True Grits

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Something mystical happens when you drive out Highway 56, just past the boondocks, and turn off onto a gravel driveway toward a big white plantation home smack out in the middle of nowhere.

Once you see the house and the fields behind it, fallow now in winter, you feel as if the eighteenth century never left this place—then you meet the occupants and get the almost-magical sense that they aren’t in the twenty-first century, either. “The family is the prettiest damn family. It’s like a dream come true.”

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Those words and their ethereal sentiment belong to Teryi Youngblood Musolf, chef at Passarelle Bistro next to Falls Park, where she serves a product that comes from this dreamscape, a place called Colonial Milling Co. in Pauline, South Carolina, just outside Spartanburg.

That’s where Jonny and Michelle Stauffer purchased a home built in 1790 and started their farm-fed company from scratch three years ago. Today, they grow and mill heirloom corn into grits and meal. Now on 35 acres, the imposing two-story manse once was the centerpiece of a 600-acre spread belonging to one William Smith. In 1765, Smith arrived there from Bucks County, Pennsylvania, and later fought in the Revolutionary War, served in the South Carolina Senate, and in the U.S. Congress. He was, first and foremost, a planter.


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Kernels of Wisdom: High school sweethearts Jonny and Michelle Stauffer grow their own heirloom corn at Colonial Milling Co. in Pauline, SC, outside of Spartanburg, where they transform it into grits and cornmeal.


So is Jonny. Which explains why the Stauffers moved here with their son, Grant, now 6, from Spartanburg—to plant and, ultimately, to carry on a tradition that feeds people.

The couple doesn’t so much recreate history as they continue a story as old as South Carolina itself. “When you’re in high school,” Michelle says, “maybe you don’t appreciate history. But when you’re living here, you’re, like, ‘Wow, this is pretty cool.’” She glances out a window from their living room, where two logs mysteriously burn as if they’re four. Nodding toward the mottled bricks on the back porch columns, she says, “The bricks were made here on the property. You see people’s thumbprints on them. It’s not restoring the past, but you’re keeping it alive in some way. You’re making it tangible.”

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And tasty. From a sideboard in their large dining room, she serves heavenly fresh-baked cornbread from their own grain seed, also a couple of hundred years old—“She’s the one that turns it into magic,” Jonny says of his wife of 12 years. “I just grow it.”

Talk all you want about non-GMO and preservative-free. Jonny spent three years hand-culling his yellow Hickory King Corn seeds and replanting them until he reaped the harvest he wanted last spring. He got their start-up palm-full of grains from an 85-year-old gentleman in Hendersonville, North Carolina. “This corn is the history of our country,” Michelle says. “This is what our forefathers ate. This is what the Indians gifted them to grow.” She stops and, then, with a movie-star smile, adds: “This is cool. I guess I geek out about it.”


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A Good Meal: Jonny and Michelle Stauffer, and their son Grant, create small-batch grits and cornmeal with non-GMO, preservative-free Hickory King Corn with a pink granite slab in their quaint operation in Pauline, SC. Their products can be bought locally at the Swamp Rabbit Café & Grocery, the TD Saturday Market, or purchased via their website at colonialmilling.com.


“It’s always been a dream of mine to farm—and ours, not just mine, ours,” Jonny says.

Jonny, 39, and Michelle, two years his junior, were high school sweethearts in Boiling Springs. Back then, he cut hay on a friend’s uncle’s farm—“the most amazing job ever.” DNA’s practically required to farm, but he didn’t get that. “I swear I was adopted,” he laughs. “His mom doesn’t like it when he says that,” Michelle says. “But it’s neat to see what you can turn something into.”

Jonny listens without interruption. He wears a well-worn ball cap, a light-colored flannel shirt, and denims with a few smudges. Michelle wears a sweater and jeans. She works as a rehab nurse on weekends. He owned his own landscaping business for 15 years before selling everything he had to become a freelance commodities speculator. “I kept my dog and my wife and that little car out there. I never used other peoples’ money.” He apparently made enough seed capital to capitalize his seed venture, enough to move to a place far from today.

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“You take a piece of red clay,” Michelle says, “and it’s incredible to see what he can do with it. He has the vision. I don’t have the vision. I just have a strong back and I trust him and I think we can do it.”


