So, the immediate answer is I think land-raised plants are vital and critical to our future. Does that make them better? I’m not so sure the quality assessment’s important, certainly my work with them, I like the foods associated with land-raised plants and animals at this point in history better than I like what we’ve been doing with the green revolution and modern scientific breeding. That’s a personal opinion.
On a scientific and worldwide judgment, I think that you have to take application into the answer. If you’re talking about small farming for a local community and small scale distribution—which means radiuses of less than say, 20 miles—there’s no question that land-raised plants are far superior, period; and animals too. Better flavor, better nutrition, all this. Not documented in America, but some work in EU and certainly in UNESCO fields, certainly in Asia there’s been a lot of work on this. But when you speak about commodities and having to "feed the world" and address famine and global climate change, if you lump all those things in, then the definition of the vigorous and vital nature of land-raised plants becomes pretty arcane immediately because those plants, the land-raised plants, are the building blocks for modern foods, period. You can’t improve “modern foods” without the genetics of the original land-raised plants, which were in the public domain through history until relatively recently. Now that’s more privatized, it’s more the domain of large corporations who are engaged in these massive economies.
So, when you ask, are they better? It brings this cascade of large concept into such a humble thing as a human improved plant system. So, my answer is, on a small scale, there’s no question “land-raised” plants are superior. On a large scale, I think the verdict’s out.
Question: Why are land-raised crops more expensive?
Glenn Roberts: In the short-term, land-raised systems in general, both plants and animals—so when you say land-raised animals, just make sure we have that clear that heritage breeds is the current term we use in America... When you think of that entire system of land-raised plants and animals, it’s far more expensive to start doing it since, in our sphere in North America, most of the land-raised farming has been gone for at least a century, and some of it’s been gone for almost two centuries. And in my field, practically, it’s definitely been gone for more than a century.
There are pockets of places, like in the wheat industry, where some land-raised plants survive in the commodities production system. Kansas is a good example where Turkey Wheat survives. Canada is even a better example where Red Fife Wheat, which both of these wheats—Turkey and Red Fife Wheats are both land-raised wheats—they’re in high production, not low production, and they are part of the commodities industry. They’re still more expensive and in general, I think to begin farming land-raised plants, the way they’re supposed to be farmed, which means low fertility, low hydration requirements; they don’t require a lot of water, and in fact, some of them don’t want it, a high tolerance for pest and disease stress, a really high tolerance for climatic stress. That’s how they survived over a millennia to become foods that we have in modern times.
When you look at those, to begin using them is relatively inexpensive, which is why our NGO systems look at land-raised plants when they’re thinking about third world agriculture because it takes nothing to get it grown.
Conversely, to apply those same land-raised systems to virgin ground where there hasn’t been a culture for land-raised systems, is very expensive. You can’t go to a seed company and buy reasonably priced seed. You can’t find it anywhere. You can get 100 grams in a grain bank somewhere if you’re lucky and you understand science because all those sources use numbers and Latin, so you have to be familiar on a scientific basis with how botany and taxonomy and morphology works. And that’s very difficult for a lay person to jump that little hurdle. And then the next problem would be: what exactly are the methods that maintain crops in a land-raised system over the long-term? So, once I say they’re very expensive in the short term because you have to be your own seed company, your own farmer, and then your own processor because a lot of these things aren’t suitable to modern processing. Neither are they suitable to modern distribution.
Once you cover those problems, or challenges, and you actually get past them, the expense of the system starts moving down. And in the long term, having native fertility, which means you’re bring nothing onto a farm, having your own seed production, which means you’re not having to buy seed, and having your processing distribution being right in your immediate area, cuts all of these costs and they become far less expensive in the long term. But in the modern age, I’d say since 1970, when interest in this really began, there are some good examples, but they’re pretty sparse so far. It’s coming, and it’s coming at exponential speeds. The development is really gratifying to see, as I said here, I couldn’t have probably have discussed this two years ago with any credibility. And it’s great to see it happening.
Question: Why did you establish Anson Mills?
Glenn Roberts: I became interested in cereal grains, not even thinking about the fact that they were cereal grains. To me that was Post Toasties and Wheaties and things like that. I had been building hotels and in the food business for a long, long time. And my mother was a hotelier as well. But she had been raised in South Carolina in Aiken and on Edisto Island, which is a sea island just south of Charleston, South Carolina. And I was raised in San Diego, California with a lot of southern cooking. My mom is a black-skillet cook. That’s what she grew up on. And she’s also what we call Geechee, G-E-E-C-H-E-E, which means Rice at Every Meal. The first pot on the stove in the morning is rice and it’s there all day long. And my surfing buddies when I was growing up just thought that was the weirdest thing in the world.
