Grains And Grits
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.