The first corn plant looked like a regular stalk of grass or grain; it had almost zero resemblance to its modern cousin. Horticulturist Brian Ward of Clemson's Coastal Research and Education Center figures that well over a thousand years ago, early Native Americans ate the grassy plant, thought it tasted pretty nice, and began cultivating it. From that tiny plant — aided by a lot of human tenderness — a spectrum of corn plants grew, giving us the size and array we know today, and then some.
Yet the only varieties we're confronted with at the grocery store are yellow and white, and they've been cross-bred to become machines of maximum productivity with minimum effort. Somewhere along the line we became complacent in all of this — why bother with the fussy stuff when the hybrids and GMOs work just fine? Yet there are endless varieties of corn in a rainbow of colors, and many of the deviations from the yellow norm make for truly tasty fodder. The natives knew this, and they used corn of all colors and textures for eating and drinking. Somewhere in the erasure of these plants from the agricultural forefront, we've nearly doomed ourselves to a fate of pale, unremarkable kernels.
All is not lost, though. In a Herculean effort by Charleston's farming gurus, they were able to bring back one breed, Jimmy Red Corn, even as it teetered on the edge of nonexistence. With the help of celebrity chef Sean Brock, the plant has been reinstituted, replicated, and returned to the Charleston culinary scene. The whole effort started with the only two known cobs of Jimmy Red Corn left — two cobs away from extinction. They were about to die in an old plot that was abandoned because its owner had died. The corn was the last thing the owner had planted before his death, and it was the only thing left. Ted Chewning, farmer and plant charmer extraordinaire at Sweet Bay Sausage Company, was given the two ears by a friend. Chewning looked at them, shrugged, and decided he may as well plant them and see what grew. At the time, the corn had no name or recognizable characteristics. And no one, no matter how agriculturally experienced, could offer insight into what it tasted like, if it was even edible, or if it was a Southern plant (important, because corn is very particular — it usually only grows in climates similar to its breed origin).
But Chewning has a fondness for growing heirloom breeds and, according to his farming counterparts, one of the greenest thumbs in the country, so he sowed the seeds and waited. That was over 15 years ago. He waited for it to fail, was sure it would ... but it didn't. For years, Chewning planted and replanted the growing number of seeds on Johns Island, and later on his farm in Colleton, using every harvest only for seed reproduction and slowly weaning the genetic variations out, until he had built up enough pure seed stock to grow things in earnest.
Chewning has never tried to monetize his seeds for any plant he's managed to cultivate. At his farm, pigs are the commodity he raises and capitalizes on. So when it came time to hand out the magic beans, he simply bestowed them upon the worthy. "These plants are given to me because I'm a good steward of the land and a good steward of the seed. So, I pass them on to others that I know are good stewards of these things, too," he says. He's not being elitist about it — there simply isn't enough to go around for hobby gardens or big boy farms. Everyone involved in the Jimmy Red farming project emphasizes the importance of saving the grain over the almighty dollar.
Chewning gave some seeds to Ward for research at Clemson, and also to Glenn Roberts of Anson Mills, Lavington Plantation's Jimmy Hagood, and Greg Johnsman at Geechie Boy Mill — all of them highly educated and Dog Whisperer-level talented at farming. His most publically prominent custodian, however, was Brock.
Back in 2007, Brock and his kitchen staff sat in the dim back corner of a room at Blackberry Farm in Tennessee, where Roberts and John Coykendall, the resort's master gardener, were delivering a keynote on heirloom plants and rarified strains. Brock was so entranced that he cornered Roberts in the parking lot afterwards to ask how he might go about growing his own heirloom crops. Roberts sized him up and decided to introduce him to Chewning, who asked him repeatedly, bad-cop style, how serious he was about growing Jimmy Red (because he needed to be dead serious). Chewning eventually decided that Brock had what it took to be entrusted with seeds more precious than gems.