I took it all for granted and then during college sort of started sending my mother back to San Diego grits that I’d find, because I went to school in North Carolina. So, I’d find grits, which are ground corn that’s a staple food in the southern part of the United States. I’d find grits and occasionally I’d air freight some greens back when I found some really good collards. And field peas occasionally, biscuit wheat, specifically graham flour, because we were raised with those traditions. And she never really liked anything that I sent her. And over the course of me building hotels around the U.S. and then narrowed it down to I loved working in the South, so I narrowed it down to the South and narrowed it down to the Virginia to the Georgia coastal corridor, and then I finally walked away from it. I discovered that what my mother had grown up on just wasn’t there anymore, period. There was no really fresh milling of grits, which is a food whey that is very important to the South, and it’s worldwide, new crop rice, hand-pounded by the fields and cooked immediately. We don’t even have that in this country. We don’t have a designation under the USDA that I know of that says new crop anything. So, the concept’s gone.
My mother remembered all of that because during the Depression in the South, everybody was growing and then hand-milling their own stuff. They couldn’t afford to do anything else. So, if you wanted grits, you had to grind them yourself on a hand mill in the back yard, and you had to grow the corn or you weren’t going to eat. So, my mom, being in the hotel business, fed more people out the back door than the front door. And the back door folks were actually eating better than the front door folks, if my mom had anything to do with it.
So that kind of hand food, directly out of the ground, is what my mother was looking for. And when I sent her these things back, they were really from the industrial age and they had no connection to artisan foods, or hand foods, or anything that would have to do with fresh. You know, the idea of fresh grains just was foreign today. As a point of food excellence, fresh milled cereal grains, if you want to get technical, convey a much greater flavor profile than grains that are aged up. Unless you know what you’re doing, you can actually take the aging philosophies that happened in the near eastern rim all the way through Eurasia and off into China and then the islands, Japan and Korea.
If you look at how those food preservation systems work with grains, that was actually being done in the South as well and is now gone. My mother actually knew about that too. So, aged rice have new crop rice on this side being grown right where she was on Edisto Island in little patches and hand pounded fresh for the table, every day. So they knocked the hulls off with a mortar and hand-pound system, winnow off the hulls, and that rice would be table rice. And then they were also aging rice and that came from saving seed. So, my mother was involved in all of that and never warmed to anything that I sent her.
So, I got into Anson Mills because as we opened these historic hotels that I was working on, we needed period specific dinners for the architecture of the hotel, most of them were federal-, national-, some of them were Georgian-period architecture. So, we looked for meals that were indigenous and also matched that period and started doing food history research. And as I became more and more interested in how that worked, and how my mother wasn’t being satisfied with the things I sent her, I realized that we just weren’t growing and/or producing foods like that anymore. So, I decided to do it. That’s the short story.
Question: How did you find the grains?
Glenn Roberts: My mother was my main consultant. So, I milled a lot of corn that I sourced all over the place because I figured if I started with grits, I could make it to rice because I’m a rice person and I wanted to do rice, but I knew it was nigh on impossible. No one was growing rice for any reason but small research and/or hunting in South Carolina when I started Anson Mills. The concept actually started in the early '90s, but I founded Anson Mills in 1998. So, all during the time between early '90s, and 1998, I was actually looking for corn. I ended up chasing down bootleggers; those are people who make liquor illicitly in the hills and valleys and in out of the way places in the South, and particularly in South Carolina we have some hot spots in the center of the state, and then out towards the coast, and certainly in the mountains.
I was fascinated with what my mother told me she thought would be the best grits came from the coastal areas of the Carolinas. So, I started looking for bootleggers along the coastal regions and found one who was completely off the grid. They had tractor-powered mills in the middle of nowhere on vast farms. So, it’s corn and wheat and everything else growing forever. This family had been at it since the 1600s. They were on the local church register. So, they had retained every one of their food ways. They were still making all their own jams, growing grapes and making their own wine, growing their own corn, making their own grits, and making their own liquor, growing their own wheat and making phenomenal graham biscuits from new crop wheat out of the field and they had different foods for different seasons of crop harvest all year long. And everything was intertwined and everything grew together. So, you didn’t have field peas as field peas, you’d have field peas and corn together in the same field. You didn’t grow just wheat, you’d grow wheat that was say, 30 inches tall, and then you maybe grow rye above it that was seven feet tall, harvest the rye first; cut it high, then cut low for the wheat, and then they’d have clover down her at the bottom, or winter peas, or whatever. All of these were winter crops.
