WATCH: This North Carolina Family Farm is Growing Some of the Best Grits in the South
To become a maker and purveyor of artisan grits, one needs dried corn, a mill, and a plan. Passion for good grits doesn't hurt either.
In fact, that's where Jim Barkley started, and then the rest followed. At Barkley's Mill on Southern Cross Farm in Weaverville, North Carolina, what began as a lark to make grits to give as holiday gifts has now grown into a burgeoning specialty-foods company that sells heirloom grits to upscale restaurants.
Much like the wooden waterwheel chugging round on the mill at the front edge of their farm and estate, Barkley and his family took a few turns on their way to milling premium grits. After dabbling in raising cattle and a couple of crops, Southern Cross Farm found its true north when the Barkleys questioned the type of corn, an often overlooked component in commercial grits. Their answer turned out to be an heirloom selection called Hickory King Dent corn.
Just as table grapes differ from vineyard grapes, fresh table corn is unlike corn destined to be dried and milled. Some of the old-timers living in the Blue Ridge Mountains dreamily recalled a corn selection called Hickory King Dent that dates back to the late 1800s and was praised for its robust flavor and texture when dried. One afternoon a few years ago, Barkley and his friends tasted dried-on-the-cob kernels, which they loosened with the sides of their thumbs and tumbled onto a wooden table in the corncrib. When the nibbling and vetting were done, their clear preference was for the chunky Hickory King Dent kernels, nearly the size of Scrabble tiles, off-white with a dark dot of germ that's visible in unbleached whole-grain grits.
And with that, Southern Cross Farm started growing Hickory King Dent. The stalks can reach a height of 16 feet, but each one bears only a couple of ears, which sport only eight rows of kernels. Like most heirloom vegetables, this open-pollinated and non-GMO corn is prized for its flavor, not its profusion and convenience.
Each kernel of corn that passes through Barkley's Mill is harvested, selected, and sorted by hand. It's slowgoing, taking four men eight hours to work through 50 bushels of ears. Barkley avers that repeated close inspection and hand-holding matters, even though it results in a quarter of the corn being culled for not meeting their standards. Perfect kernels move on to their mill—and not just any mill.
Barkley purchased two vintage (1919 and 1923) Williams Stone Burr Gristmills, which are now refurbished and mounted side by side in his pristine millhouse. To power the wheels, belts, and pulleys that ferry the corn from the bins to the grindstones, water burbles downhill from the same millpond that also irrigates the fields.
The beauty of these old machines is more than stone-deep: Grinding between vertical stones keeps the corn from overheating during the milling process, protecting the integrity of the whole grain. The freshly ground grits are scooped by hand into cloth sacks, tied closed, and chilled, which is how whole-grain grits should be stored. It's difficult to find more expensive grits, but the Barkleys believe that eaters who value corn grits that taste like corn will pay to partake.