Jimmy Red is a particularly difficult corn to raise because it's open-pollinated. This means that the plant will produce seeds naturally, and that when these seeds are planted they will reliably reproduce the same plant as the parent. Conversely, the hybrid or GMO corn we are accustomed to eating is the result of controlled pollination of inbred plants. The problem is that open-pollination means Jimmy Red can pick up genetic material from any other corn plot nearby, corrupting future generations. So, it must be planted with isolation buffers like trees and hedgerows and be kept at least three miles away from any other maize fields. It also has to be hand-pollinated by the grower to ensure accurate results. When it comes time for the corn to pollinate, bags are placed over the tassels and ear shoots. A farmer comes along, shakes the tassel bag to release the pollen, and dusts it into the ear shoot. Then they put the bags back on for protection and more pollen-gathering. Voila, the corn is knocked up. And they don't even buy poor Jimmy Red dinner first.
Chewning also points out that the name Jimmy Red is actually a misnomer. People often hear the name Jimmy and think the corn was grown on James Island. It never was. "We had to call it something," he says, laughing, "so Glenn Roberts named it and that was that." Though the group has researched exhaustively to find out where the corn originated, the details remain murky. They believe it was brought here by a man from Screven County, Ga., who migrated to Charleston in the 1890s. It was almost certainly used as a hooch corn back then.
With the 10 ears of corn he was given, Brock began cultivating the plant himself, with the help and advice of this motley coalition of corn experts. Jimmy Red is a dent corn, which means it's not too tender right off the cob — it's too starchy and tough, so it performs best when milled into grits or meal. About four years ago, Johnsman finally had enough seed corn saved up that he could spare a bit for milling. He brought it straight to Brock, who used liquid nitrogen and a spice blender to break down the kernels.
And it was good. Damn good.
Every corn kernel has an outer wall called bran that is responsible for color, a middle chamber of endosperm, and in the heart of the seed, a germ. Jimmy Red is different from other corn because it has a much larger germ, and the germ is where the flavor comes from. When normal corn is milled, the germ becomes naturally separated because it's softer than the other parts of the kernel, so that the resulting grits pieces retain only about 40 percent of the flavorful germ. (The leftover germ is then usually ground down further into cornmeal.) With Jimmy Red, however, the larger germ breaks along with the other pieces and more of it stays attached to each tiny grit. Johnsman says that the germ capacity in Jimmy Red grits is at least 20 percent higher than any other corn he's milled. Plus, his team is grinding the corn in a special way to keep some of the bran, which usually falls away from milled corn, on the pieces — allowing some of the deep red color to remain. The resulting grits and meal are intensely flavorful, sweet, and nutty.
Johnsman laughs when he recalls how in the early days, anytime Brock had a special dinner he was traveling to cook for, he'd take the grits, fly with them even, carrying the bag like it was a baby. Brock was always espousing the importance of these grits and felt the need to share them with the world. He even has a tattoo of a Jimmy Red ear on his arm. So, as happens with anything Sean Brock puts his name to, Jimmy Red blew up.
This marks the first year that there are enough Jimmy Red grits available for purchase by multiple Charleston area restaurants, but the supply is finite. The small army of talented growers is working hard to build the varietal up before finally extending it into a larger network of farmers, but they want to feed the public, too. After all, Ward points out that the most important component to ensuring the longevity of anything is a shared love of it. "A great way to introduce Jimmy Red grits to the population," he says, "is to offer them up cooked by talented chefs in nice restaurants. Then you can really see their potential, and your eyes are opened."
Chef Joseph Jacobson of Sweeney's has granted Jimmy Red grits exclusivity at his restaurant. Every grit-containing dish on the menu — like, well, the shrimp and grits —uses only Jimmy Red. Jacobson prizes them for their outstanding corn flavor and sweetness. "I've been hearing the rumors about them for years," he says. "It's an honor to be serving them, they're that good."
A lot of Charleston chefs view Jimmy Red through this lens of mystical romanticism. The process from inception to present was an arduous but quiet one. As time stretched on with no useable product in sight, some began to lose hope, and the corn took on the air of a fairytale.
"I heard about this little heirloom resurrection thing a long time ago," says FIG's Jason Stanhope. He's a huge fan of Johnsman, so when Johnsman came to him enthusiastic over Jimmy Red, Stanhope became enthusiastic by default — but the punishing wait wore on him. "After a few years passed and nothing was showing up, I wasn't sure if I believed it anymore. I definitely wasn't sold on the fact that the corn was going to be this amazing food source — no one really knew that for sure," says Stanhope. "That's why it was so exciting when the grits actually showed up and they were truly amazing."
