Tim Mills remembers that as a boy growing up on a North Carolina farm, one of his favorite chores was riding with his grandfather to the local mill to get the corn ground. So when “the still voice of God” told the 71-year-old Methodist farmer to build a grist mill on his small farm in Clarke County, Georgia, Mills says he at least had some idea what The Almighty was talking about.
God had great timing: Mills’ brand of grits, made with 19th-century techniques and a pair of mules, are now a hit in upscale Southern restaurants. Mills’ brand, Red Mule, is one of a slew of successful pre-industrial cornmeal companies that are seeing sales surge across the New South and beyond.
There are a number of trends that help explain the increasing appeal of Antebellum-style grits. First there’s the increasing preferences among consumers for less-processed, locally sourced foods. There’s the well-documented Southern instinct to celebrate old ways of doing things. And then there’s the future, where climate changes of biblical proportions demand new approaches. But above all, the success of Red Mule is probably about their taste, which for most Southerners is older than living memory.
“I grew up eating those bland grits, and they didn’t have any taste, other than the butter, salt, and pepper you’d put on them,” says food historian John T. Edge, director of the Southern Foodways Alliance. He’s referring to the familiar white stuff pooling beside fried eggs on breakfast plates. Those grits are processed on high-speed roller mills, which heat to a high temperature, damaging the flavor of the corn and smashing the germ to dust.
Edge has watched, happily, as grits have been resurrected into an artisanal food. “What’s happened to the South isn’t some fad but a genuine unearthing of old foods and varieties,” he says. “Grits are a reintegration of a very old food being enjoyed in a very new time.”
Mills–even his name seems predestined–readily admits that he didn’t have a clue of where to start with the mill. Mills and his wife, Alice, had never operated or built a mill before, but each step of the way, he found inspiration.
“The Bible is filled with stories of people who went through hard times and then God provides them with a more fruitful and a better life,” Alice says. “Tim wasn’t fulfilled with just working a public job and having a garden. He knew there could be more to his life. We’re doing exactly what we should be doing.”
Mills started tinkering with a design, rummaging in junkyards and returning with sprockets, chains, belts, and wheels. He took the rear end of a truck and added bolts here, screws there.
“Tim said that God didn’t want the mill to run on electricity, so for a while we had a horse,” she says, “and then we moved on,” to mules Chet and Luke. As large as a draft horse, Luke is a handsome red creature, for whom the mill’s grits, corn meal, and polenta are named. His noble countenance adorns every bag.
Chet and Luke spend their workdays under a shady oak, plodding slowly around a steel post that drives a shaft, which at its opposite end passes within a shed. Inside, gears turn and rotate two steel burrs together, grinding the kernels.
The ground corn drops into a spinning, screened cylinder of fine and coarse mesh that sifts out the smallest pieces into a holding bucket and throws the larger parts into other buckets for two more rounds of grinding. The finest grind is sold as polenta and cornmeal, the coarser grind, as grits. The word “grits” comes from an old English word meaning “coarse meal.”
It took his wife Alice and him three years to get things up and running smoothly, but things quickly accelerated. They started selling at farmers’ markets and health food stores around Clarke County. Then, Athens chef and James Beard Award Winner Hugh Acheson opened his acclaimed restaurant, 5 & 10, and began buying grits and polenta from the Mills more than a decade ago. And everything changed for them, Tim says.
Today, you can find grits on the menu at 5 & 10, Acheson’s restaurants in Atlanta and Savannah, and other high-end eateries in Athens, Atlanta, Florida, and Washington state.
“When we opened 5 & 10, we wanted to connect to the local food landscape and with local producers, and I heard about Tim and what he was doing,” says Acheson. “Tim is this quiet genius. His yellow grits really are superlative. Of course, it helps to have the wherewithal to know what to do with them.”
If Mills is a genius, he is not a lonely one. Logan Turnpike Mill in the North Georgia mountains uses a Meadows Mill from the 1930s with a blue granite stone to make their products. Logan uses corns from farmers in Georgia and the Southeast. Though co-owner Cecelia Holland is happy that chefs around the country are buying their grits, “We really didn’t see that resurgence coming,” she says. “But we’re in the middle of it.”
And then there’s Anson Mills in Columbia, S.C., which takes the term “heirloom” to a new level. Owner Glenn Roberts produces grits and meal made of corns that were raised as crops in the nineteenth century. But Roberts’ mission isn’t just to sell grits. He’s spent the last 20 years finding, protecting, and cultivating corn and other pre-industrial domesticated plants–called “landraces”–and resurrecting agricultural systems that existed in North America centuries ago. His Carolina Gold Rice, grown in the coastal area of South Carolina, is of the same variety that people were eating at the end of the Revolutionary War. In old journals and diaries Roberts discovered that in the South Carolina of the 1700s, many farmers followed a 17-year-long cycle of rotating specific crops to enhance their flavor, hardiness, and nutritional value without depleting the soil.
While he agrees that heirloom grains are delicious, Roberts believes taste is only a small part of why the cultivation of landraces is critical. For him, they are the future of food and how it is grown, because their elasticity means they can deal with and adapt to climate change. “You want to make seed for future food and crops for this season” Roberts says.
For his part, Mills swears that part of God’s plan directed him to use “an alternative power source” for his mill–Mills went with mules. A plan to prepare for climate change that involves tastier starches is perhaps a plan all Americans can get behind.