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What We Do—and Why We Do It

It began with rice. Here, a fanner basket of Carolina Gold hand-pound emulation.

To help you understand our mission at Anson Mills, we must first explain something of the Carolina Rice Kitchen. This “Rice Kitchen” is not strictly Carolinian, and it isn’t a physical kitchen, either. The term, popularized by food historian Karen Hess in her eponymous book, refers to a cuisine—one that emerged in the early 19th century along the coasts and in the midlands of Carolina and Georgia, and which took Carolina Gold rice, rather than wheat or corn, as its staple grain. Carolina Gold, a sweet, non-aromatic rice of superior flavor, texture, and cooking quality, created a culture of wealth and influence, and brought fortunes to those who grew it. But in time, it nearly passed away.

Carolina Rice Kitchen cuisine arose when three distinct rice cultures came together to build rice canals on the sea islands of Carolina and Georgia: Venetian rice farmers who designed the canals, Africans who brought their rice management methods to the endeavor, and Native Americans who worked in the fields. The association of these peoples and their cultures resulted in a vibrant melting-pot exchange that ultimately became a new cuisine.

Cuisine in colonial America was cuisine for the wealthy, and, at its peak, the Carolina Rice Kitchen possessed ingredients that would thrill any chef today: local estate-grown olive oil (and oil from benne, peanut, chestnut, walnut, pecan, and sunflower); locally produced and imported wines; fresh and lagered ales and alembic spirits; fine herbs and spices; abundant vegetables and legumes; seasonal nuts, berries, mushrooms, seeds, and greens; wild game and fish; rice-fed beef, pork, lamb, and poultry; creole charcuterie; wheat, corn, rye, oats and barley—and, let us not forget, Carolina Gold rice.

Africans tended kitchen gardens for the rich, grew market crops for export, and performed hearth cooking for plantation and urban homes. In hidden gardens, they secretly grew plants from their homeland before the plantation system adopted the most promising of them for market farming and export: benne, field peas, peanuts, and yams, among many others. African slaves adopted without hesitation Native American squash, beans, corn, and planting methods. They embraced European crops from white gentry, too, most notably German field and garden Kohl, the European cultivars eventually included in the broad class of African American collard greens. The abiding influence of African foodways and cooking techniques on the formation of Charleston’s local cuisine and beyond is undeniable.

The word “cuisine” implies much more than cooking, of course: it represents a complex expression of community that emerges in a distinct locale and is dependent on soil, agriculture, preparation, and rites of consumption. Carolina Rice Kitchen cuisine was a local and sustainable cuisine supported by full animal husbandry, and a farming system based upon sustainable rice horticulture.

At Anson Mills, we chose early on to grow and mill Carolina Gold rice and a full complement of heirloom grains adopted by Antebellum rice families, and to follow the sustainable rice-crop rotation. In some ways, we hope to restart the Carolina Rice Kitchen cuisine itself—a cuisine that depends on a complex agricultural system suited to local conditions and cultural needs. It is an effort that requires extraordinary research into planting practices, seedsmanship, and preparation. The soil must be made right and the interrelation of cultivars reestablished.

Seedsmen of the 19th century bred for flavor—not for transport, not for visual appeal, not for shelf life, not even for disease resistance. Agriculturists of the period sought to impose the maximal beneficial effect of terroir on their ingredients. By doing these things as well, Anson Mills will continue to reintroduce the diverse and flavorful foodways of the Carolina Rice Kitchen.

Why do we make this effort? We could simply lie down and lament the future of American agriculture. But instead we choose to extend the promise of pleasure—pleasure in the fine flavors of grains and vegetables produced with an eye to the integrity of cuisine and the integral character of farming.

It’s been going beautifully so far.

Our Odyssey

Olives growing on Folly Beach near Charleston, South Carolina.

