I just got a new order in from Anson Mills--grits, polenta, heirloom wheat flour, and "rice grits." About the same time, I learned that Anna over at Anna's Cool Finds was hosting an Is My Blog Burning event on "A Taste of Terroir." It was serendipitous, for what could be more representative of South Carolina terroir than a heaping plate of heirloom grits?
Anson Mills is a South Carolina treasure and has steadily been making a name for itself on the national culinary scene. Almost 10 years ago, Glenn Roberts gave up his job as a historical restoration consultant in Charleston and moved up to Columbia, where he rented an old metal warehouse behind a car wash and set out to grow and mill heirloom South Carolina grains, including corn, rice, and wheat. In his old job, when trying to create period dinners for the openings of restoration projects, Roberts had found that most antebellum recipes simply could not be made any more because the ingredients used to make them could no longer be had. With Anson Mills, he has started to correct that.
Roberts scoured old fields on the backroads of South Carolina looking for vestiges of the old heirloom varieties. He found Carolina Gourdseed White corn in an old bootlegger's field near Dillon and in 1998 harvested his first crop of the long-lost grain. Gourdseed White is an example of Southern "dent corn" (there's a dent on top of each kernel), long favored by bootleggers because it was easy to grind into mash for whiskey. Carolina Gold rice and Red May wheat soon followed in his fields.
Anson Mills farms Thursday through Saturday and mills their products Monday through Wednesday. Most of the products are sold wholesale to restaurants, but you can order retail products on their website.
Throughout the 19th Century, most South Carolina farmers raised a wide variety of corn and took their crop to local millers to be ground using stone wheels. By the early 20th Century, these mills steadily lost ground to big, steel roller mills, and the older varieties were replaced by hybrids grown for long shelf life. By World War II grits and corn meal were being ground to a fine, uniform size that crushed the germ into dust, resulting in an end product that was smooth but largely flavorless.
Anson Mills grits are cold-milled with hand-buhred stones--granite wheels with channels chiseled in them that cut the corn kernels as the revolving stone moves against the stationary one. Stone grinding wheels generate a lot of heat from friction, which damages the flavor of the corn. In his research, Roberts discovered records of millers grinding their corn frozen. He tried it, and the results were remarkable. Anson Mills' grits are whole grained with uneven particles, including lots of the yellow germ, and have a rich, strong corn taste.
The coarse ground grits aren't quick grits. You soak them overnight and simmer them slowly for an hour or more. Typical Charleston recipes call for cooking grits in milk, though Glenn Roberts recommends plain water (filtered or spring water, NOT tap water) to allow the corn flavor to shine through the most.
These grits are not in-your face glamour food. You don't get that big "wow!" like you do when you bite into a chunk of barbecued pork pulled straight from the pit. Instead, grits are "wait a minute" food. You take a bite, think, "that's pretty good", then, just as you're swallowing, think, "wait a minute!" There's more there than first met your palate.
A lot of this has to do with the texture of the grits. The grains are thick and fluffy, with big white bits of the germ flecked throughout. You can roll around the individual grains with your tongue and mash them between your teeth and they are nice and firm and chewy.
Grits were never a delicacy of the south. They were just work-a-day filler, not the star player. But, if the most common, ordinary base of Southern cooking once tasted this good, just imagine what the high-falutin' stuff must have tasted like.