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Chefs and culinary historians resurrect the Lowcountry's antebellum pantry

Raising the Grain

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The fascinating part of Chef Marc Collins' current culinary interest isn't the modernism with which he twists ingredients at the molecular level. It's not the delightfully secluded space in which he operates at Circa 1886, tucked away behind the opulent Wentworth Mansion. It's the ingredients he's found.

His latest find? Heritage ingredients of the Carolina Rice Kitchen, a term inspired by Karen Hess' seminal volume on rice cookery published in 1998, and the mantra of numerous chefs and purveyors attempting to bring the antebellum pantry back in the postmodern age.

"I know you came expecting five courses, but Glenn Roberts has inspired something special, so we're going to do seven," Collins announced at his inaugural Grain Dinner in early March. "I hope no one ate lunch."

Collins is an intense chef, a man who explores cuisine intellectually. Circa 1886 could be called a culinary concept space, a place more theoretical than commercial, but that might imply it's not utterly delicious. And that's not the case; few who eat there come away with complaint. A similar intensity pervades Glenn Roberts', owner of Anson Mills, rapid-fire pontification of the antebellum pantry. In a single unbroken strand of conversation, we sailed along the coast of the early Carolina's, landing to find Native American's grinding hominy. We planted red peas with Gullah freedmen along the secluded Sea Islands of Georgia, and heard of miraculous oats originally bred as premium fuel for the fine race horses owned by the Southern gentry of the early 19th century.

Juxtaposed against Collins' modern style, the ingredients took on new meaning. Blazing white Lamas flour made its way into a pigeon pie anointed with ham, whipped white truffle honey, and bee pollen. Aromatic heirloom buckwheat varieties became a "beggar's purse" filled with crab and shrimp Newburg. Barley took center stage in a brown butter cake served alongside chocolate malt ice cream that tingled the tongue and hop salt caramel in a deconstructed chocolate stout.

"This is a cultural study about food. It's America's first cuisine," Roberts asserted over a dish laden with hominy grits, "the only place where a native American foodway is the center of the table."

The foods were all tied together by a single thread, Roberts explained. The multiple ingredients grew together or in sequence, some as companions and others in agricultural rotations designed to enrich the soil of the Lowcountry's rice fields, where the rice kitchen grew prior to the Civil War. Unfortunately, that's where many of these ingredients were left behind.

Collins is not the only chef interested in studying and supporting the efforts of Roberts. On April 16, Chef Forrest Parker at the Old Village Post House in Mt. Pleasant will invite Roberts, along with culinary researcher Dr. David Shields and Dr. Brian Ward, a horticulture specialist with Clemson University, to present their latest attempts at re-establishing the antebellum pantry.

Ward has been focused on growing the original Carolina African runner peanut, as Shields has dubbed it, which the group obtained in small quantity from university research labs in North Carolina and began farming out for seed at the Clemson's Coastal Research and Education station. The dinner also promises to introduce diners to Sea Island Guinea Flint corn grits, hearts of the subtly flavored Carolina collard, a West Indian white sweet potato variety, and older ascensions of benne (sesame) seeds.

This trend toward antebellum ingredients is certainly nothing novel or new. Sean Brock has worked closely with Roberts and Shields for several years. But such widespread emphasis, and the proliferation of dinners such as Collins' and Parker's, the latter being held to raise money for Clemson's Organic Agricultural Extension efforts, signal that local chefs are eager to climb aboard and fully support the effort.

That should prove to be a rather tasty journey, and a homegrown one at that.

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