TranscriptQuestion: 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.
Recorded on April 28, 2010
Interviewed by Priya George