So, nobody was growing any one thing in a field. When I first saw that, I went, you can’t machine this. And he said, "Why would we want to machine this? This is eating food. This is not—we’re not selling this off for animals. This is what we eat. This is our kitchen food." And it was the first time I heard anyone else talk in reality about what my mother had always said about kitchen gardens and kitchen fields. And so, I stayed with that family a long time and they gave me the starting corn that I started Anson Mills with, which was a gourd seed, which just means dense, but it’s dint of a period when we didn’t do a whole lot to native American corn. So, it’s not much removed from what corn was there upon first contact.
And in that particular way, we discovered... rediscovered the ideas of new crop, rediscovered the ideas of fresh milling, which we knew were there, but no one was doing it, and decided that there’s got to be a way to distribute this and kind of violate the rules. So, instead of the 20-mile radius, we picked as our kitchen population, the best chefs in America, which is more like a boutique winery. And that’s how Anson Mills came about.
Question: Did you use only land-raised grains for environmental or cultural reasons?
Glenn Roberts: The only environment we were interested in is whether we were going to like the food; I mean a lot and whether it was going to be remarkable. You know, we predicated everything only on flavor. And from flavor, which you send something to a chef that they’ve had and all of a sudden they’re having an epiphany. There's: "I’ve never tasted it like this before."
It started with flavor; everything else came from it, and came from it easily. There’s not one new advance except for trying to limit diesel that I can think over the last decade—since I’ve been doing this now for 12 years—that I wasn’t already doing just because we wanted flavor. Flavor equals nutrition in land-raised plants and animal systems. If you don’t have remarkable flavor, the nutrition’s not there. That’s how hunter/gatherers worked. You know, taste it. Then make it taste better, and if it tastes better, it’s better for you. That’s a fundamental, from antiquity, for all of mankind.
Question: What advice would you give to the President or the Secretary of Agriculture?
Glenn Roberts: One, it’s a fabulous idea to think that the President, any President, would have time enough to stop and consider sustainability beyond a talking point and beyond getting someone into the Cabinet that is driven in this direction. And frankly, the current administration seems to have done that on a fairly credible scale. They brought in some caring people on that level and I think those people have a voice.
Certainly in the White House, there’s a lot of sustainable agricultural advocates for what goes on with state dinners now and things like that. They’re actually thinking through food systems when they bring them forward, they’re also thinking culturally. And I haven’t mentioned this, but if I had the ear of anyone in government, including the President or the Secretary of Agriculture, I would say that the culture of food is probably as, or more important than the production of food. It’s something that we’ve ignored in our country for a lot of reasons. We have a food science revolution that runs parallel to the talking points that I am delivering right now. And that food science revolution is based on things that we could barely recognize as food 30 years ago. So, I think that we have to think about the culture of food; the fact that food actually is an important part of our culture and not just something that fuels the culture in one way, shape or form. Food as fuel is a dangerous concept.
Question: Do you see your work as helping to sustain Southern culture?
Glenn Roberts: Everything that we do to the public—and Anson Mills didn’t really have a public until maybe three or four years ago, we just couldn’t get enough resources into that direction. And when you’re talking about we’re supplying the best chefs around the world, that’s not really "the public." The chefs have the ear of the public. So, in our pursuit of our cultural responsibility, we have slowly, but surely begun to build... a lot of people would say, "Why didn’t you write the book?" And the answer is I don’t have enough broad concept experience to write a book yet. But we are saying what I think, I hope, is the truth about what we are doing very, very slowly at AnsonMills.com. And we are being very careful to knit it together culturally. It is a cultural exercise there; it is not a sales vehicle. It is not so that we can package up little units and send them to the public. It’s a cultural vehicle. And when you go there, you’re going to note that it is calm, and it has deep authenticity, and as we move forward the chaotic stream of products, that if you click on the wholesale products side and could imagine what the cultural documentation would be for the some 200 different arcane products that even most chefs in American haven’t heard of... when you think about the fact that that’s going to come down and get filtered by a very carefully edited view so that what we’re presenting... if you say, "I don’t understand that," you actually can get a cogent and simple answer that has cultural meaning. That’s where we’re going with AnsonMills.com. But in my opinion, it’s very much there.
