Marsh Hen Mill’s Greg Johnsman shares the Low Country lowdown on making grits.
For even the greenest of home cooks, making grits is pretty easy. But not for Greg Johnsman of Marsh Hen Mill, a small-batch stone-miller of heirloom grits, cornmeal, and other pantry products based in South Carolina. From the time he was a young boy, the now 45-year-old Greenville area native learned how to make ground corn the old-fashioned way—a slow, steady, mechanical process taught to him by the local old-timers and more akin to an art form than the mass production of modern day. Eventually, he met his wife, Betsy, and the duo moved down to her hometown of Edisto Island, where a treasure trove of almost-lost crops varieties awaited him. Formerly known as Geechie Boy Mill, the company has since renamed for one of the birds commonly found along their coastal wetlands, and their products are now both sold across the country, from boutique grocers to Whole Foods, and beloved by noted chefs like Sean Brock. In fact, the two collaborated on our forever favorite Jimmy Red cornbread mix. Consider it an essential for your cast iron.
Johnsman holding a heap of heirloom Jimmy Red corn.
You studied poultry science at Clemson University. How did you come to milling?
Through a childhood apprenticeship program, I met a third-generation miller named Jack Brock, who took me under his wing. For a long time, I didn’t know I’d learned anything in particular, and I’m actually not sure I understood what he gave me or realized how few are left who know the true art of milling until he recently passed away. There are so many new mills now, but they’re just running machines. It sounds silly to refer to the phrase “keep your nose to the grindstone,” but truthfully, he taught me to mill with my senses. The smells and the sounds all tell a story, and we work off of that. But the older I get, the more I’m learning that there was a lot about life in there, too. He taught me to ask, “What do I pay attention to and prioritize?”
What difference does stone milling make?
We use this old cantankerous equipment on purpose for many reasons. The most important difference is the heat value, and temperature, which is impacted by speed. Heat is what kills all the natural oils and sugars of a grain, which is where the flavor is, and I’m a flavor seeker. Modern roller milling happens so fast, but stone milling is a slower process—it operates at a lower RPM—and therefore a cooler process, which ultimately helps us watch and understand what’s going on. There are so many factors, like humidity, which Charleston is the worst place for, and also that every varietal cuts different, and every variety only makes so much grits, which is the outer endosperm layer of the grain, or cornmeal, which comes from the germ, or soft center. On top of that, the equipment constantly wearing down and in effect changing, so we have to pay attention. We’ve learned over time, and if a farmer spends years to bring back a heritage variety, how am I going to do my part to help bring that flavor out of it? And that now translates to thinking about how to mill the product for the chefs to best use it, too.
For the grain that you mill, how many small farms do you work with throughout the region?
There are about 10 family farms we work with on a regular basis. It’s small, ever-changing network of people who believe in local agriculture, and we work together to incorporate cover crops that feed nutrients into the soil, or clean their equipment from varietal to varietal, and that all helps create a wow factor, too. I mean, the nuttiness that the oil content gave Jimmy Red this year is probably the best crop we've ever had. We also have side projects, like we just got a call from the Catawba Indian Nation about two weeks ago. They got their own original corn varietal back and are starting to grow it again, generations later, so we’re going to help them mill maybe 100 pounds this year. The goal is for them to have their own mill one day, to preserve their own corn, and to feed their people, and I can’t tell you what that means to me.
Old mill equipment in motion.
But that’s not the first variety you’ve worked with that was near extinction, right?
We’ve been lucky enough to work with a few varietals that had almost been lost. Like Cocke’s Prolific corn, which was thought to be extinct since World War II, but was saved by Mr. Manning Farmer for more than 60 years, who grew just up the road from me, and we got the chance to mill some of it. And Mr. Ted Chewning who brought back Jimmy Red corn and gave me one of the original ears and entrusted me to grow it and get it back to the masses.
How did your Jimmy Red cornbread mix collaboration with Sean Brock come to be? We love to cook in our Heathers.
