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Small Farmer's Journal
PO Box 1627
Sisters, Oregon 97759
800-876-2893
541-549-2064
agrarian@smallfarmersjournal.com
Mon - Thu, 8am - 4pm PDT

Jimmy Red Corn

Jimmy Red Corn

From Hooch To Haute Cuisine: A Nearly Extinct Bootlegger’s Corn Gets A Second Shot

by Jill Neimark, reprinted by permission of the author.

Sometime around the turn of the last century, a blood-red, flint-hard “dent” corn with a rich and oily germ made its way from Appalachia to the islands of Charleston, S.C. The corn was grown out by local farmers and bootleggers, who found that it made spectacular hooch, or moonshine whiskey.

“In the 1980s, you used to be able to go to James Island,” recalls Glenn Roberts, founder of heirloom seed purveyor Anson Mills. “And, if you knew the right people, they’d sell you delicious food out their backdoor kitchen and you’d get a jar of Jimmy Red hooch with it. But though I knew the hooch, I never knew the corn.”

Nobody really knew the corn – not until the early 2000s, when the last known bootlegger growing the corn died, and the corn almost died with him. Two ears were rescued from his plot and gifted to celebrated local farmer and seed saver Ted Chewning, with the suggestion that he grow it out for his hogs.

Chewning loves to save seeds — he has revived nearly extinct corns, beans, heirloom radishes, watermelons and field peas. He rescued Jimmy Red as well, growing it and saving kernels each year, increasing the seed stock. Little did he know that soon it would burst on the restaurant scene as a prized heirloom cultivar that makes unforgettable red-flecked grits and a rich, smooth whiskey with honey-nut undertones.

“This is what grits must have tasted like a hundred years ago,” says Forrest Parker, chef de cuisine at The Drawing Room, at the Vendue Hotel in Charleston’s historic French Quarter.

“It behaves like no other corn I’ve distilled,” says Scott Blackwell, cofounder of High Wire Distilling in Charleston, S.C. “The pearls of oil on the distillate taste of marzipan and light cherry — not corn.”

Soon the siren corn was calling to others.

Jimmy Red Corn

Chewning gave seeds to organic growers and farmers and even to food historian David Shields, author of The Culinarians: Lives and Careers from the First Age of Fine Dining, who boarded it onto the Slow Food Ark of Taste, a catalogue of endangered heritage foods.

He gave it to chef Sean Brock, who grew it himself and started serving Jimmy Red grits, cornbread and flapjacks at his storied Charleston restaurants, McCradys and Husk. Brock loved the flavorful corn so much he had it tattooed on his arm.

With Brock’s patronage, Jimmy Red was suddenly a celebrity cultivar across the country.

Venues like Charleston’s Fig, whose executive chef, Jason Stanhope, is a James Beard award winner, put grits on their menu for the first time. Jimmy Red grits have been grown and served by Chef Ryan Pera at Coltivare in Houston. They have also been on the menu at Gavin Kaysen’s Spoon and Stable in Minneapolis. They are grown, milled and even sold online by Greg Johnsman of Geechie Boy Mill, of Edisto Island.

“When you open the bag to decant them, this wonderful nutty aroma wafts out,” says Chef Parker. “The grits pair really well with brown butter sauces at dinner.”

If corn had a personality, Jimmy Red might be described as demanding but inordinately generous.

Jimmy Red was brought back from the brink of extinction by renowned Southern farmer and seed saver Ted Chewning. Now, several farms grow this heritage corn. The corn has an unusually large germ — the center of the kernel, which holds all the flavor that chefs and distillers love so much.

Like many heritage corns, it is an open pollinator — the plant version of promiscuous, easily fertilized by pollens blown its way from other corns. To ensure purity, the corn requires hand pollinating, says Glenn Roberts of Anson Mills, who now sells Jimmy Red grits to chefs and also grows the corn in three different geographic regions to ensure that no natural disaster wipes it out. Wax-coated bags are placed over the plant’s tassels (the male flowers) and silks (part of the female flowers). The pollen accumulates in the bags, and is later collected and dusted by hand onto the silks.

Like all field corns, it must be harvested when mature and is inedible unless processed. (In contrast, sweet corn is picked at the milk stage and can be eaten raw or cooked.) But the most pronounced feature of the corn is its unusually large germ — the soft center of the kernel, where the flavor resides. It’s so large that when ground, the grits take most of the intensely flavorful flecks of the germ with them. And when distilled, that germ gives off the fragrant oil Blackwell marvels over.

It also carries within its brilliant red ears an invisible history of cross pollinating and cross-breeding. “If you grow it out in large enough plots,” explains Roberts, “it will begin to throw off new varieties. I’ve seen five new distinct varieties, and kept two.”

Roberts has seen ears with an orange or white endosperm, kernels that are blue or white. He believes the corn was crossbred with decorative Native American thanksgiving corns at some point.

