Charleston chefs and diners attain a near-fanatical state of mind when it comes to products representative of the Lowcountry. Shad roe shifts menus, soft shell crabs create a frenzy, and heirloom tomatoes are cause for multiple celebrations. Now, Geechie Boy Mill farmer Greg Johnsman brings a crop that industry insiders think could install just as much fervor — Jimmy Red Corn, also know as James Island Corn. Johnsman spent the past eight years cultivating the almost-extinct variety of kernels on Edisto Island. Slow Food USA calls the crop, "... one of the most interesting and talked about Southern heirloom corn varieties ..."
This mission all started with a few preserved samples from James Islander Ted Chewning. Sean Brock was interested in bringing back the variety to his restaurants (fun fact: he has a tattoo of Jimmy Red Corn on his arm). From that idea, it took Johnsman eight years of planting, preserving, and replanting before he had enough product to release it. He grinds the ears into grits and cornmeal and distributes bags online from his Geechie Boy Mill store, in addition to selling the product to local restaurants.
While it's inspiring that Johnsman brought back an endangered species, it's the flavor of the corn that makes it so valuable. "The flavor has to be there. It was worth all that work for the flavor," he tells us. Brock's restaurants got the first batches of Jimmy Red, but now kitchens like Cypress, Two Boroughs Larder, and The Sanctuary request the product.
Johnsman recently dropped off a delivery of the Jimmy Red grits to FIG, and even though chef Jason Stanhope has never served grits at FIG, he's determined to find a way to honor the Jimmy Red. Stanhope tells us, "This product is special because it's not just a good story, but it's also delicious. It's not an unattainable luxury item — it's available to everyone. I want us to celebrate it in a fresh way."
Johnsman says his goal is to make sure the corn supplies go through the end of the year, but he also tells us that folks are already driving to his farm from far and wide to pick up a bag (he recommends saving gas and ordering online.)