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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,[…]

How Glenn Roberts became an organic farmer, with Mom and several millennia of food wisdom as his guides.

Question: Why did you establish Anson Mills?

rnGlenn Roberts:
I became interested in cereal grains, not even rnthinking about the fact that they were cereal grains.  To me that was rnPost Toasties and Wheaties and things like that.  I had been building rnhotels and in the food business for a long, long time.  And my mother rnwas a hotelier as well.  But she had been raised in South Carolina in rnAiken and on Edisto Island, which is a sea island just south of rnCharleston, South Carolina.  And I was raised in San Diego, California rnwith a lot of southern cooking.  My mom is a black-skillet cook.  That’srn what she grew up on.  And she’s also what we call Geechee, rnG-E-E-C-H-E-E, which means Rice at Every Meal.  The first pot on the rnstove in the morning is rice and it’s there all day long.  And my rnsurfing buddies when I was growing up just thought that was the weirdestrn thing in the world. 

I took it all for granted and then during rncollege sort of started sending my mother back to San Diego grits that rnI’d find, because I went to school in North Carolina.  So, I’d find rngrits, which are ground corn that’s a staple food in the southern part rnof the United States.  I’d find grits and occasionally I’d air freight rnsome greens back when I found some really good collards.  And field peasrn occasionally, biscuit wheat, specifically graham flour, because we werern raised with those traditions.  And she never really liked anything thatrn I sent her.  And over the course of me building hotels around the U.S. rnand then narrowed it down to I loved working in the South, so I narrowedrn it down to the South and narrowed it down to the Virginia to the rnGeorgia coastal corridor, and then I finally walked away from it.  I rndiscovered that what my mother had grown up on just wasn’t there rnanymore, period.  There was no really fresh milling of grits, which is arn food whey that is very important to the South, and it’s worldwide, new rncrop rice, hand-pounded by the fields and cooked immediately.  We don’t rneven have that in this country.  We don’t have a designation under the rnUSDA that I know of that says new crop anything.  So, the concept’s rngone. 

My mother remembered all of that because during the rnDepression in the South, everybody was growing and then hand-milling rntheir own stuff.  They couldn’t afford to do anything else.  So, if you rnwanted grits, you had to grind them yourself on a hand mill in the back rnyard, and you had to grow the corn or you weren’t going to eat.  So, my rnmom, being in the hotel business, fed more people out the back door thanrn the front door.  And the back door folks were actually eating better rnthan the front door folks, if my mom had anything to do with it. 

Sorn that kind of hand food, directly out of the ground, is what my mother rnwas looking for.  And when I sent her these things back, they were rnreally from the industrial age and they had no connection to artisan rnfoods, or hand foods, or anything that would have to do with fresh.  Yourn know, the idea of fresh grains just was foreign today.  As a point of rnfood excellence, fresh milled cereal grains, if you want to get rntechnical, convey a much greater flavor profile than grains that are rnaged up.  Unless you know what you’re doing, you can actually take the rnaging philosophies that happened in the near eastern rim all the way rnthrough Eurasia and off into China and then the islands, Japan and rnKorea. 

If you look at how those food preservation systems work rnwith grains, that was actually being done in the South as well and is rnnow gone.  My mother actually knew about that too.  So, aged rice have rnnew crop rice on this side being grown right where she was on Edisto rnIsland in little patches and hand pounded fresh for the table, every rnday.  So they knocked the hulls off with a mortar and hand-pound system,rn winnow off the hulls, and that rice would be table rice.  And then theyrn were also aging rice and that came from saving seed.  So, my mother wasrn involved in all of that and never warmed to anything that I sent her. 

So,rn I got into Anson Mills because as we opened these historic hotels that Irn was working on, we needed period specific dinners for the architecture rnof the hotel, most of them were federal-, national-, some of them were rnGeorgian-period architecture.  So, we looked for meals that were rnindigenous and also matched that period and started doing food history rnresearch.  And as I became more and more interested in how that worked, rnand how my mother wasn’t being satisfied with the things I sent her, I rnrealized that we just weren’t growing and/or producing foods like that rnanymore.  So, I decided to do it.  That’s the short story.

