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Winter at Anson Mills

January 2011

As this hard-charging, old-fashioned winter moves from thigh-high snow and mad blue skies toward the tattered, spongy gray of its late season declensions, we experience a nostalgia of appetite. Not appetite in a candlelit braise-and-Barolo way, but appetite in a bounce-out-of-bed, butter-melting-on-flapjacks kind of way. We’re hungry for the days when we awakened in an attic bedroom to sweet smells and swift movements below, and to a breakfast somebody wonderful—like our grandmother—had prepared just for us. Breakfast always liked winter best.

Of course, when Glenn and I think breakfast, we think of our Scottie who demands and receives his the moment a human being stirs. After that, we think Southern breakfast. It’s our default setting to be sure, but when it comes to breakfast fantasies, nothing compares with the exuberant excesses of an old-school coastal Carolina breakfast, a meal so extravagant it might take two ovens, two generations of cooks, and multiple burners firing on all cylinders to get it to the table. Southern breakfasts offered alluring foods kidnapped from other meals, like pie—and pork chops. The procession of dishes alone would set you back a couple of thousand calories before noon: eggs, grits, biscuits, griddle cakes, fried apples, farmhouse sausage, country ham, smothered pork chops, red eye gravy, buttermilk pie, pickled peaches, honey, sorghum, preserves, fresh butter, and black coffee.

As charming as this vignette is to contemplate—in a he-man sort of way—unless your day begins at 4:30 a.m. with farm chores, your kitchen is huge, and you’ve scheduled your mother and wife for the morning shift, this larger-than-life style makes no sense. Yet the late great coastal Carolina plantation breakfast retains interest as historical artifact alone by virtue of the culinary treasures it gave birth to, treasures that African slaves—who cooked and served these meals—took with them as freemen and -women after the Civil War. Southern culinary legacy owes its very existence to African-Americans, who became the masters and preservers of black-skillet cookery and the iconic dishes it created—many of which began as breakfast foods.

When Glenn was a boy, from time to time his mother prepared a special Sunday breakfast of waffles and gravy, served with fried chicken. She adopted this meal, Glenn’s favorite, as a girl during the Depression on Edisto Island where she lived amid wealthy families whose ancestors had invented this grand breakfast tradition, and poor black tenant farmers whose ancestors had cooked these foods.

And here we begin.

Southern Fried Chicken, Waffles, and Gravy

Fried chicken is universal. Southern fried chicken is not. Southern fried chicken is bound by more mystery, myth, and attitude and than almost any American dish we can think of. “Don’t you tell me how to fry chicken!” “That’s not how Grandma did it!” Unless you happen to be the direct namesake of your family’s fried chicken recipe (a matriarchal endowment), it is heresy for you to alter it. If you do, your relatives will notice instantly and express their displeasure with kind words only a Southerner would recognize as censorious: “I just love your fried chicken. It’s so much like Grandma’s!” The mild xenophobia encircling a beloved dish like fried chicken captures a bit of the zeitgeist of what it means to be Southern. It’s not everywhere you can commit murder with politeness and get away with it.

Here is another thing: Southerners can’t eat anything without a sauce. Butter is a sauce. Gravy is comfort food. One might be inclined to credit haute Huguenot lines for this fancy, but it is actually African influence that drives the savory side of Southern embellishment. Breakfast gets sauced, too. You will remember our Slow-Cooked Sea Island Red Peas, a dish served over rice at breakfast on New Year’s Day. And don’t forget biscuits and gravy, sausage gravy, red eye gravy, and shrimp and grits—and gravy.

In the great homes of the aristocracy, African slaves cooked and served an explosion of foods at breakfast. Along with all manner of main-course fare, there were inevitably gravy, grits, rice, and cakes. Of all the cakes—pan, oven, griddle, and fried—the most important were iron cakes. The recipes for these iron cakes, or waffles, were unique to their particular family (the irons themselves were emblazoned with the family crest), and the finest of them were made with rice flour. Imagine the appeal of bespoke waffles adorned with butter, syrup, fruit, preserves, honey, sugar—and of course, gravy!

Waffles, fried chicken, and gravy is a venerable old Southern dish. We don’t know how the West Coast export called Roscoe’s ended up serving their fried chicken and waffles with maple syrup, but we feel confident in saying that our version is far more authentic—and a lot tastier—than theirs. Rice waffles with sweet toppings are fantastic, of course. Just leave the chicken out of it.

Blue Corn Pancakes

Blue corn reflects its ceremonial heritage with a flavor profile as dramatic as its color. From ancient times on, Hopi brides have prepared multi-leafed cellophane-thin blue corn bread to celebrate their weddings. Imagine of a stack of translucent corn chips the size of a folded newspaper and you will have a vague appreciation of blue corn magic.

Anson Mills’ expanding family of chefs has explored this magic for years because Glenn has grown blue corn and produced blue corn products since Anson Mills was a baby. But for the past two years, Glenn experienced a significant rise in requests from home cooks for his blue corn products. He also realized he was making increasingly frequent exceptions to the Anson Mills chef-only blue-corn policy. So guess what happened?

Welcome to the world of Anson Mills blue corn products, people!

To celebrate this new entry, we developed a recipe for blue corn johnnycakes. The principal ingredients here, blue cornmeal and dried wild blueberries, are each native plant foods. Together with maple syrup—which no johnnycake would be without—they fit perfectly into the sphere of Native American winter cookery as well: where maples grow, winter is sugaring season, and a certain cache of dried summer blueberries and blue corn remain tucked away against the snow and chill.

These simple cakes pull together the earthy tones of blue corn, the bright ping of dried blueberries, and the sharp sweetness of maple in a super-thin, crispy patty with a piping-hot, creamy corn-mush interior.

Here’s to breakfast y’all, and Good Food!