The flavorful germ offers endlessly creative outtakes on cooking. “If you want your grits pink,” says Roberts, “cook it with an acid like Ogeechee lime juice. If you want purple or even black grits, put some baking soda in to render it alkaline.”

If grits are one part of the story, whiskey is the other — and perhaps the ultimate fate for an old hooch corn. “I’ve been thinking about this corn for years,” says Scott Blackwell — ever since 2014, when Roberts laid 50 different heirloom corns out on a table for him to view.

“Which one makes the best whiskey?” he asked. Roberts didn’t miss a beat: “Jimmy Red.”

“I’ll write a grant check to Clemson University to grow that one,” Blackwell said.

Clemson University research scientist Brian Ward, who specializes in bringing old seed lines back from near extinction, grew 2.5 acres that year.

High Wire Distilling has been crafting bourbon from Jimmy Red since 2014. This year’s release of over 1,900 bottles comes from 14 acres grown in 2015, and is sold in a special Le Creuset bottle created for High Wire Distilling.

Roberts took the harvest up to his seed house, cleaned and milled it, and sent it back to High Wire Distilling. “Right away I could tell it was very different,” Blackwell says. “Super earthy. Super sweet. Like banana laffy taffy.” He crafted two barrels of 100 percent corn-based bourbon (aged in virgin charred barrels). The whiskey didn’t need wheat or rye for flavor. Jimmy Red had enough flavor on its own.

From those two barrels, the distillery crafted 570 bottles of bourbon that, according to Ann Marshall, Blackwell’s wife and business partner, sold out in 11 minutes. “Luckily we had ¾ of a tasting bottle left that we took home for ourselves.”

In 2015, Blackwell grew 14 acres of Jimmy Red. In 2016, he grew 65 acres, and in 2017, he grew a generous 85 acres. The bourbon from the 2015 crop is being released now, as it’s aged for two years. Blackwell has experimented with different farms, and is labeling bottles by the farms they were grown on.

“The soil of the farm totally changes the taste,” says Blackwell — as proven when he shared fresh, unaged bourbon with this author on a Saturday in late October. The whiskey from a farm called Lavington (with peaty black soil) had sweet floral notes, while the same whiskey from the Pee Dee River valley (with sandy loamy soil) tasted like earthy green banana and butterscotch. After being aged, those distinctive flavors will merge into the smoky tannins of bourbon.

“This is really a community story,” says Roberts. “This entire community of Southerners saved this corn.” He pauses and reflects back. “My daughter’s first corn doll — made 18 years ago when she was 8 — was crafted from Jimmy Red. She used the shucked ear to make the doll, the husk and silk for the clothing and hair, and one red kernel for the heart.”

Indeed, heirloom cultivars like Jimmy Red are the heart of a Southern renaissance in traditional foodways, the repatriation of seeds as well as recipes — weaving together flavor and history into meals and drinks to relish and remember.

Jill Neimark is an Atlanta-based writer whose work has been featured in Discover, Scientific American, Science, Nautilus, Aeon, Psychology Today and The New York Times.

Spotlight On: Equipment & Facilities

400 Hen Laying House

400-Hen Laying House

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One of the hardest problems in successful poultry keeping is to maintain the vigor and health of the flock. Housing has particular bearing on this problem. If the laying-house is poorly lighted, has insufficient ventilation, or is overcrowded, the health of the fowls will be affected. The purpose of housing is to increase productiveness. In order to accomplish this the fowls must be comfortable.

Permanent Corncribs

A short piece on the construction of corncribs.

A Pony-Powered Garden Cart

A Pony-Powered Garden Cart

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One of the challenges I constantly face using draft ponies is finding appropriately sized equipment. Mya is a Shetland-Welsh cross, standing at 11.2 hands. Most manure spreaders are big and heavy and require a team of horses. I needed something small and light and preferably wheeled to minimize impact to the land. My husband and I looked around our budding small farm for something light, wheeled, cheap, and available, and we quickly noticed our Vermont-style garden cart.

Cultivating Questions The Cost of Working Horses

Cultivating Questions: The Cost of Working Horses

Thanks to the many resources available in the new millennium, it is relatively easy for new and transitioning farmers to learn the business of small-scale organic vegetable production. Economic models of horse-powered market gardens, however, are still few and far between. To fill that information hole, I asked three experienced farmers to join me in tracking work horse hours, expenses and labor over a two-year period and to share the results in the Small Farmer’s Journal.

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Cockshutt Plow Found in Alberta!

Dale Befus introduced me to a plow I had not set eyes on before, most unusual affair though Dale assures me not uncommon in Alberta, this implement is a beam-hung riding plow (wheels hang from the beam) as versus the frame-hung units (where the beam hangs under the wheel-supported frame).

I Built My Own Buckrake

I Built My Own Buckrake

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One of the fun things about horse farming is the simplicity of many of the machines. This opens the door for tinkerers like me to express themselves. Sometimes it is just plain nice to take a proven design and build one of your own. Last spring I did just that. I built my own buckrake. I’m proud of the fact that it worked as it should and that my rudimentary carpentry skills produced it.

