Holidays at Anson Mills
The holidays always prompt us to become misty and confessional. Perhaps it’s the old recipe cards we but see once a year, the riffraff of decades-old ornaments, Cricket’s little jingle collar. We beg your indulgence, but we have wrapped these recipes up in some personal reminiscences. If our stories aren’t of interest, skip ahead. The recipes are fabulous.
For decades, well before Anson Mills started taking solid food, I (Glenn) worked in the company of many of the country’s finest chefs. As my chef buddies know, I have no particular cooking talent, a view shared by my late mother who was a phenomenal cook, and even by my darling wife Kay (who loves me anyway). Twenty years ago, Thomas Keller said to me, “Glenn, forget grits out here in California. Couldn’t follow your instructions, anyway. What about polenta? Get an Italian-born chef to work with you, for Pete’s sake. The corn is terrific—just get the method straight or you’ll have a slew of chefs gunning for you.” Recently, Dan Barber said: “Glenn, this benne oil is terrific, but not memorable. Don’t forget your own paradigm: to be relevant, an ingredient has to be stellar and memorable.”
What might surprise my chef friends is that I was once actually employed as a chef. But my cooking career, by any metric, was sort of disastrous. I had excellent ingredients, a terrific team in the kitchen, a first-class service staff—in short, everything—but my food was all over the map both in concept and quality. I broke my own rules . . . and paid for it.
A single memorable exception came in 1989. That was the year I got a standing ovation for my quail preparation. The occasion was a 12-course Burgundy dinner hosted by Danny Haas of Vineyard Brands, which took place at Perditas restaurant in Charleston. For the game course, I hired a couple of huntsman to bag local quail in the ACE Basin just south of Charleston and bring the birds to hang in the walk-in the week before the event. The kitchen staff cleaned the quail but I boned them all myself—100 in total!—and simmered stock with the bones and feet. With the stock, innards, and some very old Malmsey Madeira, I made quail demi-glace. I prepared rice stuffing with mushrooms and wild herbs foraged from the birds’ own habitat. And what do you know, for once, I screwed up and got it right! I nearly wept when they brought me out after the quail course and gave me a standing ovation—especially since I knew the rest of the dinner, in true chef parlance, sucked.
We offer this roasted stuffed quail to honor diligent, mediocre, but passionate chefs everywhere, as well as to honor wild quail, which have recently been hunted to near extinction in the ACE Basin. Where rice is grown sustainably, there will be quail. Today, all of Anson Mills’ ACE Basin rice growers are dedicated to ethical hunting that promotes the return of wild quail and other species.
My (Kay’s) professional sweet tooth was cut, or chipped, in pre-Wall-fall-down Berlin, in the kitchens of a handful of restaurants willing to hire me. The fact that I got to work at these elegant, moody little places with umber walls and bespoke cuisine was itself kind of a joke, but German chefs seemed to like the portfolio I’d put together from my time at the Ladies’ Home Journal.
Hey—you can’t blame a girl for trying.
After years of having a pan handle imprinted on my palm, I wanted to be a pastry chef. I thought I was a pastry chef. The truth is, I was messy and hysterical—and nowhere near as accomplished as the sober young Germans working next to me.
There was also the minor issue of fluency. I knew the nominative, accusative, dative, and genitive cases and all their respective endings, but hadn’t bothered to learn the German word for whisk. Oops.
Whenever I applied for a job in Berlin, I was asked to make a strudel. Originally Viennese, strudel dough is pulled thin enough to read through and gets as big as a tablecloth. The skin-like pastry is rolled up like a carpet around apples or pears or poppy seeds or goodness knows what else, buttered lavishly, and baked until crisp and golden. When you cut it, the carapace shatters and a big head of steam rushes out. It is like eating flaky, buttery pastry as thin as parchment and with a hot, sweet fruit filling. Utterly delicious.
Sounds difficult, right? What saved me is that strudel is essentially noodle dough. And I’m rather good with noodles.
Time and again, my strudels turned out beautifully—even for a Scheiß Ami—so I always got the job.
Strudel has to be one of the more magical transformations a baker can feel under her hands. So willing to stretch beyond the parameters of anything we consider dough. Post baking: explosive shatter. It’s all snap, crackle, and better-than-pie pop.
I fabricated a great number of strudels using a number of Anson Mills flours and flour combinations. I also tried a number of fall apple varieties to tuck within this pastry. Then I found a single Anson Mills flour that makes exemplary strudel dough all on its own without any help. Read on . . .
By the way, homemade strudel in no way resembles frozen purchased phyllo, a product so processed it barely meets the definition of food.
Anyone who knows Glenn knows that to be in his presence is to stand at the threshold of a doorway while high winds and leaves rush in, descriptions fly, and names ping off the ground like movie rain. It is intense and exhilarating, but after a while you wish he’d shut up so you could collect your thoughts and get inside.
For our first date we went to FIG in Charleston. Fresh out of Boston, I didn’t know where North Carolina stopped and South Carolina began. With his customary incaution and exuberance, Glenn exalted FIG’s chef, Mike Lata, Mike’s low-heat cooking expertise, his extraordinary knifework, and clean food concepts. Mike was the only chef Glenn knew who could make perfect pickled shrimp. I’d never heard of pickled shrimp and it wasn’t on the menu that night. But I tried to absorb this concept and other lowcountry anomalies quickly since I found myself twisting at the end of a line—dizzy and gasping for breath.
FIG took us through courtship and into marriage. Glenn and I loved FIG for date nights, when we always supped at the bar. We brought a crowd of Yankees in for our rehearsal dinner. We spent every New Year’s Eve with Glenn’s daughter, Ansley, in FIG’s festooned dining room. I believe it was at one of those New Year’s Eve dinners when I first tasted Mike’s sticky sorghum pudding. I think my comment at the time was, “Damn it, why didn’t I think of this?”
We don’t know how Mike makes his sorghum pudding. But this is our take on Mike’s take on sticky toffee pudding, a fabulously soft steamed date cake with toffee sauce. Call sticky sorghum pudding a Southern leap off the treacly English dessert cart. Sorghum is so high in minerality it vibrates through the sauce like a clarion bell. It is bright and mellow with cream at the same time. You won’t want to miss this.
Happy Holidays—throw a little parsley on it and see it later, y’all—and Good Food!