“South Carolina is the center of the culinary universe, and anybody who wants to argue that should call me,” says Glenn Roberts, a force of nature behind the revival of heirloom grains and proprietor of Columbia’s Anson Mills. Glenn has made his life’s work to find pre-Industrial Revolution, heirloom grains and make them available for free to farmers all over the world. While he farms some acreage himself, Anson Mills buys its artisanal, organic grains from farmers across the United States. More heirloom grains are discovered on a regular basis.
Anson Mills’ products, many of which are in limited supply, include heirloom varieties of corn, rice, wheat, rye, buckwheat, oats, peas, and benne seeds. All of it is milled and shipped nationwide and globally to chefs at the finest restaurants from Anson Mills’ facility behind — believe it or not — Constan Carwash on Gervais Street.
Glenn grew up in California, the son of a white Geechee mother from Edisto and Aiken. She told him stories of the food with which she had grown up, especially flavorful, locally grown rice that she hand milled in her backyard. She had a low opinion of what she called “box rice.” She also had a low opinion of her son’s rice cooking skills. “My mom never trusted me as a cook,” Glenn says. “We had rice every day, but I was only allowed to cook rice for the pets.”
He says he still can’t cook, though he aspired to be a chef. But his love of good food and his fascination with the culinary heritage of his mother’s home state eventually made him a man on a mission. He had a design and consulting company that worked with hotels and restaurants all over the country, including Planter’s Inn and Omni in Charleston, but he grew tired of living on an airplane. He moved to Charleston to work for two years as a striker on a shrimp boat for Junior Magwood.
They shrimped up and down the South Carolina coast. Glenn’s nickname was “College Boy.” “They made me the cook, which is the lowest position on the shrimp boat,” he says. When the crew discovered his cooking skills, or lack thereof, they moved to self-preservation. “I wasn’t told just to cook; I was told what to cook.” Sometimes Junior brought in food so that the crew would not have to eat Glenn’s cooking.
As they trawled through the geography of his mother’s stories, Glenn started to connect her childhood memories with what he saw, from the red-ringed cast iron pea cooking pots that told a story about their use that he only later understood, to the remains of rice fields along coastal waters. “I always thought I was going to discover something since my mother was Geechee.” And discover something he did.
The Search for Heirloom Grains
Glenn is interested in historic architecture and food origin. He says, “South Carolina has the longest established cuisine in the United States, a cuisine known as the Carolina Rice Kitchen.” But he could not acquire the ingredients to recreate the meals of these eras; in some cases, the grains were extinct. One heirloom grain, Carolina Gold rice, was of particular interest to him because of his mother’s Geechee lineage and her longing for South Carolina rice.
Historically, Carolina Gold rice fueled South Carolina’s economy and made Charleston the richest city in British North America. It was more important to the state than cotton and was grown 100 years earlier. And while most South Carolinians know that rice was grown on the coast, many don’t know that it was also grown inland. There were rice fields in Columbia and in other parts of the state. The Civil War, hurricanes, and less expensive rice cultivation in other states ended large-scale rice production in South Carolina and nearly wiped out Carolina Gold rice.
Glenn found the only existing supplier for Carolina Gold rice and ordered some to be the mainstay of an important dinner at a historic home in Charleston. The rice arrived from Savannah that morning, a few hours before the dinner. When Glenn opened it, he found it infested with weevils. He had no other suppliers for Carolina Gold rice at the last minute. He decided then and there to learn how to grow the rice and make it more readily available. This journey required him to try his hand at farming small plots and working with plant geneticists to ensure that the grain was and remained Carolina Gold. “If you don’t control the genetics, you can’t do landrace,” he says. “The genetics change and you have to know how to reselect.” “Landrace” is the term for a variety of a plant species that has been cultivated and has adapted to thrive in a specific local environment.
He also pursued many varieties of other heirloom grains once grown in South Carolina, particularly ones that he could get into commercial production more quickly than rice, such as Carolina Gourdseed white corn, which was grown in the 1600s and renowned for its flavor and creamy texture. When he gave samples to chefs in Charleston and Atlanta, Georgia, they shared his excitement.
How did so many different grains get to South Carolina? Glenn says, “South Carolina had the best and fastest horse flesh before the Industrial Revolution. Much of what was done here as far as grain importation and growth was done to ‘hot up’ the horses. A lot of the grain crops were designed to make the horses run faster. Quinoa was brought here for the horses.”
Glenn can even explain on which local farms a multitude of these grains were grown, including many in the Midlands. “South Carolina led the world in polyculture,” he says, which is growing plants that benefit each other and the soil in groups together. Without chemicals to help Colonial-era farmers, they learned to rotate crops to keep the soil rich and to plant benne seed among other plants to repel worms.