How Anson Mills Was Conceived

Glenn Roberts conceived Anson Mills over a bowl of bad grits in a historic home on Society Street in Ansonborough, a downtown neighborhood of Charleston, South Carolina. The year was 1996. The neighborhood—and eventually Anson Mills—took its name from Lord Anson, a British admiral, who had been sent to Charleston in 1724 to protect the coast of South Carolina from pirates. A couple of decades later, Lord Anson managed to acquire abundant farmland acreage from Mr. Thomas Gadsden, a famous Charlestonian, in a spirited poker game. In 1746, Lord Anson and the Charleston city elders divided Thomas Gadsden’s lovely land into 26 plots, thus creating Ansonborough, the first suburb of Charleston.

Glenn’s broader inspiration for Anson Mills came over the course of many years of dialogue with his mother, Mary Clifton, a Southern girl raised on Edisto Island and in Aiken, South Carolina, who become an accomplished black skillet cook at the side of her nanny during the Depression. Mary Clifton was Geechee (a term used to describe people from the lowcountry of Carolina or Georgia who eat rice with every meal), and after she became Mary Roberts, her family ate rice with every meal, as well.

Over Glenn’s three-decades-long career consulting on adaptive historic architecture reuse in the lowcountry of Virginia, the Carolinas, and Georgia, his mother became quality assessor for “authentic” ingredients he sourced for the elite historic foods events held to celebrate newly restored historic buildings. Mary never warmed to the grits, cornmeal, biscuit flour, or rice he offered her—no matter how true to the lowcountry regions of focus they were.

Glenn himself became involved with the quality of food ingredients for these events as he discovered the crucial relationship between authenticity and flavor development, and as he read period-related food histories pertaining to Antebellum, Federal, National, and Georgian architecture of the American South. He made the decision to walk away from his career and begin growing the foods of his mother’s past.

SEEDSMEN FOR THE HOPI NATION

Fascinated with Native American culture since he was a boy, Glenn, with Anson Mills, strives to help repay the debt owed these people by growing blue Hopi maize, thus keeping it safe from potential problems. In 2009, when Hopi mesas encountered problems with their blue corn, Anson Mills prepared three tons of piki flour from its own stock of Hopi Blue and, with the support of the Memnosyne Foundation, sent this flour to Albuquerque for delivery to each mesa by the American National Guard. The letter Glenn received from a Hopi Elder thanking Anson Mills for averting hunger in the mesas during the winter season is one he cherishes deeply.

SEEDSMEN FOR THE SOUTH

Sustainable farming is an on-farm process using as little diesel as possible, and no inputs from off-farm. At Anson Mills, we move our partners and our own farms to native fertility and low or no-til agriculture with intensive biomass, crop sequestration, and intercropping rotations. This is the very technique and process used to ensure quality crops that our ancestors employed on the best rice farms around Charleston before 1850. Anson Mills supports with grants the data mining of thousands of Antebellum and Colonial farm journals to document fertility and crop quality processes. We identify the seeds of historic agriculture in our region that comprise the Carolina Rice Kitchen cuisine, and we recover, preserve, repatriate, and distribute free of charge these seeds to like-minded farmers—thus acting as our own seed bank. To further his reach in this endeavor, in 2003, Glenn helped found the Carolina Gold Rice Foundation with scientists and scholars. These efforts comprise over 90 percent of what Anson Mills does today.

Anson Mills is grant-giving, not grant-seeking. Our team members and partners are independent businesses or sole proprietors, each involved in his or her own way. Anson Mills grows and mills one of the most diverse collections of heirloom grains in America. Glenn himself farms 160 acres by hand—and that acreage grows every year.

Glossary of Terms Used Here and Elsewhere

Cherokee Red Corn

What is the Definition of “Organic”?

The United States Department of Agriculture (USDA) owns, in essence, the designation “organic” for seed, plant, and animal production systems that begin at the farm and end at the table.

