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...