Holidays at Anson Mills
My husband Glenn possesses a work ethic so rigorous it borders on the . . . well, let’s put it this way: he doesn’t let holidays or celebrations screw up a good old-fashioned workday. Here’s a funny story. It’s a February evening 10 years ago, and Glenn is driving from the mill in Columbia down to the house we share in Charleston, my engagement ring in his pocket. For the ring, we chose a sapphire, one so stupendously bright it flashes like the revolving light on a police cruiser, and have taken it to be set by an incomparable goldsmith. At last it is finished and Glenn has received it! Throughout the afternoon, Glenn calls me, offering intricate descriptions of the ring: how absolutely ancient and iconic its gestalt, like a relic pulled from an Etruscan tomb. The rich burnish of the gold, the bezel’s elegant contours. Stunning with the cushion cut of the stone! I am positively vibrating with anticipation. The small box he produces with a grand flourish just moments through the door reveals a gold rubber ring upon which a monstrous stone blinks off and on. How playful! How enchanting is this man! We sip champagne.
His phone rings. He takes the call.
I must pause to clarify for a moment: this issue is not that Glenn takes the call. I know he will take the call. He takes any call. Every call.
A retail customer is on the line. She wants to order some grits. Just one bag. But should she buy coarse or medium? Oh, coarse, if you’ve got the time. It’s that thrilling beaded texture against a rich porridge that makes them terrific. The coarsest on the planet—yep, a full 90 minutes in the pot. By the way, do you know all grits used to be this coarse? Particles up to one-quarter inch in diameter! Yes, and Anson Mills quick grits are actually coarser than most coarse grits. About 45 minutes if you soak them first.
Should she choose white or yellow? Well, historically, the Midlands went to yellow, port towns and mountains preferred white, and folks on the Sea Islands just didn’t care. White grits go to mineral and floral upfront and bring dairy notes in at the end. Yellow corn grits start off with orange blossom and follow with bombastic sweet and toasted corn flavor in the back palate. Right, right. They’re both fabulous!
Now, should she cook them in milk? No, ma’am. Real Charlestonians never use dairy to cook grits. Yes, yes, I know I said that, but that’s why folks started cooking grits with milk. Because their corn had no flavor! And you know what? Water was a sacrament in native populations—and somehow that ethos persists to this day even though nobody knows why anymore. No, ma’am, no cheese. No, ma’am. Now, don’t get impatient and boil the grits! Because the oils will pour out of the corn and emulsify. And the heat will blow out all their flavor. No problem! Well, you think about it and call me back. It was a pleasure talking with you, Miss Hamilton. We look forward to milling for you. You, too. Bye-bye.
Long story, right? Long conversation. Imagine how long it feels when you’re waiting to get an engagement ring! When at last he finished the call, I didn’t know whether to take the ring or kill him.
I took the ring.
You will not be surprised to learn that holidays with Glenn are also rather unconventional. I recall more than a few Christmas Eves in New York City when we enjoyed beautiful candlelit dinners in fine restaurants with abundant wine, red meat, and merriment. But 4 a.m. Christmas morning invariably found us speeding southbound on I-95 with a couple of dogs and a pile of blankets, hitting it hard to make Columbia by dusk. Temperatures rose as the holiday progressed: bone-numbing cold in New Jersey, brisk chill in DC, pleasant breeze in Roanoke Rapids (where we fork down rubbery pancakes at a Waffle House), sweet early summer in Columbia. Each gas and bathroom stop brought greater heat and humidity to the day, culminating, paradoxically, in the chilly florescence of the mill itself, and Glenn asking me please not to interrupt him.
Christmas at Anson Mills.
Recent years have seen something of an upward trend, however. Anson Mills has a website now of course, so there are fewer calls from retail customers. Glenn is still on the phone 24/7, but his daughter Ansley, now a young adult, doesn’t hesitate to issue a stern rebuke for taking calls at the table. He spends all of Christmas Eve and Christmas Day with me in the Northeast before I release him on Boxing Day to parts South.
We’ve also inaugurated one new but sure-to-endure tradition. Not a midnight candlelight service of lessons and carols (my husband is an early-to-bed, early-to-rise type of guy). It is Christmas breakfast. We appropriated Glenn’s favorite first-night-at-the-beach dinner and rotated into a breakfast slot: pan-grilled hot dogs with top-split pan-grilled buttered buns. We wolf down two apiece, his with a Stella, and mine with a Diet Coke. And then we get right to work—we’ve got Christmas dinner to get on the table, for heaven’s sake!
