Much like most of life, dinner started with a seed. A benne seed to be precise. A tiny, oblong, almond-tinged seed with little perceivable odor. You wouldn’t think it’d have much to say. Yet, within the husk of this tiny seed lies an analogy for what is wrong with the entirety of our food system and, thankfully, how it’s being fixed.
Nestled between dark classrooms and dingy corridors lies demo-room 117. An unlikely spot for a mashup between agricultural behemoth Glenn Roberts and culinary demi-god Barry Maiden. Glenn setup his milling company, Anson Mills, in 1998 with the aim to revive grains and seeds being lost to our industrial agriculture system. He purchased four traditional granite mills, a plot of land in South Carolina, and some rice seeds painstakingly procured from a Texan geneticist. The rest is history.
Now, back to our ignoble hero, the benne seed. The benne seed started its existence in the kitchens of West Africa. One of humanity's greatest tragedies saw its removal from native soils to the fertile plains of the Carolinas where it quickly established itself as an important crop in medical and kitchen gardens. Yet, as Western demands for its oil soared, the perceived necessity for its deliciousness diminished and as result the resemblance of antebellum benne to modern sesame is murky at best.
One quick sip of benne cream quickly allows you to taste this. It’s flavor is reminiscent of lightly toasted peanuts and wild flowers. Its opaque, caramel-like milky hue is far removed from modern, refined sesame oil. The work being done by Glenn to revive this near extinct being is just one in a handful of species being revived by Anson Mills.
And what could be more culture defining than a bowl of grits. It takes a true southerner to crave a bowl of unctuous porridge made from milled corn. However, much like the benne seed, modern grits are as far removed from true grits as can possibly be. Barry cooked up some of Glenn’s white flint corn grits. Glenn mills his product to order such that the corn you receive a few days later is as fresh as can be. The germ of the corn is kept so all the volatile, fatty acids that create the flavor of corn are retained. His grits actually express corns flavor, and are not just a vessel for some other flavor.
Simplicity is imperative when dealing with a product like this. Barry quickly dismisses horrified glares surrounding his position on milk and cheese. Water and butter is all it takes to cook perfectly grown grits. Glenn chimes in over the importance of water in the south. It’s mild alkalinity allows for some nixtamalization to occur, making amino acids present in corn a lot more bioavailable. Perfectly creamy, grits were served. Their sweet, distinctly corny and mineraly scent wafting up to the guests nostrils. Sky8 Shrimp sat proudly atop their bed of grits, crowned with crunchy, amusingly demonstrated, popped sorghum.
You would think that corn milling was central to the story of Anson Mills and the history of the south. Yet, it all starts with one crop: Carolina Gold Rice. This rice, so beautifully floral and perfumed, was revered by the goliaths of early 20th century European cuisine and central to the cuisine named after it (The Carolina Rice Kitchen). Indeed, here our narrative moves toward the importance of the creolisation of the south and the importance of the ingredient.
After cooking the rice in boiling water, Barry drains and carefully spreads it out. He slots laurel leaves and positions diced cubes of butter throughout the sheet and places it into a warm oven. What may seem to be a simple method is laden with story. Glenn reveals that this method is reminiscent of open hearth cookery, a technique commonly used by the Dutch in the area. Bay (leaves?) too has its cultural connotations; it: It is well known as an antimicrobial and as a result was used to prevent rice molding during transatlantic storage. Combining the rice with Anson Mills Sea Island Red Peas adds a distinctly African tinge. Yet another feather in the cross cultural hat.
On the Creole, Barry takes us to the northern Alpine realms of Italy by making pizzoccheri with what could be considered the masked pretender of the grain world: buckwheat. Once milled, this tannic, potent, and nutty flour takes on the appearance of a grain product but is actually a member of the rhubarb family.
Glenn tells us of the forced expulsion of the Acadians, destined to head south to the bogs and bayous of Louisiana, bringing with them a crepe culture that goes hand-in-hand with this grain. Its use in the crop cycle as a plant that will fix potassium into the soil was quickly shelved after the petrochemical industry produced NPK: Perhaps the most bittersweet innovation in agriculture.
Anchoring home the evening, Barry serves up a staple: cornbread. But not the sweet, cake-like bread that has become a staple on all lower end barbecue restaurants. Chef Maiden demonstrates the utter simplicity of cracklin’ antebellum cornbread. A thin batter of cornmeal and buttermilk is poured into a small, cast iron skillet, glistening with smoking bacon fat. Nothing could complement this better than the mildly sweetened sorghum butter that gently melted down the side of the slice. Glenn’s silence said it all: Barry Maiden had out done himself. There could have been nothing better to wind the evening down.
As a mixed shroud of satisfaction, wine fog, and general food coma begins to set in, Barry and Glenn wind down the evening. The crowd starts to thin and the intrigued hang back. A friendly pow-wow ensues: Praises, questions, and the odd recipe are thrown around.