Let me tell you the story first of how I met Sean. I was growing all these specialty melons, and at this time, chefs didn’t understand heirlooms, even Sean had just gotten to McCrady's. I had fallen in love with these French cantaloupes were no bigger than a softball and people around here were going, “Why, son, are you growing that little melon and asking $6 for it when Athena cantaloupes are the size of your head and only a dollar?” Well, they had something with a bunch of water and no flavor. I was also growing what we called a Christmas melon, because it could have one flavor now, but if you held it in storage till the holidays, it tasted different. And there was this sprite melon, like a cross between a pear and a honeydew. But one day, I get a call on my first flip phone, this is eight o’clock at night, and I hear a guy say, “Hi, my name is Sean Brock, I’m out here on Edisto Island and I heard through the grapevine that you're growing some stuff. I’m going to a place, you might have heard of it, called Blackberry Farms, and I’ve got the whole menu planned, and I just need a melon or two for the dessert course, and I’m leaving by 10 or 11 o’clock.” So we put flashlights on our heads and picked examples of our best melons and I show up with six different boxes and say, “I know you only needed a couple, but I wanted you to see what we do.” He took out a Sharpie marker and wrote down everything I knew about each variety, he wrote me the largest check I’d ever seen as a young man, and a few weeks later I found out that he scrapped the entire menu and every course became based around one of the melons I gave him.
That sounds like Sean.
It was the most amazing thing. So from that day forward, anything he asked me to grow, I tried to do it for him. Eventually, he got his hands on Jimmy Red and I milled it for him. But we needed to be able to grow more, and come to find out, Mr. Chewning himself grew up on the sea islands and went to church with my wife’s family. So he brought me that other ear, and we trialed it over the years, and we figured out how to grow it, and we rolled the dice together. The gamble paid off and we preserved the flavor.
Freshly milled cornmeal.
Do you like to cook as well?
Oh, yeah. My recipes are “pot-licker” recipes. My best grits are called the “dump recipe,” and it doesn't get any better. It's like something for the Super Bowl. Yellow grits, a whole log of Jimmy Dean sausage, a whole can of Rotel, and then as much cheese as you can handle, all dumped in and mixed together. It’s so simple. It’s too good. There ain't a kid or an adult that won't lick that pot.
Like collecting old mills, with some of yours dating back to the early 1800s, we hear you’re also a self-proclaimed cast-iron junkie?
Part of all this comes back to the flavor of the cornbread that my grandma used to cook in a cast-iron skillet. I do have Butter Pat hanging on the wall right here, but I can geek out forever on cast iron.
I have really early Eerie cast irons, cast irons with ghost marks, a huge collection of corn pone pans, and all the promotional items like the little cast-iron dogs that Griswold used to make. I don't go out much anymore, but it's also a dream of mine to find one of those rare spider skillets someday at somebody's yard sale.
Besides your own products, what do you always keep in your pantry?
I’m kind of the protein guy while everybody else brings the sides. Whole birds, half birds, quarter birds. I cooked for a lot of catering events over the years and farm-to-table dinners out here and even helping with the restaurants. So I don't know how to cook for one person or two people, I only know how to cook for 50. And if you look in my refrigerator or freezer, you’ll probably think I’m a crazy person and just find things like a whole 20-pound slab of bacon. Or some piece of wild game that someone gifted me. I love taking a whole leg or loin and hanging it in the fridge to age it, then getting a cast iron hot as hell and throwing it in there—there’s not much in life better than that. But I also always have a good olive oil on hand, and some Mrs. Dash, and I love vinegars. But honestly, other than that, the pantry is pretty empty. Oh, and one more thing: I'm 45 years old, and I love stone milling, but there's always a time and place in this world for Jiffy.
Johnsman with a pair of antique millstones.
Speaking of wild game, a “marsh hen” is another nickname for a rail bird. What’s it like hunting them down in your neck of the woods?
Well, they're not the best flying birds, so they’re easy to hit. But there’s no fun in pulling up into the marsh and getting your limit in a few minutes. I want the experience. I was taught what we call Barney Flight marsh hen hunting that’s more sporting. You got to have an old 410 single shot, and the rule is that you stand on the front of the boat, and you're not allowed to load until the bird flies, you've got to be able to keep the shell in your top pocket with the button buttoned. And if you hit the marsh hen, you get to go again. And if you miss, it's your turn to pole the boat. It ultimately honors the birds, and the flavor, and the preservation of the Low Country. It’s the opportunity to slow down and enjoy the marsh hen in its proper time. It’s near to hear them come up the creeks, and for me, that’s home. And if I’m lucky, I've got a bowl of grits at home ready to go with it.
Photos courtesy of Marsh Hen Mill. Read Sean Brock's cast-iron cornbread recipe in Family Receipts.