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Mouthing Off

By the Editors of Food & Wine Magazine

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Farms

Day 1: Dinner at McCrady's

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Outside McCrady's in Charleston, SC

© Courtesy of Tom Colicchio
Outside McCrady's in Charleston, SC

Editor's note: Tom Colicchio, the head judge on Bravo's Top Chef (and a Food & Wine Best New Chef 1991), will be blogging every day this week about his road trip from Atlanta.

When I asked Glenn what chefs in the area were doing southern food the old-fashioned way, he named Sean Brock at McCrady's in Charleston.

Since Charleston was our next stop, we took Glenn up on his suggestion and invited Matt and Ted Lee to join us. The Lee Brothers have written extensively for this magazine, know just about everything there is to know about Charleston, and were kind enough to offer to show us around their stomping grounds.

We were treated that night to locally caught stone crab and triggerfish, as well as a house-made charcuterie selection starring Sean Brock's own Yorkshire pigs. Anson Mills grains appeared in two courses during our dinner: Farro and Sea Island Red Peas were served with a rich block of pork belly, and Carolina Gold Rice accompanied swiss chard and lamb with vadouvan. I found Sean Brock's cooking to be a mixture of the traditional and the modern, applying progressive, contemporary techniques and presentations to time-honored southern ingredients and flavors.

Sean prides himself on buying as much as possible from small farmers and fisherman in the Charleston area, and even grows some of his own food at his farm in McClellanville. After our meal at McCrady's we were all eager to meet Sean's growers, so he offered to take us to a friend's farm the next day.

Farms

Day 1: Our Afternoon at Anson Mills

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With Emile DeFelice and his country ham

© Courtesy of Tom Colicchio
With Emile DeFelice (and his
country ham)

Editor's note: Tom Colicchio, the head judge on Bravo's Top Chef (and a Food & Wine Best New Chef 1991), will be blogging every day this week about his road trip from Atlanta.

In true eco-friendly fashion, Anson Mills' headquarters is located in a reclaimed warehouse behind a carwash, and our only real indication that we had found the right place was the small pile of discarded grain composting near the building. Once inside we found waiting for us not only Glenn Roberts, but his business partner Catherine Horton-Schopfer, southern food historian Dr. David Shields, and farmers Ben Dubard and Emile DeFelice.

What we learned that afternoon about traditional Southern foodways, native grains, and the short history of Anson Mills could easily fill its own feature article, but I'll do my best to hit the high points here.

Glenn opened Anson Mills about a decade ago to solve a problem: many of the grains that were staples of the southern pantry before the Civil War were no longer being grown, and would go extinct (and part of the regional cuisine along with them) unless someone resuscitated them. So, Glenn took it upon himself to grow, harvest and mill rare varieties of heirloom corn, rice, and wheat organically.

Take, for example, Carolina Gold Rice. David Shields, a man who has forgotten more about Southern food history than most other people know, gave us an impromptu seminar on the "Carolina rice kitchen," an antebellum cuisine in the Charleston region that was based entirely around a breed of rice called Carolina Gold. It was the most valuable (and possibly tastiest) rice in the world in the first half of the 19th Century, but had all but disappeared by the time of the Depression.

It's one of the grains that Glenn now grows and sells. He works with thirty organic farmers in six states, and grows a wide variety of native heirloom grains plus French oats, Italian farro, and Japanese buckwheat.

In fact, as we discovered later that day, they were all sitting in big white chest freezers in the next room waiting to be milled-to-order. Glenn walked us through a dozen different grains, telling their stories and encouraging us to run our fingers through them, taste them, and smell them.

Glenn's newest project is another near extinct breed of corn called Perla Bianca, an ear of which Ben Dubbard managed to wrangle from an old farmer during a trip to Italy last fall. Now, using that ear for seed stock, Glenn is working tirelessly to cultivate it in South Carolina. Some of the first locally grown Perla Bianca kernels made it back to the Anson Mills office just a few days before our visit, and Glenn milled some into polenta — one whiff of the freshly milled corn and it's obvious why Glenn's fighting for it. Its floral, milky scent and sweet taste are unlike anything I've known.

As for Emile — I knew I was going to like Emile when he burst into the Anson Mills sales office with a case of PBR under one arm and a country ham under the other. Emile owns Caw Caw Creek Farm, where he raises heirloom pastured pigs using traditional agricultural methods, free from hormones and antibiotics and fed on a nutritious mix of organic Anson Mills grain byproducts and wild grasses, peas, and peanuts. When it comes time for the pigs to be harvested, they are slaughtered humanely. As with Glenn, what Emile is doing is a remarkable contrast to how most of our food is being produced across America. The hard work and hard thought that they put into their farming is all in the name of doing the right thing, ethically and environmentally.

Leaving Anson Mills with a country ham from Emile and a bag of Perla Bianca polenta from Glenn, the wheels were already spinning about how I could use them in a Tom: Tuesday Dinner menu...

Farms

Day 1: Pit Stop at Big T Bar-B-Q

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© Courtesy of Tom Colicchio
Pit Stop at Big T Bar-B-Que

Editor's note: Tom Colicchio, the head judge on Bravo's Top Chef (and a Food & Wine Best New Chef 1991), will be blogging every day this week about his road trip from Atlanta.

The first destination on our trip was a no-brainer: Anson Mills, a three-hour drive from Atlanta in Columbia, South Carolina. Damon and I have been buying their products for years and we were both eager to meet the company's founder, Glenn Roberts, and to see his operation at work.

Heading towards Columbia we got hungry, and called Glenn for lunch suggestions. He recommended a local favorite called Big T Bar-B-Que. In my experience you usually find the real barbeque gems where you least expect them, and Big T was no exception, operating out of a modest storefront in the middle of a strip mall. The brisket and pulled pork sandwich we ordered were prime examples of the mustard-based barbecue that is typical in South Carolina (and Big T also serves a mean fried chicken).

Farms

From America to Zanzibar with Island Creek Oysters

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I just met with Skip Bennett and Shore Gregory from Island Creek Oysters—a co-op of sorts that farms oysters in Massachusetts’ Duxbury Bay. With them was Erin Byers Murray, a former Boston magazine and Daily Candy editor and occasional F&W contributor, who has spent the last eight months farming oysters and chronicling all the dirty details on her blog, Shucked.

She’ll be done with her yearlong apprenticeship in March, but she admitted she's tempted to stay longer—it's a really exciting time at the company. Skip and Shore have just returned from Zanzibar, Tanzania, where they’re working to set up sustainable shellfish farms for protein-starved villages. If it works, they want to try similar models in other countries.

The work they’re doing in Africa, they explain, is a way to give back to a community that’s entirely different from their clientele: “Our oysters are sold at every three-star Michelin restaurant in the U.S.,” Skip says.

Today, Erin will be hanging out at one restaurant Island Creek supplies: a little NYC spot known as Per Se. To get the full “farm-to-plate” experience, Erin will watch the cooks there use Island Creek's oysters to make chef Thomas Keller’s signature Oysters & Pearls dish. Then after a chat with the staff about oysters, Skip, Shore and Erin will have Per Se's full tasting menu. Sometimes, it’s good to be a farmer.

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Congratulations to Nicholas Elmi, winner of Top Chef: New Orleans, the 11th season of Bravo's Emmy-Award winning, hit reality series.

Already looking forward to next year (June 19-21, 2015)? Relive your favorite moments from the culinary world's most sensational weekend in the Rocky Mountains.