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The grain renaissance is a slow food labor of love 

Kernels of Truth

Jonathan Boncek

Justin Cannon of MC Cannon Farms grows 37 acres of heirloom wheat and rye in Moncks Corner

The notion of "slow" grain is a funny thing. A kernel of rice, wheat, or rye is as much a brazen reminder of our agricultural origins as it is a metaphor for our collective accomplishments since the earliest communities formed around the domestication of cereal crops. This same kernel's impact on the historical development of civilizations stresses the limits of our imaginations to the effect that cereals seem to defy any concept of speed — they are the slowest of foods.

However, our mastery of grain cultivation and more recent distancing from the tactile foundation of our agricultural beginnings compels us to revisit certain assumptions. Chief among these is how we survey the landscape of food systems themselves. While it's hardly original to point out the flattening effect that industrialized agriculture has had on the diversity of our crops, diets, and cultures, perhaps the more severe cultural trauma we suffered as a result of industrialization a loss of perspective. We turned our focus to the quantity of products grown and forgot there was a process involved. And yet, 20 years into a grain renaissance when once nearly-extinct grain varietals enjoy prime real estate in our grocery stores, we find ourselves in a similar predicament. We embrace the once lost flavor and forget the mechanics of it all: the growers who face immense risk and little reward as they resuscitate forgotten flavors on a commercial scale, and the chefs that attempt to create a consistent plate of food while dealing with ingredients that resist reproducibility. It's safe to say that my colleagues involved with the perpetuation of sustainable grain systems feel the full weight of food processes. They are clear-eyed, engaged, and concerned, and as such, have definite opinions on where we are as a food culture and where we still need to go.

Justin Cannon, a third generation grain grower in Monck's Corner is one of these people. Tall and well-sunned from countless hours of farm labor, the 30-year-old's dry wit and honest, easy demeanor seem perfectly in line with how we imagine our farmers to be: humble and practical, with a deep commitment to the land in spite of the harsh economic realities plaguing family farms all over the country.

click to enlarge The avocado toast from Pawpaw is made with Root Baking Co. Carolina Gold rice bread - JONATHAN BONCEK
  • Jonathan Boncek
  • The avocado toast from Pawpaw is made with Root Baking Co. Carolina Gold rice bread

"Years and years ago, the biggest challenge to growing grain was harvesting it," Cannon says. "Now that we've developed equipment that allows us to produce it, the challenge is that the profit margins are very slim ... a couple $100 an acre or less. You have to plant a thousand acres for a family to survive." Because M.C. Cannon Farms is a comparatively small family farm — 300 acres is small in terms of grain cultivation — Justin and his father, M.C. Cannon III, have recently made a move toward growing heirloom and specialty grain crops that command a higher price per bushel in order to diversify in a landscape of feeble commodity grain prices. Currently, they have 37 acres of heirloom wheat and rye planted in partnership with local producers, including High Wire Distilling and our bakery, with an interest in seeking out high-quality varietals for the Charleston market. While quick to note that "it might work, and it might not ... depending on the weather" — unsurprising to hear from a farmer — it's also clearly more than just an economic decision. His commitment to growing quality food suggests that his disposition toward working with the land and his neighbors supersedes the often frightening economic realities. "I hope I'm doing the other farmers justice in saying this," he says, "but no matter how bad a year can be, if you can somehow muster the money to do it again, you'll do it." For Justin, repetition and practice, often derided as vestigial signs of stubborn inefficiency in the modern era, rest at the foundation for the re-introduction of an important lesson we all used to know: growing food takes time, it requires some hard lessons, and sometimes, the weather doesn't cooperate.

click to enlarge McCrady's Tavern dessert menu features Sea Island blue corn cheesecake - JONATHAN BONCEK
  • Jonathan Boncek
  • McCrady's Tavern dessert menu features Sea Island blue corn cheesecake

Katy Keefe, Executive Pastry Chef at the newly re-imagined McCrady's and McCrady's Tavern, puts it even more succinctly: "Tradition is practice," she says, "and in the South, tradition is prized and placed on a pedestal." As a chef obsessed with, as she says, "things with stories," one could argue that there is no better fit for Keefe's talent than McCrady's, where the stories behind ingredients aren't byproducts of branding, rather they're (by every account) the engines that make the restaurant move. Though she began her career in New York with an eye solely on achieving technical mastery over a wide array of classical pastry skills, her tenure at McCrady's has allowed her to combine her love of precision with her passion for history. This has resulted in a number of heirloom grain desserts, including most recently, cheesecake featuring a Sea Isand blue corn crust (sourced from Geechee Boy Mill). Though, while Keefe has garnered local and national acclaim for the technical prowess that highlights heirloom ingredients, she's quick to point out that "lots of times...[heirlooms] just don't work out like you hope they will. We talk to growers constantly, and try to manage our expectations of a product, but sometimes ingredients fall flat and it's a matter of tweaking and practicing in order to make it work in the restaurant." Where consistency is prized — and in a restaurant, it always is — a chef is compelled to capture the essence of a grower's work in such a replicable way that every patron can enjoy the exact same phenomenon. It is no surprise, therefore, that McCrady's prides itself on invention and tradition. What else could one reasonably expect of a restaurant built upon forgotten flavors?

The idea of "slow" grain is a funny thing. The heirloom kernel, with all of its potential, only matters to the extent that its existence compels us to confront the lesson at the heart of the slow food movement: our food is a process as much as it is a product.

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