Take a peak at these fine holiday recipes. They don’t offer the ease of grilled hot dogs, but are certain to have a mesmerizing grip on whatever holiday tradition you’ve embraced.
The food form known as tamales can support a number of descriptions: prototype of the corn dumpling; iteration of pone prepared and cooked to travel; the original hand food; flavor-packed Mesoamerican time capsule. A more scholarly assessment might characterize tamales as an ancient food form based on the identity of tribal maize and ingredients. Within native Mesoamerican cultures, tamale variations were blindingly diverse, with everything from bits of stewed sauced game as a filling, to dessert style tamales with fruit and cinnamon, to vegetarian offerings with beans and squash. Today, under the weight of new scratch tortillerias opening everywhere, the ancient origin and universality of this foodway has become completely obscured. To their credit, most tamale chefs have abandoned industrial masa harina in their preparations for dry corn. But only rarely do they know what kind of dry corn they’re using. Anson Mills grows place-based identity maize wherever we work. On Martha’s Vineyard this year, for instance, public school students grew Wampanoag King Phillip red flint and Narragansett white flint corn in their gardens from our donated seed. Anson Mills has twelve different place-based hominy/masa corn varieties for chefs and one spectacular hominy/masa corn, Henry Moore, for home cooks. We grow many, many more heirloom corn varieties for other foods and for research.
In this holiday newsletter, we offer a recipe for tamales pequeños (little tamales), in honor of Glenn’s boyhood memories of Mission Valley: steamed tamal dough only slightly firmer than mousse with layers of exotic corn and nixtamal flavors, verdant fresh flavor explosions within, and a bright salsa verde dipping sauce. Light—very light—our steamed tamales deliver flavors and textures attainable only with hominy/masa corns that are grown for family and community foods. The simple truth is this: tortillas and tamales made from sustainably raised local heirloom corn are essentially different foods than tortillas and tamales produced from industrial corn or industrial masa harina. In this recipe, we hope to get modern tamales back in touch with their history. Tamales are celebration food and ’tis the season, so go crazy!
We’re not sure when Brussels sprouts became so chic, but boy, howdy, did they ever! Show us a winter restaurant menu that doesn’t offer them. How many vegetables can boast a moniker that contains a proper name taken from a European city? Not that it matters, of course, if Brussels sprouts taste acrid and act like tough, mean little cabbages. This beautiful recipe, which hovers lightly between side dish and warm salad, gives a Brussels sprout everything it needs to preserve its newfound celebrity: the shimmery sweet-tart ping of Honeycrisp apples sautéed with shallots, a touch of cider vinegar, a tincture or two of Dijon, deep meaningful conversation from real country ham, and, best of all, a confetti of bouncy Anson Mills farro. We took a test batch over to a big chili party, threw it on the table, and waited. Impressive quantities of chili went down before anyone thought to try the sprouts. But when they did, their reactions were, without exception, flat-out raves. They reached for seconds. If we weren’t so familiar with the unapologetic candor of this particular group of folks, we might have thought they were blowing our proverbial skirt up. A pretty powerful endorsement.
The English do nursery desserts with a practiced hand: bread pudding, rice pudding, sticky toffee pudding, summer berry pudding. Eggs in the snow moved across the Channel and set up residence in both the nursery and the convalescent room. Soft, yielding, and sweet—those are the hallmarks of nursery puddings. The trifle is one such dessert: a fantasy wedding of cake and pudding with fruit trailing in the processional, a surfeit of whipped cream, and, if you’re hewing to proper English tradition, layers or cubes of fruit jelly (that’s fruit gelée, mind you, not something to spread on toast). Trifle is a dessert for those who hyperbolize about pitching themselves into a bath of whipped cream and pudding whenever they’ve reached sensory overload. Our Christmas trifle possesses everything one yearns for after roast goose and rather too much claret: clean, neutral, creamy vanilla; tender cake; and bright fruit. Beautiful to behold with bands of crimson and cream gleaming on a sideboard, our trifle is cold, soothing, not too sweet—it’s all so soft, you’ll swoon.
Happy Holidays, y’all, and get off the phone!