The USDA’s National Organic Standards Board uses the following definition of “organic” (April 1995):

  • Organic agriculture is an ecological production management system that promotes and enhances biodiversity, biological cycles, and soil biological activity. It is based on minimal use of off-farm inputs and on-farm management practices that restore, maintain, and enhance ecological harmony.
  • “Organic” is a labeling term that denotes products produced under the authority of the Organic Foods Production Act. The principal guidelines for organic production are to use materials and practices that enhance the ecological balance of natural systems and that integrate the parts of the farming system into an ecological whole.
  • Organic agriculture practices cannot ensure that products are completely free of residues; however, methods are used to minimize pollution from air, soil, and water.
  • Organic food handlers, processors, and retailers adhere to standards that maintain the integrity of organic agricultural products. The primary goal of organic agriculture is to optimize the health and productivity of interdependent communities of soil life, plants, animals, and people.

The USDA also states that organic farming entails:

  • The use of cover crops, green manures, animal manures, and crop rotations to fertilize the soil, maximize biological activity and maintain long-term soil health
  • The use of biological control, crop rotations, and other techniques to manage weeds, insects, and diseases
  • An emphasis on biodiversity of the agricultural system and the surrounding environment
  • The use of rotational grazing and mixed forage pastures for livestock operations and alternative health care for animal wellbeing
  • The reduction of external and off-farm inputs and elimination of synthetic pesticides and fertilizers and other materials, such as hormones and antibiotics
  • A focus on renewable resources, soil, and water conservation, and management practices that restore, maintain, and enhance ecological balance

Not everyone supports the USDA Organic Materials Review Institute’s relaxed approach to production and manufacturing amendments in farming—amendments more suitable for use in conventional than organic agriculture—or the standards that allow frozen TV dinners and other highly processed foods to carry the designation “organic.”

At Anson Mills, no amendments or processing aids touch the stream of our goods from farm to table. Though we maintain organic certification, we strive principally for on-farm sustainability. On-farm sustainability means that we bring only seed onto our farms and use natural crop rotations to build the soil without amendments.

What is Sustainable Farming?

Sustainable farming integrates animal and plant husbandry in a system intended to support and improve the land, those tending the land, and the environment over the long term. Sustainable farming and the food systems it supports strive for carbon footprint efficiency and natural agricultural inputs. In our own farming system, we do not concentrate on yield. Rather, we focus on planting and sequencing—season after season—crops that are beneficial to the soil without dependence on fertilizer or other farming aids. Known as “native fertility” intercropping and rotation, this is the oldest farming system in the world.

What are the Distinctions between Sustainable and Organic?

If you are reading this, chances are you’re already involved with a local farmers market, and hear growers say they are “sustainable,” but not “organic.” To be organic, one should engage in the sustainable growing practices mentioned above. But since the federal government became involved in its oversight, the term “organic” has more legal and regulatory associations than practical ones, and many growers reject the affiliation.

What is Landrace?

“Landrace” is a term that applies to crops whose cultural and physical identities have been retained, replicated, and improved by farmers in their fields for centuries. Landrace crops are at the very core of genetic diversity. Though the practice of hand-selecting the best seeds from crop to crop continues today, genetic diversity in general has been threatened over the last century. The seeds Anson Mills currently farms were nearly lost and out of production just 15 years ago, and had little cultural life. These single-family, hand-select landrace grains and legumes became Anson Mills’ mission. We focus our resources on the sustainable repatriation of these remarkable landrace crops.

What is a Seedsman?

A seedsman is a person who works with landrace crops, collecting seeds from the current crop and selecting those with traits thought to promise success for future plantings. Though this sounds simple, it is anything but. Because very old crops are genetically diverse, they might exhibit or display characteristics in the field that change them from year to year, a phenomenon known as genetic drift. Crops may experience field mutation, becoming altered with no known stimulus. Landrace crops may also, on occasion, cross-pollinate. Open-pollinated crops like maize can cross with other maize varieties on a neighboring farm or a farm thousands of miles away depending on the winds. In order for a landrace crop to maintain its unique identity established over hundreds—sometimes thousands—of years, its seeds must be scrutinized (hand selected) every year for defining traits that promise true replication in future crops. This is the seedsman’s art.

