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Autumn at Anson Mills

October 2010

Those of you who wish to experience the real slow food movement should try sitting all day on a tractor moving at three miles per hour. I’ve spent hundreds of hours in this ever-widening gyre over the past decade and a half, an occupation that numbs the body but allows the mind to take excursions. Recently, in a field planting wheat, my thoughts settled on the contradictions within the “all food is local” paradigm.

We’re hearing the phrase “local food radius” thrown around pretty aggressively these days. The radius for local food is the area measured in any direction from an urban center to the distant-most farms required to supply its citizens food. But what constitutes an appropriate radius is often up for debate. It changes from rural to metropolitan settings, for instance, and depends on the farming system in question, as well.

An ideal network for local boutique vegetables grown in rooftop and community gardens, or on small farms, might be as snug as 25 miles in any direction of the city. Heritage meats, poultry, and wild seafood expand the accepted local food radius to between 100 to 250 miles from the city center. Grains, needed to support vegetable and animal husbandry with cover crops, feed, crop rotations—and humans with food—extend the local farmland radius to between 250 and 300 miles. In other words, the group mind of our national local foods movement endorses more than one sustainable radius.

The most rigidly conceived local food concept is pitched in various iterations as the “100-mile dinner.” This is a meal for which the host sources all ingredients within a 100-mile circle surrounding the dinner’s venue. The 100-mile calculation is good PR because it provides a simple metric to satisfy our desire to establish environmentally creative boundaries.

But these arbitrary definitions of “local” foster a widely accepted view that local sustainable foods can be sourced over the long term from an unrealistically small network of farms. One hundred–mile dinners and the like are based on an imaginary food production structure that is scaled more toward colonial Williamsburg–style farming reenactment than the real world sustainable farming network required to supply a city into the future.

Anson Mills has farmed within a low-impact sustainable system for years. We network throughout the South, and still achieve only about 50 percent success in a good season. The failures are psychologically brutal, but crop failure teaches lessons with equally brutal effectiveness: “Don’t do it this way again,” and “Grow crops in diverse places.” The simple operative is that low-impact sustainable farming requires a lot of land. This reality leads to our conclusion that modern “local” food radius guidelines must increase dramatically to achieve sustainability over the long term.

Our histories of colonial farming provide a basis for calculating a realistic modern local sustainable radius for grain farmland to feed a city. The array of surviving colonial farm journals and freight manifests state clearly that the sustainable foods radius of our colonial grain system encompassed the entire Thirteen Colony region, from Maine to Georgia. That land mass was necessary to guarantee crop, animal, and human survival. One particular Thirteen Colony wheat delivered its own brutal lesson during the early 19th century.

White May, an heirloom wheat within the large European class called White Lammas, grew robustly on farms from the lower Hudson Valley to Georgia from the early 18th until the early 19th century. White May disappeared from our farms because its seed and production were neglected as other strains of wheat were being over-farmed to provision the War of 1812 in Europe. Because insufficient acreage was dedicated to assure the survival of White May, its farming population reached a minimum tipping point and its production declined to extinction in fewer than five years. White May is not in our seed banks today. Sonora white wheat is the only White Lammas–class heirloom wheat surviving in the United States—and it is still threatened with extinction. Anson Mills grows Sonora white wheat in the Carolinas in place of White May.

Here is the lesson we learned from this example, a thick catalog of other lost crops, and our own farming experiences: the currently accepted maximum sustainable local food radius for grain systems to feed our cities should be doubled now and increase as we deplete American prairie land and aquifer resources.

In this Anson Mills newsletter, we celebrate the real sustainable radius of low fertility, low diesel, low carbon imprint heritage wheat to spotlight how one crop can regain its place in a realistic “local” food system. We present angel food cake made with cake flour milled from White Lammas wheat. The cake is ethereal and familiar all at once, with the White Lammas wheat background flavor ping of natural, faintly honeyed sweetness and exciting mineral notes you can taste well beyond the sugar. These flavors represent the field contributions of deep roots and tall straw of this noble wheat.

We hope a simple cake made from nearly extinct wheat will compel you, our readers, to reflect on the lessons of American farming history that reveal realistic ways to be local and sustainable, not just local. Think big, think broadly, have some cake.


Classic Angel Food Cake

This was our first choice for trialing the baking properties and flavor release of Anson Mills’ new Artisan Fine Cloth-Bolted White Lammas Cake Flour. An egg white meringue folded with flour! What could be more starkly minimal? You can’t fool an angel food cake—it is quick to expose any deficits in ingredients or technique. Super-fresh egg whites and superfine sugar are comme il faut, of course. A practiced folding arm will be appreciated. But flavorful cake flour, arguably the deepest contributor to a cake’s quality, has not been available—even if you went looking for it.

Commercial cake flour is not handled nicely. In order to promote its quick absorption of liquids, the industry impact-bolts soft-commodities wheat flour by banging it against a fine screen to force it though the holes. The flour is generally also bleached and otherwise processed. Not much left to enhance a cake.

White Lammas wheat, on the other hand, has been hand-selected over centuries for natural sweetness, whole kernel whiteness, and very thin bran layer. Our flour is unbleached and unamended. It came through its early, mid-, and late-stage development beautifully.

We were, nevertheless, fully unprepared for how utterly this cake would captivate us. There is something otherworldly about the texture of fine angel food—you can pluck off pieces like cotton candy, but it is soft and dry to the touch, not sticky. Its moist, translucent crumb doesn’t melt like sugar, but offers real presence (something approaching a light bounciness) in the mouth, as well as a subtle trail of vanilla. Its bronzed edges cross over to caramel. One never feels full from eating it. I made a dozen angel food cakes over the late summer and fall, and for me, at this moment, no other cake comes even close.

Posole Rojo

If we seem to keep tripping from Southern to Mexican food, there is a reason—a reason we hinted at when we presented Fish Tacos: before North and South, there was Native American, and Native American foods shine best in the Deep South, the Southwest, and Mexico.

Posole rojo belongs to the same culinary category as hominy stew, a traditional autumn dish of the South made with acorn-masted pork and fresh hominy. Though hominy stew is an authentic dish of our ancestors, we cannot deny that it pales beside the mesmerizing nuances of posole rojo. Made with a fortified stock, along with pork shoulder or country-style ribs, posole rojo is swept to hot, exotic places with the richness of smoked meat and a darkly spiced chile paste. It shines with fresh cilantro leaves and a range of exciting garnishes. In lieu of posole rojo’s dried hominy corn, we suggest the pleasing texture, bold corn and nixtamal flavors of fresh hominy corn. Native American medicine at its finest, posole rojo will cure what ails you.

Hoppin’ John Burgers

If you’re thinking black-eyed peas, think again. The original hoppin’ John took Sea Island red peas and Carolina Gold rice to the dance. And since we cleave to tradition—and love our Carolina heritage hoppin’ John—we created this dish for burger lovers, not just vegetarians. Our Hoppin’ John Burgers have the look and feel of real burgers—with “benefits.” The complex spices of old-fashioned homemade ketchup, plus a dash of prepared mustard, are built into the burger itself, so we can get chef-y with homemade mayonnaise and pickled jalapeños. You won’t believe how fast these will disappear. The homemade buns come courtesy of our Rich Sandwich Bread dough.

Here’s to broader local communities, y’all, and Good Food!

Post Script

By the way, our Native Coarse Blue Corn Grits and Pencil Cob Grits, formerly available only to chefs, are now available to retail customers as well. Have a look.