How did you find the grains?

Glenn Roberts: My mother was my main consultant.  So, I rnmilled a lot of corn that I sourced all over the place because I figuredrn if I started with grits, I could make it to rice because I’m a rice rnperson and I wanted to do rice, but I knew it was nigh on impossible.  rnNo one was growing rice for any reason but small research and/or huntingrn in South Carolina when I started Anson Mills.  The concept actually rnstarted in the early '90s, but I founded Anson Mills in 1998.  So, all rnduring the time between early '90s, and 1998, I was actually looking forrn corn.  I ended up chasing down bootleggers; those are people who make rnliquor illicitly in the hills and valleys and in out of the way places rnin the South, and particularly in South Carolina we have some hot spots rnin the center of the state, and then out towards the coast, and rncertainly in the mountains.

I was fascinated with what my motherrn told me she thought would be the best grits came from the coastal areasrn of the Carolinas.  So, I started looking for bootleggers along the rncoastal regions and found one who was completely off the grid.  They hadrn tractor-powered mills in the middle of nowhere on vast farms.  So, it’srn corn and wheat and everything else growing forever.  This family had rnbeen at it since the 1600s.  They were on the local church register.  rnSo, they had retained every one of their food ways.  They were still rnmaking all their own jams, growing grapes and making their own wine, rngrowing their own corn, making their own grits, and making their own rnliquor, growing their own wheat and making phenomenal graham biscuits rnfrom new crop wheat out of the field and they had different foods for rndifferent seasons of crop harvest all year long.  And everything was rnintertwined and everything grew together.  So, you didn’t have field rnpeas as field peas, you’d have field peas and corn together in the same rnfield.  You didn’t grow just wheat, you’d grow wheat that was say, 30 rninches tall, and then you maybe grow rye above it that was seven feet rntall, harvest the rye first; cut it high, then cut low for the wheat, rnand then they’d have clover down her at the bottom, or winter peas, or rnwhatever.  All of these were winter crops. 

So, nobody was rngrowing any one thing in a field.  When I first saw that, I went, you rncan’t machine this.  And he said, "Why would we want to machine this?  rnThis is eating food.  This is not—we’re not selling this off for rnanimals.  This is what we eat.  This is our kitchen food."  And it was rnthe first time I heard anyone else talk in reality about what my mother rnhad always said about kitchen gardens and kitchen fields.  And so, I rnstayed with that family a long time and they gave me the starting corn rnthat I started Anson Mills with, which was a gourd seed, which just rnmeans dense, but it’s dint of a period when we didn’t do a whole lot to rnnative American corn.  So, it’s not much removed from what corn was rnthere upon first contact. 

And in that particular way, we rndiscovered... rediscovered the ideas of new crop, rediscovered the ideasrn of fresh milling, which we knew were there, but no one was doing it, rnand decided that there’s got to be a way to distribute this and kind of rnviolate the rules.  So, instead of the 20-mile radius, we picked as our rnkitchen population, the best chefs in America, which is more like a rnboutique winery.  And that’s how Anson Mills came about. 

Did you use only land-raised grains for environmental or rncultural reasons?

Glenn Roberts: The only environment we were interested inrn is whether we were going to like the food; I mean a lot and whether it rnwas going to be remarkable.  You know, we predicated everything only on rnflavor.  And from flavor, which you send something to a chef that rnthey’ve had and all of a sudden they’re having an epiphany.  There's: rn"I’ve never tasted it like this before."

It started with flavor; rneverything else came from it, and came from it easily.  There’s not one rnnew advance except for trying to limit diesel that I can think over the rnlast decade—since I’ve been doing this now for 12 years—that I wasn’t rnalready doing just because we wanted flavor.  Flavor equals nutrition inrn land-raised plants and animal systems.  If you don’t have remarkable rnflavor, the nutrition’s not there.  That’s how hunter/gatherers worked. rn You know, taste it.  Then make it taste better, and if it tastes rnbetter, it’s better for you.  That’s a fundamental, from antiquity, for rnall of mankind.

Recorded on April 28, 2010
Interviewed by Priya George