Heirloom grains taste different for a reason, Glenn says; better taste and aroma equal higher levels of nutrition. They also have other unique qualities. For instance, flint corn contains the hardest organic substance in the world, and rice hulls are the most stable organic substance because they are made of silicon.
Selling Everything and Living in His Car
In 1998 Glenn went “all in” on his plan to grow heirloom grains. “I burned all my suits in the parking lot of the Pink House in Savannah,” he says. “And I sold everything I had at Folly Beach and put it all into Anson Mills. People still remember my big sale.”
For a while he lived in his car.
It was at that point that he opened Anson Mills Columbia. And the reason he chose Columbia was because of Hurricane Hugo. Glenn was in Charleston when Hurricane Hugo approached. “We left late in the afternoon, and it took 14 hours to get to Columbia,” he says. “Then, when it was time to go back to Charleston, there were trees all over the interstate. I went through all of that and thought, ‘I can’t set up a business in Charleston.’”
He had jogged by the Constan Car Wash on Gervais Street when in Columbia previously and knew Constan’s owners, the Smith family. Glenn thought a large metal building behind the car wash might be the perfect location for his mill. “I told the Smiths what I wanted to do, and they were excited,” he says. “They were really sweet to me. I have been there ever since, just based on a handshake. Anson Mills occupies everything that isn’t the car wash.” Glenn’s office even has a painting of “Happy” the tiger. (Happy lived in an enclosure at Constan Car Wash in the 1960s until the tiger went to live at Riverbanks Zoo.)
Glenn installed four native granite stone mills in the building, and Anson Mills was up and running to mill, pack, and ship wholesale and retail products to the finest tables in the world.
While Anson Mills is known for its gourmet, organic, heirloom grains, these factors are actually not the real focus. Anson Mills searches out, develops, and collects grain seed, which it keeps in seed houses, one of which is in St. Matthews. But these seeds are not sold; they are given away. “My accountant asked me if I was running a nonprofit,” Glenn says. “Our seed mission is what Anson Mills was about from the beginning. We need to get these grains into the mouths of people. When people start eating, they start remembering. I have sent tons of free seeds to Native American tribes.” He has also sent free seeds to other places in the world and gives them away to production farmers.
Lifelong Columbia resident Ted Hopkins, whose ancestors moved in 1760 from the Tidewater, Virginia, area to the Hopkins area, named for the family, became acquainted with Glenn approximately 20 years ago. Ted, a tax attorney whose areas of practice include nonprofits and economic development incentives, worked with Glenn and others to set up the Carolina Gold Rice Foundation.
Ted also provides a key element of Anson Mills’ operations: the land for the primary research hub, where newly re-discovered heirloom seeds are tried out and their ideal growing conditions are understood. The land is part of the Hopkins families’ Oldfield Plantation near Cabin Branch Road in Hopkins. Five homes have been located on the property. Sherman’s troops burned one of them, the first plantation to be burned in Lower Richland.
Rice was formerly grown on the property. “There was a 10-acre rice field in what is now the family cemetery,” says Ted. “The canals are still there if you have the courage to go through the growth to get to them.”
Glenn uses another part of the property for his research. “Glenn plants all these unpronounceable grains in patches,” Ted says. “He uses it as an experimental plot location to try things that he may be interested in developing. Glenn is like Johnny Appleseed. He takes the seed to different places, spreading heirloom grain goodness all over the world. He’s at 18 places at any given moment. He knows everybody. He goes all over the country just like we go to Five Points. And he’s very hands-on. At any given moment he might be off somewhere driving a combine.”
While Anson Mills sells to restaurants all over the United States and abroad, consumers may also buy them to cook at home through the “Retail Products” tab on their website; but don’t plan to use their grits, rice, flour, or any other product in your own recipes. The website asserts: “We’re fussy. We wouldn’t be doing this if we weren’t. Our products are fussy, too. They may look like their grocery store counterparts, but they don’t cook like them!”
Instead, Anson Mills suggests using one of the hundreds of recipes on their website, rated by difficulty and with detailed instructions and even some life advice. For instance, it offers a recipe for a broken heart: “Cook up a pot of rice grits, add butter, and have a good, long cry.”
But crying is the last thing consumers will want to do when they taste a forkful of Anson Mills grains, says Glenn. “The taste is so special, you can taste the land and the water in it.” And while it could have been grown here or in another state, locals can be proud knowing that the strain was perfected in Hopkins and the product was milled right here in Columbia behind the car wash they have driven past more times than they can count.