What would you pay for a bowl of rice? Not just any rice — a creamy, nutty, flavorful bowl of rice grown in a field not far from you?
You might gladly pay a premium for locally grown heirloom tomatoes and artisanal small-batch whiskey, but not everyone is as willing to spend more on grains. Rice and wheat are still seen as products that should be cheap and shelf-stable. But one expert thinks you might want to give his locally grown, hand-milled, heritage grains rice a try — rice so good, he says, that you’d want to eat it plain. And if you’re still not sure, he has another idea: He’ll show you how to grow your own, for free.
It Starts With a Seed
Glenn Roberts, the founder of Anson Mills, didn’t start out as a farmer with a mission. He was a restorer of historic architecture, with a knack for chemistry experiments. But his mother, a restaurateur and scratch cook from Edisto, South Carolina, instilled a passion in him for Southern cuisine and local ingredients. He ended up back in his mother’s home state, where he soon learned that many of the ingredients she grew up with had been all but wiped out. After a disastrous charity dinner, where he spent his night picking out bugs from a bag of rice with two dishwashers, he made it his mission to bring back Carolina Gold rice — once known as “the world’s best rice,” according to historians, when it was exported in the late 18th century from South Carolina to Europe, Africa, and beyond — from the brink of extinction.
The story of rice, particularly Carolina Gold rice, is like the story of so much of our food system. After hundreds of years of distinctly flavored rices, modernization shifted most of the nation’s farms into monoliths, and crops inched further and further away from flavor. The hand-picked rices of South Carolina were discarded for stronger versions that were less susceptible to pests and easier to harvest mechanically. They were sterilized and polished, and even coated for luster. The soil burned up from growing the same plant over and over again. We mastered creating a product that could sit on a shelf for years at a time and feed millions around the world, but in the process we lost the flavor — and the nutrition.
But Roberts spent years going back to the roots of the rice, finding old seed varietals, perfecting pre-industrial milling techniques, and rotating crops to improve the soil. What we know today as rice, Roberts argues, is “totally chemically different stuff” in aroma, flavor, and texture. He knew he could make rice great again.
Bringing Carolina Gold rice from fantasy to reality wasn’t as simple. Beginning in 1995, Roberts worked with everyone from seed savers to rice geneticists to perfect it; by 1997, he had planted his first crops of corn and Carolina Gold rice. By 2000, word started to trickle out about the guy in Columbia, South Carolina, and his rice quickly found a cult following in fine dining. Carolina Gold had disappeared from the collective palate, and his flavorful, aromatic rice was like nothing else available. The old varieties had been bred for flavor and evoked a sense of terroir. Slowly but surely, one seed discovery at a time, Roberts was starting a small grain revolution.
The Chef Connection
The flavor is what has convinced most of the country’s top chefs — from Roberts’s close collaborator Sean Brock to fine-dining legends like Thomas Keller — to pay more for a bag of rice that is grown and milled in the older, slower, hand-pounded way. Before it was wiped out, Carolina Gold rice was called “Charleston ice cream” when cooked with just butter and salt, because of its creamy texture and distinct flavor. Brock made the phrase famous again when he started using Carolina Gold rice.
When you talk to chefs about Roberts, you suddenly feel like you’re speaking about a rock star. “Glenn really is our modern-day Johnny Appleseed,” says Linton Hopkins, one of Atlanta’s most renowned chefs and a James Beard Award winner. “He is like a culinary anthropologist,” says Frank Stitt, a Southern legend who runs the James Beard award-winning Highlands Bar and Grill in Birmingham, Alabama. An early adopter of Anson Mills, Stitt doesn’t mince words when reflecting on how much Roberts has shifted the dialogue around food in America. “Anson Mills and the work of Glenn Roberts is truly transformative — [he’s] making the world a better place to live, eat, farm, and cook.”
“Glen is not just bringing back old seeds; he’s bringing back an old system of agriculture,” says Dan Barber, the chef and co-owner of Blue Hill and Blue Hill at Stone Barns. He is repatriating ancient varieties of grain because they fit into a broader ecological context.”