What are Viable Grains?

“Viable” means if the whole seed is planted, it will grow. Seed viability can be weak or vigorous. We farm for high vigor, not yield. Seed viability and maximum farming sustainability go hand in hand, and result from our emphasis on soil quality. Anson Mills’ sustainable farming paradigm is low input = high viability = sustainability = high flavor = high nutrition = high output.

What does the term “New Crop” Denote?

“New crop” refers to any grain or legume crop milled and cooked within two months of harvest. Exceptionally delicate in cooking properties and flavor profile, new crop grains and legumes are qualitatively more appealing than their older counterparts (with the exception of aged aromatic rice such as basmati). We extend the new crop quality of Anson Mills wheat, corn, rice, and field pea products throughout the year by storing each harvest in freezers until we are ready to mill them. (A new crop label designation for rice products is standard practice in the Far East but seldom seen in the United States).

What is Field Ripening?

We allow our crops to ripen in the field, further promoting their viability, and store them cold and fresh from the field as “new” crops to extend that viability—another practice applied since antiquity, climate permitting. Field-ripening also enhances the flavor of the grains.

What is Cold Milling?

In order to maximize viability, nutrition, and flavor, Anson Mills focuses off-farm as well. The enemies of freshness, high nutrition, and high flavor in viable grain, seed, and legume foods are heat and oxidation. To complete our mission of high viability, high output, high nutrition, and high flavor, Anson Mills cold mills all products: we chill everything we mill to minus 10 degrees Farenheit, and mill in a CO2-protected stream to eliminate the potential for oxidation. We hand-process our grains to order immediately into finished products, vacuum-pack them under additional CO2, and ship them the same day. In this way, we are able to emulate the ancient pathways of daily food, and retain the highest nutrition, flavor, and sustainability possible.

What is a CO2 Envelope?

People and animals breathe in oxygen; plants take in CO2 (the same gas that carbonates soft drinks). Unlike other commercial grain products, Anson Mills’ grains are viable or living seeds whose oil-rich germs house their genetic information and most of their vital nutrition. (At industrial roller mills, the germ has been scalped out of the seed.) If viable seeds oxidize during milling, they become rancid very quickly. At Anson Mills, we stream CO2 gas into the intake of our stone mill as the grain enters the milling process. This accomplishes two important functions: (1) CO2 displaces oxygen in the milling environment and prevents oxidation (which destroys flavor and texture) and (2) CO2 reacts with freshly milled grain (called grist) to begin the chain of phytochemical reactions known as germination in which, much simplified, starches are converted to sugars. Thus, if oxygen and heat do not reach the grains until they are cooked, the CO2 administered during milling will produce complex fragrances, sweetness, and flavor nuance in cooked grain dishes. The process of flooding the milling and packing environment with CO2 is called “CO2 envelope.”

What is the Significance of the Term “Artisan”?

Considerable misunderstanding enshrouds the terms “artisan” and “artisanal.” The simple reality, however, is this: what is done by hand is an artisan endeavor. Anson Mills products are produced by hand, hence they are artisan products.

What are Foodways?

Foodways represent the connections between culture, agriculture, socioeconomic traditions, and historic timelines. When evaluated, these factors clarify the identity, historic arc, and fashion of unique and diverse foods at a particular time and place. Class and geography come into play as well. To understand a set of regional foodways, it is essential to understand how and where food culture and traditions intersect in both prosperous and less prosperous elements of that population. To understand “authentic foodways,” an accurate assessment of historic, culinary, and social records associated with a particular time and place is essential. Our goal is to make the foodways that can be relevant, relevant. Because we research, grow, and cook these grains, we know them intimately and understand their place within the cuisine of Antebellum Carolina.