We’ve had two national awards because of it just recently and we have more on the way. I don’t think we use those as mile markers for our success this way, but I think that the responsibility that we have would be to say, "What we are presenting is a land-raised cuisine that belongs to the culture of the region in which we are farming. And it has belonged to the culture no matter what diaspora affected it since the beginning of settlement and before." The south is one of the very few places in the United States where a broadly popular food way, the history of a certain food, shows through pre-first contact, or pre-Columbian. We have pre-Columbian foods on the table and they are no different than what Native Americans were eating when the first settlers showed up. And we have a lot to do... we’re seedsmen with a few nation to kind of stay connected at Anson Mills and through the foundation as well. And I think that the food then has to show through as a whole body of cuisine and that is the culture of the food.
If you’re just focused on heirloom tomatoes, squashes, and things like that, which is great... What sort of cuisine are they supposed to be tied to? Why are you doing that in your garden besides the fact that a beautiful tomato is beautiful? There’s a higher meaning to the tomato besides the fact that you have a tomato that should be gone that’s still here, and thank God. It tastes great, so what do you do with it, really, besides eat it? That’s a good celebration. That’s a first one, but what was it originally? How did it arrive at being so terrific? What was the food – what was the perception of the cuisine, or the food, or the foods, of the culture in which the tomato evolved to become so glorious?
So our responsibility would be to bring the culture of our local farming forward in its food. And the paradigm then says: sustainability, flavor, preservation, survival, nutrition, culture, begins at the table, goes to the farm. It’s not farm to table. It’s table to farm. As soon as you get passed the American Depression, the 1930’s, it’s table to farm. Not the other way around.
Question: What are the main threats to Southern food culture today?
Glenn Roberts: I think that the idea of bringing together these sort of monoculture that is just so pervasive. The idea that pizza is the most popular food in America is a good example of what can happen in the South. And I guess I shouldn’t say anything without pointing a gent named John T. Edge, who actually really, no kidding, gets it and worries about the disappearance of the bread that makes po’ boys in New Orleans. Worries about the disappearance of pickles and the way they’re done in a certain place. It all plays base, specific cultural interpretations of fundamental ingredients. Wheat in New Orleans, well we don’t think about that. We don’t think about ployes in New Orleans, P-L-O-Y-E-S, which is a crepe which is straight from Brittany and the northern part of Spain. And was Acadian. We don’t think about how those things knit together in southern foods. In fact, I would grant you that probably 99 out of 100 people who are fascinated with cuisine have never even heard the idea that crepes made from buckwheat in Louisiana are really popular. You know? That’s something that we worry about going away.
Do you know why crepes made from buckwheat are popular? You have to grow buckwheat in order to grow corn, or your fields go down if you don’t have synthetic nitrogen. So those place-based foods have an agricultural meaning, but then they have this glorious evolution into terrific food that is sustaining as well. And I think that the threat then would be that we lose the fine points—what people would call, the kind of arcania, the little teeny things that have to do with Southern food, and its culture, and then how to apply that same idea to the other regions in this country, and then in Mexico where the tacorias are being taken over by instant masa. And it’s rare even here in New York right now, New York City. It’s rare with our great big Latin influence here to find anyone doing fresh masa on a human scale. It’s really hard. You can see them doing it on a production scale, but who’s making masa at home any more? This is something that everyone used to do. The ash bucket under the roof drain making wood-lye potash and then dropping grain—corn, is a good one, and beans go in too if you want—but dropping corn. You make a vital and important nutritional transformation of food. Right?
And I worry about the hand processes being gone. Even with the current, “let’s do it all in our garden” thing. I worry that that won’t be sustained. So, it’s the smaller points where we may even have the foods. Tortillas aren’t threatened. Well they’re not. Well maybe they are. Well who knows how to make them? You need a machine? That sort of thing.
Question: Is genetic engineering a bad thing?