Up until the arrival of Jimmy Red, FIG never featured grits on its menu. But when Johnsman personally delivered a bag to him, Stanhope knew he had to ratchet things up to make the grits sing. They often pop up as spätzle with dandelion greens and grass-fed meatballs, and Stanhope also grinds them into dust and uses them to bread his trout meuniere. Traditionally, the flour breading on meuniere functions for texture, but it doesn't add anything in the way of flavor. With the Jimmy Red, the light crust on the fish has an inherent, corny sweetness, as well as nuanced flavors that Stanhope describes as earthy and spicy — specific qualities that other corns don't possess.
Over at The Ordinary, Chef de Cuisine Vandy Vanderwarker served the grits with roasted grouper and sauce daube, a classic French pairing of fish and meat. Sometimes, he simply serves the Jimmy Red grits plain. "You don't need to do anything to them; they're so sweet and creamy," he says. "Just cook them in water with a little Tabasco and maybe a small pat of butter, and that's it."
Jon Cropf at The Drawing Room jumped at the chance to use them after years of conversations about the grits with Johnsman. "I think it's really important to help preserve one of the oldest known grains in the South," he says. Cropf uses them in a take on oyster stew and in a cornbread and strawberry dessert.
Josh Keeler, chef and owner of Two Boroughs Larder, loves having Jimmy Red on the menu. "It's an easy sell," he says. "There's such an amazing story behind it, and people always want to try the grits when we tell them the history." Like Stanhope, Keeler doesn't serve grits often, so he works to make these into something special. He's served them with roasted rack of lamb, where the sweet, intense corn flavor can hold its own against the richness of the meat. He's experimenting with pancakes made from Jimmy cornmeal and also sometimes serves the grits plain at brunch. In fact, the grits are appearing at lots of places, like The Macintosh, 492, Cypress, and, of course, at Brock's McCrady's and Husk locations.
Scott Blackwell, owner and craftsman at High Wire Distilling, is reassigning Jimmy Red the role it filled so comfortably amongst our forefathers: he's using it to make a straight bourbon. In 2014, Blackwell grew two acres of Jimmy Red with the help of Roberts, using the mash to make his first batch of the bourbon. It now sits in three specially made 53-gallon oak barrels, patiently waiting for next fall, when it will officially have been aged for two years and thus become classified as "straight." Blackwell has sampled the spirit throughout the process, and he's elated at the results. The large germ in Jimmy Red means there's more oil in each kernel of corn, and some of that oil comes through in the distillate. You can't see it, but when you rub it between your fingers, the liquor has a slick, slightly silky feel. It makes for an astoundingly mellow mouthfeel, and Jimmy Red's flavoring properties lend tasting notes that Blackwell describes as earthy, cherry, and marzipan. "It's miles away from the flavor I'm getting with the heirloom white corn I typically use," says Blackwell. "When you first open the barrel and take a whiff, it smells a lot like cake batter. And then you go deeper into the layers of flavor, and you find so many interesting aspects." Blackwell has planted another 15 acres with Hagood and plans to use them for a larger batch of straight bourbon when they're ready for harvest.
Home cooks who want to try their own hand at Jimmy Red grits can order online from Johnsman's Geechie Boy Mill store, or they can pick up a bag at Charleston Cooks!
Will the fever pitch of Jimmy Red's popularity eventually wane? Certainly. But its importance never will. Every so often, the farmers have to pull an ear from the harvest because it's displaying a genetic anomaly, like a wacky color or shape. This happens because locked away in even the purest available seed, some rogue genetic material that dates way back was crossed into the plant, whether accidently or intentionally. So Jimmy Red holds the keys that can unlock a plethora of other corn varieties that were once thought to be completely extinct. As Roberts says, "No corn is just one corn."
But more than all of its ethereal culinary implications and scientific super feats, Jimmy Red has worked a different kind of small miracle: it's brought a remarkable network of people together.