They absorb flavors quickly like corn grits do—maybe even better," says Glenn Roberts, proprietor of South Carolina-based Anson Mills, while rolling a freshly milled fistful of pearlescent rice grits in his palm.
Creamy when cooked low and slow, with a flavor that whispers of green almond, rice grits are, traditionally, fragments of rice grains, a byproduct of the milling process. Once called middlins by planters, they're now so popular that Glenn, who advocates for heirloom grains with an obsessive intellectual vigor, must purposefully break some of the rice Anson Mills grows to supply clued-in home cooks—and an increasing number of chefs.
Across the nation, chefs are driving the resurgence. Jason Stanhope, chef de cuisine of FIG in Charleston, cooks rice grits until they straddle the creamy-al dente divide, and caps them with snapper slices, surrounded by a moat of country ham consommé. Meanwhile, Rob Newton, the Arkansas-born chef at Seersucker in Brooklyn, serves them with a kimchi-collard broth.
To meet growing demand, Anson Mills works with 30 farms across the Lowcountry and beyond to grow Carolina Gold, a long-grain variety that was the South Carolina cash crop until just after the Civil War. Back then, the plantocracy gauged success by how much rice they hulled without breaking the fragile grains. "Whole rice fetched big money on the export market," Glenn tells me as we drive south out of Charleston, bound for one of his fields. "Broken rice, which had less commercial value, was often used by enslaved cooks."
Glenn's late mother, who learned to cook on Edisto Island, was a white inheritor of that black tradition. An expert at cast-iron-skillet cookery, she was known for her breakfasts of bacon grease-crisped rice grits, scrambled with yard eggs. Glenn pays homage to her each time he mills a paddy of rice or hefts a skillet to the stove.
John T. Edge directs the Southern Foodways Alliance, a University of Mississippi institute that documents, studies, and celebrates the South's diverse food cultures: southernfoodways.org