The Miller Who Tilts at Windmills
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.
\r\nQuestion: Could your techniques be used to preserve Yankee as well \r\nas Southern food?
Glenn Roberts: That’s actually what I’m up here doing; \r\nI’m talking to probably 20 or 30 highly respected people about ways to \r\nget this to connect. I've thrown a lot of resources into the northeast \r\nbecause the idea here is, just pick a grain... wheat, people say, okay \r\nwheat. Well, you can’t just do wheat, but let’s say you did. The \r\nNortheast is negative. They import essentially all of their wheat. If \r\nyou’re thinking about land-raised systems, we were net exporting. Which\r\n may or may not have been good because the idea of food as a weapon was \r\ninvented in the Northeast and then applied worldwide, so we have some \r\nrecognition for that. The idea of producing cheap food started up \r\nhere. That doesn’t mean it’s bad up here, but the idea of cheap food \r\nthat we could export and undercut prices worldwide, the first floors on \r\nthe London Exchange that were not set on the London Exchange, were set \r\nout of the Northeastern United States. And then they immediately, no \r\nkidding, went to the West Coast and for the next century, 1800 forward, \r\nfor the first 50 years of revolution, 1775-1825, all the floors for \r\ngrain for export in the London Exchange were set in the Northeast. \r\nAfter 1825 to 1900, that developed and shifted from the Northeast to \r\nCalifornia. And we set all the wheat floor prices for international \r\ncommodity work off the London Exchange out of California. What I find \r\nfascinating about that is that in doing the floor setting in the \r\nNortheast, we lost the connection to the vital part of our Northeastern \r\ncuisine that had identity- and place-based meaning. And so I’m up here \r\nnow tilting at that windmill. It’s quixotic. What is the connection \r\nbetween all the farming systems before we had to produce an export up \r\nhere? Native Americans—I’m working with people in the diaspora because \r\nwe don’t really have a super viable native farming system in the \r\nNortheast.... But all of our best, say, corn, is still Native \r\nAmerican. Abenaki, Native American corn is indigenous to Maine and the \r\nNortheastern corridor up there. What’s known as Northeastern flint, \r\nAlgonquin, Iroquois, and now Oneida and it had to go to Canada before we\r\n worried about losing it. And so now the best seedsman for it is Scott \r\nHill, and he’s in the middle of nowhere in Canada at Six Nations. They \r\nare just keeping that seed available.
So, when we look at those\r\n foods and how first settlement interacted with Native American foods \r\nlike happened where I’m from, we don’t get a blazing meaning. We get \r\nBoston baked beans; we get lots of aberrations of the diaspora of the \r\nold world much stronger showing through in modern times than we do in \r\nthe south because we had to take a holiday after the Civil War. All the\r\n resources were wiped out, so nothing changed for a long time. That \r\npoverty in the South kept a lot of these systems in gear and intact a \r\nlot longer than had happened in the Northeast.
So, there’s a \r\nlot more work to do up here. And when I bring it up with the best chefs\r\n up here, and I’ve brought it up with all of them, they look kind of... \r\n"Well we’re growing all these heirloom foods. Where’s the cuisine? If \r\nyou’re doing some of the best squash that’s most indigenous up here, \r\nwhere’s the cuisine with that?" I sit on the biodiversity committee for\r\n Slow Food U.S.A. and what is being done individually is extraordinary. \r\n There are teams right this minute scouring the woods all over New \r\nEngland looking for lost apples. Right now. They go out every day. \r\nEvery day, 365 days a year; that’s pretty extraordinary. They are \r\nlooking for genetics to keep the diversity. And then I say, "Okay, so \r\nhow do you net the cuisine of this massive diversity of apples past, say\r\n what Michael Pollen wrote about in the documentation of what Johnny \r\nAppleseed’s known for which is Apple Jack. Where is the diversity past \r\nthere that knits into a full cuisine?" Not just into apple cuisine \r\nbecause there is one up here and it’s phenomenal. Just like there’s a \r\nmaple cuisine up here that’s tied to the Native Americans directly. The\r\n term “see,” which, if you’re doing our own sugaring, you get right at \r\nthe end with the peak of the sap production, you take that best stuff, \r\nand that’s the first stuff you reduce, and you reduce it all the way \r\ndown to near scorch point and then you take a stick and you roll up a \r\nball, and it’s that thick and then you can lay it out really quick in a \r\nribbon on the snow because you’re still doing it because the definition \r\nof sugaring is when the snow is gone at the trunk of the tree, sugar’s \r\nover. The sap tastes like crap anyhow. So, you lay this really super \r\nconcentrated maple syrup down on the snow, roll it back up and you got a\r\n maple snow cone that’s the best thing you’ve ever had in your life. \r\nAnd it’s “see.”
And I want to know how that relates to a \r\ncuisine. Not the fact that it’s extraordinary that people still do it, \r\nbut how does it relate to a cuisine? Where does that fit into the \r\nlarger thing? Because if we take sorghum in the South, which is our \r\nmaple syrup, and we actually track its existence, we know that sorghum \r\nwas different on every plantation and sorghum, when reduced properly had\r\n the identity of the plantation or its place-based identity in its \r\nflavor profile and the way it was judged was at the stage stops. So, if\r\n you’re in Charleston, South Carolina during, say, the 1700s, and you’re\r\n going by stage to Savannah, well you could tell which stage stop you \r\nwere at by the way they'd stir sorghum into water. The way it tasted. \r\nYou could taste the difference. So, people would get on the \r\nstage—because it was a rotten ride a lot of times—they’d get on the \r\nstage dead drunk in Charleston and come to somewhere; they’d know where \r\nthey were by tasting the water. This was something... well maybe you \r\ndon’t want to promote that sort of lifestyle, but I want to know where \r\nthe connection for that sort of thing is in New England. I’m sure it’s \r\nhere. But I don’t hear about it and I’m fascinated with that. You \r\nknow, for the same reason I’m fascinated with it in the South, I’m \r\nfascinated with it here too.
Recorded on April 28, 2010
Interviewed by Priya George
Glenn Miller’s "quixotic" approach to farming could help save Yankee as well as Southern food culture.
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