The food in the Deep South of America is getting back to its agrarian roots, with a twist. Jon Fasman meets the people with a taste for history...
From INTELLIGENT LIFE magazine, July/August 2012
IN A NONDESCRIPT warehouse tucked behind a defunct car wash on the outskirts of Columbia, South Carolina, Glenn Roberts holds the American South in his hands. Roberts is a former hotel and restaurant designer who now runs Anson Mills, which distributes and mills heirloom seeds and grains. He has a shock of silver hair, blue eyes and a jovial and expansive manner. His speaking style could be called "discursive" in the same way the ocean can be called "a bit damp".
Laid out on his cluttered desk are several sealed plastic bags that he picks up and displays, one by one: rice, milled rice, sesame seeds, and the bedrock grain of the American South, the finely milled corn known as grits. Rice, sesame seeds and grits, of course, are available at any American grocery store. But Roberts’s grains are not grocery-store products. They are more irregular, some smaller and some larger. And they certainly do not taste like grocery-store fare. The sesame seeds have a nutty, grassy scent; they smell like ordinary sesame seeds much as a freshly cut summer lemon smells like washing-up liquid, while his grits have an earthy sweetness, an essence-of-corn flavour.
These are some of the earliest crops grown in the South—not pale imitations of those crops but the actual seeds. And in those bags, in his hands, are a snapshot of the land, its history and what its people ate: a botanical daguerreotype of a vanished world. The sesame seeds are genetically close to what west Africans, seized and forcibly taken to America to toil in the plantations, brought with them on their passage. Africa also provided okra, as well as other foodways—look closely at Jollof rice from Nigeria and jambalaya, from Louisiana, and you’ll barely be able to tell the difference.
In South Carolina, sesame seeds are still called by their Bantu name (benne). Rice reportedly came to America when a British ship sailing from Madagascar ran aground near Charleston in the late 17th century. As payment for fixing his ship the captain gave some seed rice to a local farmer. It was an opportune gift. Growing rice was labour-intensive and costly. It required a large amount of land and people to cultivate it, but fetched a good price when sold. It was, in short, the perfect crop for a slave-based economy: planters paid nothing in labour costs and reaped the marketplace benefits. The origins of corn date back much further than either of the other two crops. Native Americans were growing corn a thousand years before Christ handed out the loaves and fishes.
Africa, Europe, Native America. That they combined to form the mainstays of southern cuisine is hardly surprising; they combined to form America.
For centuries southerners ate grits not because they were southern, but because they were there. Southern food was close to the land; it was an agricultural region, and largely a poor one. The reason Cajuns eat gumbo over rice and not with a baguette, despite their Francophone origins, is because rice, not wheat, came from southern Louisiana. Greens (collards, usually, or some other hardy dark green) cooked with smoked pork became a staple of the African-American table—because the habit of eating long-cooked greens came from Africa, because collards grow almost anywhere and require little tending (perfect for a people whose working day never ended and the pay-cheque never arrived) and because slaves tended to get the less appealing bits of meat after butchery, and stewing was a way to stretch them.
Today the South is far less agricultural than it was. Today there are grocery stores everywhere. Today grits—indeed, southern food—is not southern so much as it is "Southern". In Atlanta, where I live, the two most renowned southern places—Mary Mac’s and the Colonnade—are often considered a bit naff; locals feel about them more or less the same way a Londoner would about touring Buckingham Palace, or a Parisian about going up the Eiffel Tower. And in a sense, those landmarks on the plate are not all that different from those iconic buildings. Britain is a monarchy in name only. Fin-de-siècle Paris is more than a siècle past. The contemporary South is profoundly different from the region it was a century ago, yet—like Paris and London—it retains an essential core: something to do with manners, rootedness, civility. And, of course, food.
Picture: In McClennanville, South Carolina, Maria Baldwin plants heritage seeds from Anson Mills, and sells her home-grown vegetables to Sean Brock’s restaurants