Reviving Heirloom Grains and Classic Southern Cuisine
Glenn Roberts, the founder of Anson Mills in Columbia, S.C. wants to save Southern food culture, one grain at a time. He thinks the traditional cuisine of the South is endangered by a pervasive culinary “monoculture,” and has worked over the past two decades to revive some of the traditional grains and “heirloom” crops from the region’s past” “The idea that pizza is the most popular food in America is a good example of what can happen in the South,” he says. “I worry about the hand processes being gone. Even with the current, ‘let’s do it all in our garden’ thing. I worry that that won’t be sustained.”
In his Big Think interview, Roberts spoke at length about why the whole notion of “slow food” is not as new as it’s sometimes made out to be—in actuality, it never really went away. He says that “slow food” doesn’t really come as a desire to preserve something of the past as much as to improve nutrition because cooking something over time “doesn’t blow so much out of food. When you don’t put fast heat to something, just mechanically, there’s more there when you’re done cooking than if you try to cook the same thing in five minutes versus cooking it in an hour.”
“Heirloom” (or “land-raised”) crops aren’t necessarily better in and of themselves than industrially grown or genetically engineered foods, says Roberts, but they are healthier and could be critical in the future. Still, while “land-raised” crops taste better and are better for you, the issues change when you talk about foods as “commodities” and take on the task of feeding the world. “If you lump all those things in, then the definition of the vigorous and vital nature of land-raised plants becomes pretty arcane immediately. … So, my answer is, on a small scale, there’s no question “land-raised” plants are superior. On a large scale, I think the verdict’s out.”
“It’s a fabulous idea to think that the President, any President, would have time enough to stop and consider sustainability beyond a talking point,” says Roberts, who believes the degree to which President Obama has installed sustainable agriculture advocates in the White House has really made a “fairly credible” case that the administration really cares about food issues in a serious way.
Roberts says that his interest in heirloom grains originally came from his mother, who always was looking for “hand food, directly out of the ground.” During his career in the restaurant industry, Roberts began to realize that the types of foods his mother wanted (land-raised grains, in particular) just weren’t available anymore. And so he took it upon himself to source seeds from a wide variety of sources (including moonshine distillers in the Carolinas) before founding his mill in 1998.