John T. Edge / June 2010
Food Arts presents the June 2010 Silver Spoon Award for sterling performance to Glenn Roberts, proprietor of Anson Mills, the Charleston, South Carolina–based grower, harvester, processor, and distributor of America's most fetishized grains and legumes. Started as a shoestring regional endeavor in 1998, Anson Mills became a successful national venture as kitchens, helmed by the likes of Charlie Trotter, have joined Roberts' research and development effort, and chefs, like Thomas Keller, herald the provenance of his grains on their menus.
A self-taught agricultural historian who has been known to trace lost varieties of corn to crop patches tended by moonshiners, Roberts began, in the late 1990s, selling America's white tablecloth chefs on the glories of stone-ground grits. In the beginning, he promised a better bag of corn. "I wanted to mill good grits and make a little money so I could plant rice", says Roberts, born in California to a mother whom he calls "a terrific black skillet Southern cook". Raised on Edisto Island, South Carolina, his mother was so serious about rice cookery that when young Roberts asked to cook for the family, she dictated that, until he mastered the proper technique, the rice he prepared would be served only to the pets.
To capture the fragile flavors of the milled corn and to ensure that the volatile oils are not destroyed by the oftentimes hot and humid local climate or the frictional heat generated by the grindstones, Roberts--who now works a mill set behind a car wash in Columbia, South Carolina—began grinding corn in an oxygen-free environment and shipping products the same day they were ground. What began as an effort to return honest grits, made with heirloom corn, to the Southern table has evolved, expanded, exploded. Carolina Gold rice came next, as planned. Then farro and buckwheat. Now farina and benne. Next, legumes, including red peas and seiva beans.
Owing to a polymath-on-speed persona and an insatiable curiosity about antebellum foodways, Roberts has come to be regarded by chefs and farmers across the country as a font of agricultural and cultural knowledge. Get him talking about antebellum rice production, and he'll quote from 18th century Venetian farm journals and expound upon the import of intercropping sequences of Italian rice husbandry. Ask about blue corn and he'll tell you how, last year Anson Mills made up a three ton shortfall of blue flint flour for the Hopi Nation.
"He's my Obi-Wan Kenobi," says executive chef Sean Brock of McCrady's Restaurant in Charleston. "He fills my head up with so much information. I've started making tape recordings of our conversations so I can review them later. He's reviving taste, restoring it to what it used to be, what it's supposed to be."
Sure, Roberts has an ego—he's an entrepreneur. But when asked about his work, he says, "We're all servants of our grain farmers. They are the stoic and unsung heroes of our age." You get the distinct impression that Roberts means it. Every word.