Roberts says he now ships his rices and grains to more than 5,000 chefs and restaurants. Some of the chefs Roberts now works with are as old as the company. Brian Young, the chef de cuisine of Cultivar in Boston, was raised in Nashville on his grandmother’s grits. “When people think of grits or rice, they think of it the way people think of steak as not really being from a cow. People don’t think of grains as being heirloom varieties,” Young says.
Chefs laud Anson Mills’s Carolina Gold rice and its other grains for a simple reason: It tastes better. “It’s the best product I can find, and my customers notice the difference," Casey Lane, the James Beard-nominated chef of Casa Apicii and The Tasting Kitchen says. And that’s the change Roberts is aiming for.
Changing the Narrative
So one part of the battle is won: Chefs around the country are using heritage grains on their menus, largely because of Roberts’ hard work. But after 20 years of convincing chefs, can Roberts convince consumers to buy heritage grains? “That is the golden question,” he says bluntly. Even he is unsure what the future holds for his precious Carolina Gold rice. He jokes that his daughter is constantly asking him, “Where is this going, Dad?”
The short-term answer: More Anson Mills products for sale. On the Anson Mills website, consumers can buy everything from standard pantry staples like rice and bread flour to rarer grains, like blue cornmeal and buckwheat flour, direct from the source. And Roberts’s wife, Kay Rentschler — a renowned journalist, cook, and photographer herself — has meticulously compiled how-tos and recipes in order to make the products as simple for home chefs to use as possible.
The first barrier, however, is price. Roberts has taken it upon himself to educate the public on the quality of his products and the price difference. Once, a well-known writer approached Roberts and asked, “You're the guy that charges $8.95 for a pound of rice. How the hell do you sleep at night?” Roberts’s response was to get him out on the fields growing and milling rice. “He tried his hand at a little bit of it and he came back a changed person, because, man, it's hard work,” he says.
Still, consumers and home cooks have begun to respond to Anson Mills’s products. Danny Rubin, the general manager of Il Buco Alimentari e Vineria restaurant and retail shop in New York City, says that once customers taste Anson Mills, it’s a game changer: “When someone sits at the table and we bring over a breadbasket saying we used buckwheat rye from Anson Mills, people say, ‘Can I bring some home?’” he says. “It opens the conversation between us and the client. The other day this guy asked about the crispy polenta and I literally brought over a bag of the Anson Mills polenta.”
The Locavore Future
The long-term answer is a lofty, and maybe idealist, one. Anson Mills makes up 3,000 acres of rice out of the roughly 3 million acres produced in the US this year, according to Roberts and the USDA, but Roberts’s mission today is not about growing his business. It’s about convincing everyone else to take up the mantle to grow his grains themselves — and that includes the everyday family. “We want people to feed themselves,” he says.
And while he understands that convincing the average consumer to grow crops in their backyard is “precious and not real,” he does believe that growing grains locally is an attainable goal. Roberts is willing to set up any farmer that wants to join the cause: He’ll send the seed and often set them up with the harvesting machinery. “We're giving it away for free,” Roberts says. “We declared at the beginning that all our seed research, conservancy, distribution, and repatriation efforts would be non-monetized in the public domain, starting with Carolina Gold rice.” Along with the free seed, Anson Mills has helped pro bono to educate and establish what he calls “food hubs” in more than 20 states across the country that are growing their own grains for local supply.
It’s an incredibly lofty goal to believe that we can all start to experience the grains our grandparents once took for granted. But as chef Hopkins observes, “The future of food is a diverse and transparent one. People desire to know that there is an ethic to their deliciousness. Glenn delivers on that promise.”
“Chefs can educate the public and raise awareness about heirloom varieties but in order for it to really trickle down into the mainstream market, there needs to be a cultural shift in our greater agricultural system,” Barber says. That’s where Glen kickstarts the process.” If Roberts has been able to convert some of the country’s leading chefs to his cause, maybe he can convince you to give his Carolina Gold rice a try — and maybe grow it yourself. He’ll be waiting for your call.
Writer: Ali Rosen
Creative Director: Cristina Cerullo
Senior Editor: Marcy Franklin
Design Director: Josh Laincz
Photo Illustrations: Nick Jarvis