If you’re a South Carolina miller, the “daily grind” doesn’t refer to life’s day-to-day drudgery. It signifies craftsmanship and a tempering of the pace that rushes food to the table. It also means great grits are headed your way.
The South’s favorite dish plays a starring role on menus here and throughout the country, thanks to the skillful grinding of corn happening in grist mills across the state. Belly up to a plate of shrimp and grits, but before you dig in, consider the process that infuses each bite with history, agricultural expertise and the full-bodied texture and flavor that are the hallmarks of South Carolina grits.
From South Carolina to the progressive dining rooms of California and Oregon, to New York’s foodie hotspots and even Europe’s splendid tables, “Anson Mills” is prominently touted on menus. This is not just the state’s premiere milling operation, but possibly the world’s. Founder Glenn Roberts works in grains like artists work in oil paints, with discriminating palates across the globe as his canvas. But the main intention behind his Columbia enterprise is to reunite a culture with its native foods.
“We grow landrace corn crops that were prevalent during the 18th and 19th centuries in the South, as well as some pre-Columbian varieties,” said Roberts, who is part seedsman, part farmer, part historian and part scientist. “I’m in the fields and on airplanes every day going to farms and working with our crops. We grow more heirloom grains than anyone in the country.”
If an heirloom corn was ever prized for taste and historical significance, Anson Mills is likely growing and grinding it to grits. Carolina Gourdseed, Pencil Cob, Native Blue Corn, Jimmy Red and Cherokee Red are among the chosen many. To retain the qualities unique to each, special processing called “cold milling” is required.
“We chill the corn to minus 10 degrees, never allowing oxygen to touch it,” explained Roberts.
This prevents the oxidation that can result in not-so-stellar grits. The finished product is immediately vacuum-packed by hand, then shipped out. When you eat these grits, you are experiencing the closest thing to what our Southern ancestors enjoyed many generations ago. Therein lies that farm-to-fork connection so vital to the mission of Anson Mills.
“Everyone needs a doctor and lawyer occasionally,” said Roberts, “but they need a farmer every day.”
While Anson Mills is largely a wholesale operation catering to chefs, the public can order grits from their online store. Roberts cautions cooks to use the provided preparation guidelines for best results.
Born out of a need to make ends meet, Geechie Boy grits were first milled by Greg Johnsman in 2007 on his Edisto Island farm. But you won’t taste a hint of desperation in these small-batch grits. From the start, it was important to Johnsman to take an artisan approach by milling heirloom corn on antique machines.
“Our oldest mill is at Millers All Day,” Johnsman said of his newest enterprise—a downtown Charleston eatery with a milling theme. “It’s from 1847, and the oldest grits separator in the world is also there, dating close to 1909. We have seven other mills on Edisto, ranging from 1918 to 1978.”
All these mills are needed because Geechie Boy’s grits have taken off, quickly becoming the darling of Charleston chefs and attaining star status on menus across the country. Johnsman’s technique involves seasonal tweakings of the process.
“During the year, the humidity and temperature change, and we change milling around that,” he said. “And each heirloom variety is different, so we set the mills up differently.”
Geechie Boy grinds heirloom corn grown in South Carolina and nearby states. Johnsman meticulously sources these crops, only choosing those without genetic modifications. Guinea Flint, Jimmy Red and Sea Island Blue are a few examples, each with a distinctive texture, color and flavor.
You can purchase these and more at the Geechie Boy Market, through their online store, at local grocery stores and at Millers All Day, where you can also catch the newest craze: Johnsman’s Unicorn Grits that cook up soft and pink-hued.
The grits churned out at this circa 1882 farm pivot around a corn variety grown for more than a century by descendants of Carol Burris Wilson. “Burris Prolific” is the pride of Cotton Hills Farm, where it is cultivated without genetic modification.
“It’s an open-germ white corn with a high sugar content,” said J.E.B. Wilson, who carries on this tradition with his two brothers. “That’s what makes our grits a little different.”
Twenty acres of corn are planted annually, yielding up to 50 bushels per acre. Allowed to dry in the field, it’s harvested in October and ground into grits. Initially purchased to grind grits for the tenant farmers back in the day, the 1910 mill was eventually put into storage. Then, Wilson’s father had a grits epiphany.
“He got the mill back out in the mid-1990s and had it resharpened, reground and reset,” said Wilson. “He bought a sifter and we were back to grinding grits ourselves.”
The mill grinds the corn between vertical granite stones, leaving the germ in place to retain nutrients and flavor. After sifting, the grits are immediately packaged for freshness.
While there are no mail-order or online sales of this product, you can get a bag of Cotton Hills Farm grits at their markets at the farm in Lowrys and in downtown Chester, their farm stand in Richburg, and at the Olde English District Visitor Center in Chester.Find restaurants statewide that serve shrimp & grits.