Glenn Roberts: Genetic engineering is not a bad thing because even if it were, it’s not going to go away. I have geneticist friends who have no barriers whatsoever moving from conventional breeding... which means we’re using a microscope and we’re taking genetics out of one thing and putting it in another thing, that’s conventional breeding. Whereas we’re bombarding something with radiation from something else and splicing genes and doing all kinds of nanotechnology, they have no trouble walking back and forth. I don’t think that genetic engineering is a bad thing if we know its impact. And I think that just as much on the conventional side, I can raise issues about invasive species on a conventional basis that are more deleterious. Bamboo. We all love bamboo, don’t we? It is a threat in the South because of just people planting it just for fun. Well, it never goes away. Dig 100 feet down, it’s still there.
We have weedy rice in the South that’s still there from before the Civil War that took down rice fields where you can’t farm the rice fields. So, I have examples that are every bit as deleterious as what we might imagine from genetic engineering that have been here continuously for our existence here in America, certainly. And so I could say "Do I want to focus on genetic engineering?" The answer is, I don’t at all. I don’t have time. Am I kind of leery of it? Yes, I am. I was trained in the sciences as a college student. So, I’m concerned about the long-term processes and how we evaluate this and whether the evaluation is thorough or whether we are trying to satisfy a profit motive in a business stream. I’m sensitive to that. By the same token I think there are things being done in research that may be rushing... may be perceived as rushing the results, to put it in lay terms.
Question: Why has the idea of “slow food” regained popularity?
Glenn Roberts: I don’t think slow food ever went away; it just was on the fringe. I think everybody remembers Quaker Oats took 45-minutes-to-an-hour to cook, if they’re my age. And now they take 30 seconds in a microwave. And I think that if that’s particular right inside of the things I do because oats are a phenomenal part of the rotations of the crops we grow. But I use that a lot. Not because Quaker is evil, but because that’s a good representation of how we saw food move from post-World War II until the middle '90s. And I think that other people would see it as, "Oh fast food and fast food chain restaurants" and they tie it immediately to food disease-related issues. I just see it as a diminishment of flavor over time. I see these pop and crackle flavors I was always involved in the food production industry in hotels and restaurants. So, I saw chefs, as a rule, abandoning these multi-day stock reduction systems for cuisine and moving into systems that didn’t require that to save labor, save food costs—it actually is more expensive to not make stocks, but they were thinking they were saving food costs. And I watched that entire wave happen while still the classics were still being taught worldwide. You know, stock is endemic to civilization, it is not something we thought up to have a fine French restaurant.
And as I see the movement to then step away from trying to abbreviate things and as I watched people start to put the moniker together, Carlo Petrini being I guess the first person that really popularized the idea, it was actually an outgrowth, I think more from the fact that we didn’t want to lose something than the fact that we were losing something. A lot of people just assumed that we didn’t want to lose something, whereas my interest in what happened with the people who did slow food and became interested in slow food was, they thought they were retrieving something. And the, I think, deep will to have some sort of authentic and meaningful nutrition is really where all this lives. And the word “authentic” has been beat to death so I hate to use it. So we could try for something else, which would be there is a certain sort of marker over time for the kinds of experiences that gives you sustenance and well being. And we talk about the idea of slow cooking, capturing that well being because it doesn’t blow so much out of food. When you don’t put fast heat to something, just mechanically, there’s more there when you’re done cooking than if you try to cook the same thing in five minutes versus cooking it in an hour.
And there’s a lifestyle that goes with that, learning to be conscious while not present that goes with it, and I think that that idea then would be... it’s highly feminine because it’s multi-layered and the multi-phasic individuals on the planet usually are women. It comes to them naturally, men not so much. But the idea then that cooking can become something you can do many, many different things at once without tending to any one thing at any one time. And I think that is actually the draw. I think people became bored with the idea that they were delivered everything and it became... they became—that’s the other thing that gets beat to death—we’re disconnected from our foods. Well, we were disconnected from the process too; that the chef’s are not doing stock and all that. That all came about with the word "instant" and I think that’s pretty much the zeitgeist. If it was instant, well then you say, what’s next? And if you haven’t thought that through really, really well, you get boredom.
Question: Could your techniques be used to preserve Yankee as well as Southern food?