Horse Powered Snow Fencing and Sleigh Fencing

Horse Powered Snow Fencing and Sleigh Fencing

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We were planning on having our cattle out in a sheltered field for the winter but a busy fall and early snows meant our usual fencing tool was going to be ineffective. Through the grazing season we use a reel barrow which allows us to carry posts and pay out or take in wire with a wheel barrow like device which works really well. But not on snow. This was the motivation for turning our sleigh into a “snow fencer” or a “sleigh barrow”.

Horsedrawn Dempster Well Driller

Horsedrawn Dempster Well Driller

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The driller is like an auger type post hole digger powered by one horse walking around the machine. The gear is stationary. The platform and everything on it (including operators) goes around and around with the horse. The auger shaft is clamped to the platform so the auger makes one revolution as the horse makes one revolution. The gears operate a winch. It appears the winch can also be cranked by hand.

The Horsedrawn Mower Book

Removing the Wheels from a McCormick Deering No. 9 Mower

How to remove the wheels of a No. 9 McCormick Deering Mower, an excerpt from The Horsedrawn Mower Book.

A Hidden Treasure

A Hidden Treasure

When David and Gus visited Mr. Hemmett they had an unexpected find. Not only was there the small tip-cart but other full sized farm wagons. The first that David looked at was a double shafted Lincolnshire wagon designed for the flat lands of that county and too big and heavy for his Suffolk mare of 16.2 hands. But tucked at the back under a tarpaulin was the ideal vehicle – a Norfolk wagon that could take either a single or double shaft and was suitable for the smaller draught horse.

Homemade Beet Grinder

Homemade Beet Grinder

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This is my small beet grinder I built about 6 years ago. It has done nearly daily duty for that time. The beet fodder is added to my goat and rabbit rations which are largely homemade. Adding the pulp to the grain rations has aided me in having goat milk throughout the winter months. My beets are the Colossal Red Mangels. Many grow up to 2 feet long. I cut off enough for a day’s feed and grind it up each morning. Beets oxidize like cut apples. Fresh is best!

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The Threshasaurus’s large size and curious nature may appear antagonistic, but they are mostly curious and largely non-threatening. Be careful when approaching, however, as they do have sharp teeth and many fast moving, exposed pulleys.

The Farm & Bakery Wagon

The Farm & Bakery Wagon

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The first step was to decide on an appropriate chassis, or “running gear.” Eventually I chose to go with the real deal, a wooden-wheeled gear with leaf springs rather than pneumatic tires. Wooden wheels last forever with care and are functional and look the part. I bought an antique delivery wagon that had been left outdoors as an ornament. I was able to reuse some of the wheels and wooden parts of the running gear.

McCormick-Deering Primrose Cream Separator

McCormick-Deering Primrose Cream Separator

from issue:

When the milk has been poured into the supply can, and machine has attained its speed, the faucet should be fully opened. The milk will then flow through the regulating cover, down the feed tube and into the bowl, where separation of cream from the milk takes place. The skim milk passes from bowl to skim-milk cover and out into receiver; the cream enters cream cover, thence to receiver.

A Step Back in Time with the Barron Tree Planter

A Step Back in Time with the Barron Tree Planter

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The 18th century saw a tremendous interest in landscaping private parkland on a grand scale with the movement of entire hills and mature trees, all by man and horse power, to fulfill the designs of celebrated gardeners such as Capability Brown. In the mid 1800s the movement of mature trees was revolutionised by the introduction of the Barron tree transplanter. The first planter was designed and built by Barron for the transplantation of maturing trees at Elvaston Castle in Derbyshire.

Ask A Teamster Tongue Length

Ask A Teamster: Tongue Length

My forecart pole is set up for draft horses. My husband thinks we should cut the pole off to permanently make it fit better to these smaller horses. What would be your opinion? Like your husband, my preference would be a shorter tongue for a small team like your Fjords. The dynamics and efficiency of draft are better if we have our horse(s) close to the load. A shorter tongue will also reduce the overall length of your outfit, thereby giving you better maneuverability and turning dynamics.

Horsedrawn Plows and Plowing

Setting Up A Walking Plow

Here is a peek into the pages of Horsedrawn Plows and Plowing, written by SFJ editor and publisher Lynn R. Miller.

Hay Making with a Single Horse Part 3

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In parallel with making hay on the ground, nearly every year I have also made some hay on tripods. The attraction of this method is that it only needs one day of good weather to dry the grass sufficiently before it is put on the tripods, and then the hay takes very little harm no matter what the weather, usually coming out green, dry and smelling of hay two weeks later when it can be baled or stacked.

Small Farmer's Journal

Small Farmer's Journal
PO Box 1627
Sisters, Oregon 97759
800-876-2893
541-549-2064
agrarian@smallfarmersjournal.com
Mon - Thu, 8am - 4pm PDT