The Miller Who Tilts at Windmills

Glenn Miller’s "quixotic" approach to farming could help save Yankee as well as Southern food culture.
  • Transcript


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