“We’ve come up with enough crazy ideas that I think she trusts my intuition when I get a vision. You can call it a vision, ” He says. “It’s a crazy idea.”


Perhaps. But it’s leaving a good taste in folks’ mouths.

The Stauffers began selling their wares last year at the TD Saturday Market in downtown Greenville. Nowadays, their grits and cornmeal go to more than a dozen retailers and restaurants. At the Saturday morning market, they say, people greeted them like rock stars. “People came by high-fiving us, ‘Thank you for doing this, thank you for keeping the tradition going,’” Michelle says.

“I’ve never had anybody tell me, ‘Thank you for what you do.’ Until this. People get it. It’s amazing to see people see what you see. When I was landscaping, I never had anyone say, ‘Y’know, thanks for pulling up and doing my yard,’” Jonny says. He takes a visitor back to the mill, past the Yorkshire and mixed-breed hogs, Thelma and Louise, squealing and playing in a muddy pen. Cocks crow down near the field, where brown-dead corn stalks await spring’s tilling.

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After seeing the deep-rooted home, you envision a nearby creek with an ancient wooden watermill, patiently turning giant stones that grind dried kernels. Not here. Instead, the entire milling operation sits inside an 800-square-foot metal container, one of those cargo housings you see on a semitrailer truck or train.

The milling machine itself is about the size of a peach basket with a funnel on top. A casing houses two 8-inch millstones, one of which is pink Balfour granite. Next to the mini-mill is a sifter, also painted bright white, about half the size of a home refrigerator; the odd-looking electrical contraption shakes and shakes to separate grits from fine, powdery meal. You can’t help but chuckle in bemused astonishment when you see this equipment. Jonny does.

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“If the focus is on this mill, then, yeah, it’s funny, it’s a joke. I’m laughing with you. But we’re just small-scale farmers, is what we are. We try to produce an unbelievably delicious product. It just happens to need to be milled, and this is the mill we do it with.”

Jonny bought the gizmos from Meadows Mills, which began manufacturing in North Wilkesboro, North Carolina, around 1900—because old, too. Brian Hege, the company’s vice president of sales, explains that pink granite’s special geologic properties actually influence the product’s quality. While rubbing rocks together would certainly create friction, too much of it burns away grains’ natural fat.


“The method for milling that my mills utilize is a superior method because we don’t raise the temperature of the product,” he says.


Who doesn’t like that savory deliciousness of fat?

More grain, more goodness, says Passerelle’s Musolf. “He uses the whole corn. You can see every bit of it in the grits. You can see the germ, the whole thing, whenever you’re holding it. The corn itself is a very sweet corn. The mouth feel about it is really tender and really succulent, so you can tell the corn is really good corn to start with.”

That’s why Julie McGuire stocks Colonial Milling’s grits at the Swamp Rabbit Café and Grocery, where she’s grocery manager and buyer. “Their grits, in particular, have a really true heirloom, stoneground texture and taste to them.” Of Colonial Milling and its two proprietors: “They are a really special company, and they’re doing a really special thing.” She also applauds the old-fashioned packaging. Jonny mills by the batch, up to 60 pounds at a time. He fills each 16-ounce jar by hand, packing as many as eight cases, 12 Mason jars to a case, and signing and numbering every “1790” label by himself. “Unless they just get a wild hair and wanna come help,” he says, nodding toward his wife and son.

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Molly Perry, a chef who was helping out a Spartanburg caterer in January, took pouches, rather than jars, with her to Washington, D.C., after she placed what’s probably Colonial Milling’s single biggest order to date: 15 pounds of fresh-ground grits for a swank brunch the Friday after the presidential inauguration. “I love local products and I try to use them whenever I can in my cooking because they’re just better,” she says, just days before serving some 150 members and guests of South Carolina’s delegation, celebrating at a posh townhouse two blocks from the Capitol.

While Perry joins others who dollop praise on the Stauffers, like so much butter on hot grits, she’s equally enthralled with the whole package: “He has a really neat operation.” As Musolf says of the Stauffers’ history-simmered grace and grits: “It makes the story better, and it makes the corn taste better.”

Colonial milling Co. 6097 Hwy 56, Pauline, SC. (864) 304-1945, colonialmilling.com

 

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