To understand the mind of artisanal grain guru Glenn Roberts, you must imagine a raging fire of knowledge. A quick conversation with him could jump from his mother's black-skillet cooking to moonshine to his cultivation of true benne. Do not be fooled by the seemingly random nature of these topics. Inside his mind, Roberts connects all sorts of ideas, just in a roundabout way. Eventually, most wind back to his brainchild, Anson Mills, and the art of seed preservation.
Roberts officially founded Anson Mills in 1998 and began supplying heritage strands of rice and corn products to chefs around the country from his home base in Columbia. However, the cultivation of Anson Mills began long before that, back before Roberts even considered farming as a career option. Roberts uses the word "nonlinear" to describe his professional track, and he does so with pride. "My idea was to be as counterintuitive as possible," he says.
Roberts was born in Delaware and raised in California, but his mother, Mary Elizabeth Clifton, has deep ties to the South. During the early 1900s, her father owned hotels all along the Eastern Seaboard that catered to horse-racing tracks. This afforded them a lodge near Savannah, a house on Edisto Island, and an African-American cook and nanny who taught her the secrets of black-skillet cooking. In fact, she grew up pounding kitchen rice and hand-milling grits at their house on Edisto. All of these lessons became exceedingly valuable when the Depression hit, and their family went from being comfortable to hoping they would not lose everything.
Ultimately, Roberts' grandfather decided the best place for his daughter would be at the helm of their hotel in Aiken. Thus, she began running this property at age 14 in the depths of the Depression.
"She was feeding more people out the back door than the front door," says Roberts. "Black and white — everyone was poor."
Eventually, his mother moved back to Delaware, and there she met his father. Their common love of music brought them together: he was a church choir director, and she was a talented vocalist. This passion ultimately led them to La Jolla, Calif., where they could study under the plethora of musicians that performed at the Hollywood Bowl.
Despite the move, Mary Elizabeth kept up her Southern culinary ways, centered largely on rice. Roberts remembers that the cooking of rice was a ritual in their house that denoted a sense of honor. He also remembers, with a smile, that he was only allowed to cook rice for the dog.
While Roberts treasures all of these kitchen memories now, at the time, he wanted nothing more than to be an astronaut. This never materialized, but he excelled in his studies and went to college at age 14 on a music and math scholarship. The college happened to be the University of North Carolina, and just like that he was reconnected to his Southern roots.
Roberts worked a myriad of jobs during college — none without purpose. As a doffer in a twine factory, he saw the power of primitive water-driven machinery. And as a musician he toured around the Southeast extensively — experiencing firsthand the culture of the region his mother remembered fondly. His major in topology — a branch of mathematics specializing in distorting an object's spacial properties — enabled him to break into the world of architecture upon graduation, and in this world he found his professional footing. He worked with one of the top firms at the time and eventually developed hotel/restaurant design as his specialty.
Roberts traveled up and down the Eastern Seaboard resurrecting historic properties. He especially loved this line of work, as he loved working with chefs. He remembers that at the time, during the 1970s, there was a definite lack of locality in restaurant cuisine. The chefs that recognized this missing connection between farm and table happened to be those who came over from Europe to work at hotels.
"These great European chefs had walked away from a system of [farmers] bringing stuff to their back doors," says Roberts. Their interest in the agriculture behind the food lodged in Roberts' mind, right beside his mother's stories of freshly milled rice and grits. He had been sending her grits throughout his Southern travels trying to satisfy her childhood memories, but she finally told him to stop wasting his time because they lacked any real flavor.
"She wasn't trying to hurt anyone's feelings," says Roberts. "She just had a keen palate and remembered what they tasted like."
These thoughts came together just as Roberts started to feel burned out in the design world. He decided to take a break and chose Charleston as his retreat. He lived at the beach and found work on Junior Magwood's shrimp boat. Despite Roberts' desire to "do nothing" for a while, he gradually found himself pulled into the local food community.
A rediscovery of local foodways seemed to be underway, and Roberts could not help but join the effort. He met farmers like George and Celeste Albers and found work at Perdita's restaurant. There, he cooked, but perhaps more importantly, he developed relationships with the largely African-American staff who had been there since 1952.
