Back in May, when I was traveling around the South I had the opportunity to spend the morning at Anson Mills in Columbia with the founder, Glenn Roberts.
I’ve been buying my grains from Anson Mills for years. But it wasn’t until last year at a panel discussion about The Future of Food in NYC that I had the chance to meet him. It’s funny looking back on that panel and his contributions to that particular conversation because the role he plays in the future of food is bringing the food from our past back into our kitchens.
Among 900 other very important things, he works with global seed banks to get ancient grains and crops back into production, providing us with food that our ancestors grew and consumed 100 years ago. I hope the simple description of what he’s doing doesn’t make light of how challenging this task is or how important it is for agriculture sustainability.
Glenn is one of the most cerebral people I’ve ever met. My tiny brain was strained trying to keep up with the knowledge he was spouting. The next time I’ll bring a court reporter and a tape recorder along. He had so much information to share, though I often found myself nodding, retaining only every seventh tidbit he threw out at me.
Of all of the things he told me, there is one that a) I almost fully comprehended, b) completely blew my mind, and c) forever changed the way I look at food production. Before I get to the “moment of truth,” I have to give you some background.
I first started buying my grits from Glenn because some chef (now I can’t even remember who) told me I should be using them. And they were the tastiest grits I’d ever cooked. But as I grew as a cook, I started taking a deeper look into my ingredients, where they come from, how they’re processed, etc. because I realized as I learned more about them, I became better at preparing them. That’s when I started taking a deeper look into what Glenn was up to.
It made sense. These products were delicious because they were heirloom products like our grandparents ate. I liked the idea of it (still not getting how important this was) and so every month, I’d fill my freezer with various grits products and carolina gold rice.
Why the freezer? You have to freeze these products because the natural oils released during milling go rancid pretty quickly. And since they’re not processed with a bunch of chemical preservatives (thank goodness) to keep them from spoiling, you have to keep them cold.
Over the years, Glenn started adding other products to his mix, my favorite being, his farro piccolo. And so I started ordering it as well, forcing me to rely on friends near-by to share their freezer space with me. It got to a point where Anson Mills was offering so many amazing new products, that I considered buying a chest freezer and putting it in my bedroom to store them all.
But nothing says KRAZY! like a single girl in the east village with a chest freezer in her bedroom, so I decided to wait until we opened up our own commercial space to place giant orders for all of my beautiful Anson Mills grain purchases. We got the freezer last week – it felt like Christmas morning.
Anyway, back to the moment of truth. So Glenn and I were walking through the Anson Mills storage room, he’s showing me the rice and the corn and the farro, and our conversation goes like this:
Me: “I’m so excited for you because of all of these amazing new products you’re growing.”
Glenn: “Yeah, well, we have to grow all of this in order to grow rice.”
Glenn: “We started growing corn and wheat because you have to do so in order to grow the best rice. The wheat protects the field in the winter and the corn enriches the soil and lalalalala”
(It may be the other way around and he didn’t say lalalala but that is what I heard as I was busy picking my jaw off of the ground)
Me: “Ha! The retail strategist in me assumed adding these new products meant you were expanding your business. I feel like an idiot”
Glenn: “Nah, I just wanted to grow rice. And it turns out you have to grow all of this other stuff in order to do it right.”
It all finally made sense. THIS was why his products tasted so good! And it explains why the products you typically buy in the grocery store tasted so bad. And because he’s a gentleman and wanted me to feel like less of an idiot, he then ran through all of the things that he learned the hard way when he was first starting out.
I left him that morning feeling both dumb and smart at the same time, but I also felt a little more reassured about my own path learning that at one point many, many years ago this genius of a man didn’t know what the hell he was doing either.