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
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.
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
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.
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
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