Glenn Roberts
Farmer and Owner of Anson Mills
08:10

Saving Southern Food Culture

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If we don’t resist the “monoculture” of American cuisine, we’ll lose buckwheat crepes, pickles, and po’boys as we know them.

Glenn Roberts

In 1998 Glenn Roberts, a Charleston-based historic restoration consultant and thirty-year veteran of restaurant and hotel concept design, took his career in an entirely new direction.  He founded a company, Anson Mills, to grow, harvest and mill near-extinct varieties of heirloom corn, rice, and wheat organically, and re-create ingredients that were in the Southern larder before the Civil War. Anson Mills now works with 30 organic growers in six states to grow a variety of native heirloom grains.

Transcript
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.

Recorded on April 28, 2010
Interviewed by Priya George


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