Glenn Roberts: That’s actually what I’m up here doing; I’m talking to probably 20 or 30 highly respected people about ways to get this to connect. I've thrown a lot of resources into the northeast because the idea here is, just pick a grain... wheat, people say, okay wheat. Well, you can’t just do wheat, but let’s say you did. The Northeast is negative. They import essentially all of their wheat. If you’re thinking about land-raised systems, we were net exporting. Which may or may not have been good because the idea of food as a weapon was invented in the Northeast and then applied worldwide, so we have some recognition for that. The idea of producing cheap food started up here. That doesn’t mean it’s bad up here, but the idea of cheap food that we could export and undercut prices worldwide, the first floors on the London Exchange that were not set on the London Exchange, were set out of the Northeastern United States. And then they immediately, no kidding, went to the West Coast and for the next century, 1800 forward, for the first 50 years of revolution, 1775-1825, all the floors for grain for export in the London Exchange were set in the Northeast. After 1825 to 1900, that developed and shifted from the Northeast to California. And we set all the wheat floor prices for international commodity work off the London Exchange out of California. What I find fascinating about that is that in doing the floor setting in the Northeast, we lost the connection to the vital part of our Northeastern cuisine that had identity- and place-based meaning. And so I’m up here now tilting at that windmill. It’s quixotic. What is the connection between all the farming systems before we had to produce an export up here? Native Americans—I’m working with people in the diaspora because we don’t really have a super viable native farming system in the Northeast.... But all of our best, say, corn, is still Native American. Abenaki, Native American corn is indigenous to Maine and the Northeastern corridor up there. What’s known as Northeastern flint, Algonquin, Iroquois, and now Oneida and it had to go to Canada before we worried about losing it. And so now the best seedsman for it is Scott Hill, and he’s in the middle of nowhere in Canada at Six Nations. They are just keeping that seed available.
So, when we look at those foods and how first settlement interacted with Native American foods like happened where I’m from, we don’t get a blazing meaning. We get Boston baked beans; we get lots of aberrations of the diaspora of the old world much stronger showing through in modern times than we do in the south because we had to take a holiday after the Civil War. All the resources were wiped out, so nothing changed for a long time. That poverty in the South kept a lot of these systems in gear and intact a lot longer than had happened in the Northeast.
So, there’s a lot more work to do up here. And when I bring it up with the best chefs up here, and I’ve brought it up with all of them, they look kind of... "Well we’re growing all these heirloom foods. Where’s the cuisine? If you’re doing some of the best squash that’s most indigenous up here, where’s the cuisine with that?" I sit on the biodiversity committee for Slow Food U.S.A. and what is being done individually is extraordinary. There are teams right this minute scouring the woods all over New England looking for lost apples. Right now. They go out every day. Every day, 365 days a year; that’s pretty extraordinary. They are looking for genetics to keep the diversity. And then I say, "Okay, so how do you net the cuisine of this massive diversity of apples past, say what Michael Pollen wrote about in the documentation of what Johnny Appleseed’s known for which is Apple Jack. Where is the diversity past there that knits into a full cuisine?" Not just into apple cuisine because there is one up here and it’s phenomenal. Just like there’s a maple cuisine up here that’s tied to the Native Americans directly. The term “see,” which, if you’re doing our own sugaring, you get right at the end with the peak of the sap production, you take that best stuff, and that’s the first stuff you reduce, and you reduce it all the way down to near scorch point and then you take a stick and you roll up a ball, and it’s that thick and then you can lay it out really quick in a ribbon on the snow because you’re still doing it because the definition of sugaring is when the snow is gone at the trunk of the tree, sugar’s over. The sap tastes like crap anyhow. So, you lay this really super concentrated maple syrup down on the snow, roll it back up and you got a maple snow cone that’s the best thing you’ve ever had in your life. And it’s “see.”
And I want to know how that relates to a cuisine. Not the fact that it’s extraordinary that people still do it, but how does it relate to a cuisine? Where does that fit into the larger thing? Because if we take sorghum in the South, which is our maple syrup, and we actually track its existence, we know that sorghum was different on every plantation and sorghum, when reduced properly had the identity of the plantation or its place-based identity in its flavor profile and the way it was judged was at the stage stops. So, if you’re in Charleston, South Carolina during, say, the 1700s, and you’re going by stage to Savannah, well you could tell which stage stop you were at by the way they'd stir sorghum into water. The way it tasted. You could taste the difference. So, people would get on the stage—because it was a rotten ride a lot of times—they’d get on the stage dead drunk in Charleston and come to somewhere; they’d know where they were by tasting the water. This was something... well maybe you don’t want to promote that sort of lifestyle, but I want to know where the connection for that sort of thing is in New England. I’m sure it’s here. But I don’t hear about it and I’m fascinated with that. You know, for the same reason I’m fascinated with it in the South, I’m fascinated with it here too.
Recorded on April 28, 2010
Interviewed by Priya George