"They remembered everything from their grandparents ... stuff that wasn't normal uptown food in Charleston at the time," says Roberts.
All of this simply added fuel to Roberts' fire. That tiny flame lit by his mother began to burn brighter, and before he knew it, Roberts found himself filled with a burning desire to resurrect historic foodways — specifically artisanal grains, and even more specifically Carolina Gold Rice. Thankfully, he already knew some of the key players like Dick and Tricia Schulze, who had repatriated Carolina Gold Rice on their plantation near Savannah. The Schulzes came by their seed through Texas A&M University, and Roberts sought out seed there as well. Luckily, he came away with not just seed but also the acquaintances of leading corn and rice geneticist Anna McClung and renowned entomologist Merle Shepherd. Both provided and continue to provide invaluable assistance in his grain cultivation.
Finding the heirloom varieties of corn would require Roberts to dig a bit deeper in his past. He knew that, sadly, corn had become one of America's most industrialized crops and consequently, an extremely homogenized crop. Many of the historic lines of corn that possessed complex flavor and aroma also happened to be difficult to grow. So the question became, "Who might still have corn seed that dated back before industrialized farming became such a dominant force?"
Roberts remembered from his days at the North Carolina twine factory that there had been much talk of bootleggers. The reality (legal or not) was that generations of rural Southerners survived on their proficiency in distilling corn whiskey. This was a lifestyle that did not allow them to buy seed from the local co-op, but rather, they saved seeds from their crops year after year (going back decades). Through avenues that only Roberts could drum up, he found one such family that appreciated his interest in their agriculture and eventually grew a field of corn for him.
This first field of corn proved a valuable lesson for Roberts when a wind storm blew the entire crop down in a matter of minutes. The next year he grew smaller plots in multiple locations, and he finally yielded his first crop of corn. Of course, he sent some to his mother and took some back to the staff at Perdita's. The flavor brought back the memories that Roberts had sought out for so long.
Roberts specifically remembers when he finally succeeded in bringing his mother some freshly milled rice.
"Quiet reflection over a bowl of rice is something to behold," he says.
Corn and rice proved just the beginning. Now he cultivates heritage wheat, peas, and more. However, Roberts insists that, at heart, he is a "rice guy." Unfortunately, the economics of growing heritage rice prove entirely unprofitable. "It's not a business venture, but a cultural venture," he says. Thankfully, the other crops help sustain his efforts.
Roberts' steadfast dedication to quality demonstrated in such painstaking practices as cold-milling and on-demand production have garnered him quite a following from the very beginning. Top Southern chefs like Anne Quatrano, Louis Osteen, and Frank Stitt bought Roberts's first corn and rice, and others from around the country soon followed suit. Within the first few years Charlie Trotter, Thomas Keller, and Daniel Boulud all recognized the importance of Roberts' vision and the superior product he provided.
However, it must be noted that despite his celebrity chef roster and unequivocal success, Roberts shrugs off any praise. His primary allegiance remains the same — the preservation of heritage seeds. Through Anson Mills and the Carolina Gold Rice Foundation, he seeks to enlist farmers on his mission. Not only does he contract with farmers to grow the crops but also to mill the product. He proclaims with pride that even his accountant can operate a combine. Roberts assists in all areas of the process — from the field to the mill to the paperwork. His longtime business ally, Catherine Schopfer, brokers the grains, which basically entails constant communication with their commercial customers. Roberts' wife, Kay, is a freelance writer who met him when The New York Times sent her down South to capture his story. Now, she attempts to capture his knowledge for use on the Anson Mills website, which catalogs their various products.
Daring to distill the facts running through Roberts' head should be lauded. Like his ambition, they seem ceaseless. Roberts has a favorite expression when describing folks he really admires — from farmers to geneticists. He will say that they have forgotten more than most of us know. The irony is that he does not realize this statement describes himself perfectly.
Glenn Roberts has definitely forgotten more than most of us know, and he's still learning.
Glenn Roberts is the subject of one of Joe York's movies that will be screened at the Southern Foodways Alliance's Potlikker Film Festival on Wed. March 2 at McCrady's.