There’s quite a bit corn scholars don’t know about John McEntire’s heirloom white corn, which his family’s been planting as long as anyone can remember. They don’t know whether it bears traces of one of the “lost” corns of East Tennessee, as some experts suspect, or exactly when it arrived in the Old Fort area.
But they’re pretty well certain that none of McEntire’s ancestors, who tended the long-stalk corn colloquially known as “lavender”—same as he does today—- made fried manchego-suffused grits cakes to serve alongside buttermilk-and-avocado-dressed salads.
That’s what award-winning chef Allison Barshak, who runs a much-lauded café in Blue Bell, Penn., is now doing with McEntire’s celebrated stone-ground grits. Since Barshak journeyed to Charleston in 2004 for the 19th annual edition of the World Grits Festival, she’s had all of Philly abuzz about the humblest of Southern staples. Although she’s experimented with various grits for her haute preparations, she was sufficiently smitten by McEntire’s product to buy 300 pounds of it the last time she popped by Peaceful Valley Farm with her fiancé.
“They wanted us to come to Philadelphia and eat grits in their restaurant,” McEntire recalls, laughing. “I eat grits here. If I go there, maybe I’ll have shish kabob or something.”
Which isn’t to say McEntire is sick of grits. He’s been making and eating grits since he was a boy, so that’s reason enough for him to keep them in his diet. But McEntire is an unabashed fan of the old days, and speaks of the nation’s proud agrarian past with an enthusiasm rarely summoned since the Bicentennial.
McEntire has transformed his family farm, which he bought from his siblings a few years ago, into an educational playground for children. He and his wife, Karen—both former schoolteachers—annually host thousands of schoolchildren for blacksmithing, canning and corn-grinding demonstrations. On busy days, children dart between the bright-red barns that house examples of local pottery, turned wood and antique tools. The resolutely wholesome operation seems like something Charles Kuralt would have enjoyed.
“I wanted to preserve the local heritage of farm ways,” McEntire says. “We actually believe, as we see changes in this country, we’re going to go back to local food.”
Like his parents before him, McEntire grows peppers, tomatoes, sweet corn and onions, all without the aid of pesticides or fancy modern equipment. He and Karen make their own apple butter, molasses and grits.
“What’s interesting about John’s corn is that John’s growing it,” says Anson Mills owner Glenn Roberts, who has single-handedly spurred an heirloom-corn revival.
Roberts has spent the last decade researching and resuscitating American corns, of which more than 19,000 varieties are extant. The staggering number obscures how many corns have gone missing: “We can only speculate on what was lost,” Roberts says.
Many of those missing varieties endure, undetected, in corns like the one grown by McEntire. In the pre-Industrial Age, it wasn’t unusual for a family to have a corn of its own, honed through crossbreeding to have a flavor that reflected the particular family’s tastes. While genealogists fixate on family trees, researchers set on understanding their relatives might do better to investigate their family corns.
Corn was so highly valued that settlers would often put a few seeds in their pockets before moving to a new place. “If you’re lucky, you can see how maize travels,” says Roberts, who’s currently working on repatriating corns imported to the Cayman Islands by freed blacks from the Carolinas.
Roberts wants to “uncross” single-family corns like McEntire’s through backbreeding, an elaborate process—overseen by geneticists—that can take as many as five years. In order to isolate the various strands in a corn, Roberts will plant multiple acres of it, checking it first for stability. As he’s learned the hard way, not all corns replicate precisely or predictably.
“Glenn’s ginning a five-acre plot,” reports McEntire, who Roberts found through the heirloom-seed grapevine. “He believes the corn’s a lost variety from East Tennessee. He showed the corn to a couple of old gentlemen in Tennessee, and they thought this was it.”
Although McEntire isn’t sure whether his forebears ever lived in Tennessee—his mother’s parents came from the Bee Tree area, while his father’s relatives hailed from Rutherford and Polk counties—he believes his Scotch-Irish heritage is consistent with Tennessee settlement.
Roberts is more circumspect in discussing the evaluation of McEntire’s crop, which he confirms is ongoing: “I used to speculate a lot in public, and I learned that wasn’t a great idea,” Roberts says. “Someone will jump out of the audience somewhere and call you a liar.”
What Roberts is willing to say is that the pencil-cob corn in question, which produces just one ear a stalk, probably has Hickory King and Johnson corns in it. “There are at least those in there, but we don’t have any conclusions your can hang your hat on,” he says. “We do think there’s a corn in there that’s definitely unique.”
If testing suggests McEntire’s corn likely belongs to the class of 20 to 30 East Tennessee corns thought to have vanished from the American landscape, the next phase “involves a lot of money,” Roberts says. “But I am in the position to give grants,” he adds, something he’s done for one dozen threatened seed varieties.
Roberts is ultimately seeking the same quality that antebellum farmers sought in their corn: flavor. It’s his hunger for exceptional taste sensations of the past that has largely driven his seed-collection efforts.
“It’s wonderful taste, yes it is,” says McEntire. “I gave Glenn five ears or so, and he certainly believes it’s a wonderful taste.”
Most everyone who’s sampled McEntire’s grits, which are usually available at the Asheville City Market, agree their soft, subtle taste is a revelation.
“I guess Glenn will use it,” McEntire says of his corn, which he can watch grow from his farmhouse’s front porch. “And that’s certainly fine with me. I don’t mind to share it.”