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In 1998 Glenn Roberts, a Charleston-based historic restoration consultant and thirty-year veteran of restaurant and hotel concept design, took his career in an entirely new direction.  He founded a company,[…]

If we don’t resist the “monoculture” of American cuisine, we’ll lose buckwheat crepes, pickles, and po’boys as we know them.

Question: Do you see your work as helping to sustain Southern rnculture?

Glenn Roberts: Everything that we do to the public—and rnAnson Mills didn’t really have a public until maybe three or four years rnago, we just couldn’t get enough resources into that direction. And whenrn you’re talking about we’re supplying the best chefs around the world, rnthat’s not really "the public."  The chefs have the ear of the public.  rnSo, in our pursuit of our cultural responsibility, we have slowly, but rnsurely begun to build... a lot of people would say, "Why didn’t you rnwrite the book?"  And the answer is I don’t have enough broad concept rnexperience to write a book yet.  But we are saying what I think, I hope,rn is the truth about what we are doing very, very slowly at And we are being very careful to knit it together rnculturally.  It is a cultural exercise there; it is not a sales rnvehicle.  It is not so that we can package up little units and send themrn to the public.  It’s a cultural vehicle.  And when you go there, you’rern going to note that it is calm, and it has deep authenticity, and as we rnmove forward the chaotic stream of products, that if you click on the rnwholesale products side and could imagine what the cultural rndocumentation would be for the some 200 different arcane products that rneven most chefs in American haven’t heard of... when you think about thern fact that that’s going to come down and get filtered by a very rncarefully edited view so that what we’re presenting... if you say, "I rndon’t understand that," you actually can get a cogent and simple answer rnthat has cultural meaning.  That’s where we’re going with  But in my opinion, it’s very much there. 

We’vern had two national awards because of it just recently and we have more onrn the way.  I don’t think we use those as mile markers for our success rnthis way, but I think that the responsibility that we have would be to rnsay, "What we are presenting is a land-raised cuisine that belongs to rnthe culture of the region in which we are farming.  And it has belonged rnto the culture no matter what diaspora affected it since the beginning rnof settlement and before."  The south is one of the very few places in rnthe United States where a broadly popular food way, the history of a rncertain food, shows through pre-first contact, or pre-Columbian.  We rnhave pre-Columbian foods on the table and they are no different than rnwhat Native Americans were eating when the first settlers showed up.  rnAnd we have a lot to do... we’re seedsmen with a few nation to kind of rnstay connected at Anson Mills and through the foundation as well.  And Irn think that the food then has to show through as a whole body of cuisinern and that is the culture of the food. 

If you’re just focused onrn heirloom tomatoes, squashes, and things like that, which is great... rnWhat sort of cuisine are they supposed to be tied to?  Why are you doingrn that in your garden besides the fact that a beautiful tomato is rnbeautiful?  There’s a higher meaning to the tomato besides the fact thatrn you have a tomato that should be gone that’s still here, and thank rnGod.  It tastes great, so what do you do with it, really, besides eat rnit?  That’s a good celebration.  That’s a first one, but what was it rnoriginally?  How did it arrive at being so terrific?  What was the food –rn what was the perception of the cuisine, or the food, or the foods, of rnthe culture in which the tomato evolved to become so glorious? 

Sorn our responsibility would be to bring the culture of our local farming rnforward in its food.  And the paradigm then says: sustainability, rnflavor, preservation, survival, nutrition, culture, begins at the table,rn goes to the farm.  It’s not farm to table.  It’s table to farm.  As rnsoon as you get passed the American Depression, the 1930’s, it’s table rnto farm.  Not the other way around.

What are the main threats to Southern food culture today?

Glenn Roberts: I think that the idea of bringing togetherrn these sort of monoculture that is just so pervasive.  The idea that rnpizza is the most popular food in America is a good example of what can rnhappen in the South.  And I guess I shouldn’t say anything without rnpointing a gent named John T. Edge, who actually really, no kidding, rngets it and worries about the disappearance of the bread that makes po’ rnboys in New Orleans.  Worries about the disappearance of pickles and thern way they’re done in a certain place.  It all plays base, specific rncultural interpretations of fundamental ingredients.  Wheat in New rnOrleans, well we don’t think about that.  We don’t think about ployes inrn New Orleans, P-L-O-Y-E-S, which is a crepe which is straight from rnBrittany and the northern part of Spain.  And was Acadian.  We don’t rnthink about how those things knit together in southern foods.  In fact, Irn would grant you that probably 99 out of 100 people who are fascinated rnwith cuisine have never even heard the idea that crepes made from rnbuckwheat in Louisiana are really popular.  You know?  That’s something rnthat we worry about going away. 

Do you know why crepes made rnfrom buckwheat are popular?  You have to grow buckwheat in order to growrn corn, or your fields go down if you don’t have synthetic nitrogen.  So rnthose place-based foods have an agricultural meaning, but then they havern this glorious evolution into terrific food that is sustaining as well. rn And I think that the threat then would be that we lose the fine rnpoints—what people would call, the kind of arcania, the little teeny rnthings that have to do with Southern food, and its culture, and then howrn to apply that same idea to the other regions in this country, and then rnin Mexico where the tacorias are being taken over by instant masa.  And rnit’s rare even here in New York right now, New York City.  It’s rare rnwith our great big Latin influence here to find anyone doing fresh masa rnon a human scale.  It’s really hard.  You can see them doing it on a rnproduction scale, but who’s making masa at home any more?  This is rnsomething that everyone used to do.  The ash bucket under the roof drainrn making wood-lye potash and then dropping grain—corn, is a good one, andrn beans go in too if you want—but dropping corn.  You make a vital and rnimportant nutritional transformation of food.  Right? 

And I rnworry about the hand processes being gone.  Even with the current, rn“let’s do it all in our garden” thing.  I worry that that won’t be rnsustained.  So, it’s the smaller points where we may even have the rnfoods.  Tortillas aren’t threatened.  Well they’re not.  Well maybe theyrn are.  Well who knows how to make them?  You need a machine?  That sort rnof thing.

Recorded on April 28, 2010
Interviewed by Priya George