At Audrey, chef Sean Brock’s Appalachia-inspired restaurant in Nashville, Tennessee, diners enjoy Jimmy Red grits, a porridge made from dried, stone-ground corn, topped with a sorghum-cured egg yolk and bay laurel (also known as sweet bay). This is a dish that would have been impossible to make 15 years ago.
That’s because Jimmy Red, the coveted heirloom corn variety from which the grits are made, was in danger of going the way of the woolly mammoth until Brock stepped in to help save it. The deep red “dent” corn, named for the dent on each corn kernel, likely made its way from the Appalachian Mountains to South Carolina’s James Island around 1900, where it was prized by bootleggers who distilled it into moonshine (illegal whiskey). In the early 2000s, the sole remaining bootlegger growing the corn died, and the corn almost died, too.
Thanks in part to Brock, the varietal has made a comeback and is now grown by farmers and used by chefs and distilleries throughout the American South.
In 2007, before Brock was the James Beard award-winning celebrity chef he is today, he attended a presentation about seed saving at Blackberry Farm, a luxury resort at the foothills of Tennessee’s Great Smoky Mountains that’s lauded by gastronomes for its upscale Southern fare and deep wine cellar. John Coykendall, master gardener at Blackberry Farm and a renowned horticulturalist, was one of the keynote speakers, as was Glenn Roberts, founder of Anson Mills, a South Carolina company that grows and distributes products from heirloom grains. The pair talked about their quest to save flavours of the Old South that had faded with the rise of industrialisation after World War Two.
Brock was intrigued and wanted to join forces. Like a Southern evangelist preacher called to save souls, Brock felt called to save seeds. A tattoo sleeve featuring Jimmy Red corn and other Southern heirloom vegetables permanently mark him as a Southern food revivalist.
“This was one of those monumental moments in my career where I started to realise and truly believe that Southern food was as special and delicious as any cuisine in the world,” Brock said. “I felt a sense of purpose and responsibility toward foods I hadn’t fully encountered as a chef before.”
When Roberts heard about Brock’s newfound passion, he sent him to South Carolina to see fellow seed saver Ted Chewning. The farmer was guarding something more precious than gold to seed preservers: a few remaining ears of dried Jimmy Red corn.
After sizing him up, Chewning entrusted Brock with the seedstock. “I’ll never forget how nervous I was that day,” Brock said. “I felt like I was asking for his daughter’s hand in marriage.”
He planted the kernels the next day, obsessing for months over the progress of the cornstalks.
“Jimmy Red harvest time was a celebration,” Brock said. “I couldn’t get the meal [ground corn] into a cornbread batter and the skillet fast enough.”
The enticing aroma and nutty-sweet flavour took him back to his grandmother Audrey’s table in rural Virginia where he was raised. She, too, was a seed saver, and Brock enjoyed meals that included heirloom corn varietals and other vegetables not available at local grocery stores.
Traditionally, grits were considered a humble Southern staple, a creamy porridge made with water or milk that was unworthy of a white tablecloth restaurant. Convinced the cultivar could transcend its lowly moonshine roots and star in Appalachian cuisine, Brock put it on the menu when Audrey opened in 2021.
Brock made his share of shrimp and grits when he reigned in the kitchens of some of Charleston’s top restaurants, but a great culinary mind like Brock’s would never be content to make the same tourist favourite for the rest of his career. At Audrey, he serves Jimmy Red topped with sorghum-cured egg yolk. Not only are the grits, the foundation of the dish, more flavourful because they are sourced from Jimmy Red corn, but the preparation is unique. When diners break into the silky egg yolk and mix it in with the red-flecked grits with a hint of earthy truffle and pine nuances, they are savouring a meal that was years in the making.
Brock also makes an exceptional version of cornbread, another staple of Southern cuisine. His crusty Jimmy Red cornbread is served with sour corn butter (butter with fermented corn folded in) and cracklins (fried pork skin) – a definite step up from common corn bread.
“The movement to try our best to contribute to the cuisine of our ancestors is an exciting, fulfilling and delicious journey,” Brock said.
At Audrey, Jimmy Red grits and cured egg yolks are served with cream and bay laurel oil (Credit: Daniel Meigs)
Jimmy Red Corn Grits with Sorghum-Cured Egg recipe
By Sean Brock
This recipe has been modified for the home cook.
In a wide shallow container, combine the water, sorghum syrup and salt; stir to combine. Add the egg yolks to the brine and cure in the refrigerator for 8 to 12 hours, flipping and basting every few hours until the outside of the eggs firms up and the insides are thickened.
Place the soaked grits and water in a large saucepan. Slowly bring to a simmer. Skim all the chaff that rises to the top with a fine mesh tea strainer. Simmer over low heat for 45 minutes, stirring the grits as much as possible while they cook; be careful not to let them stick to the bottom of the pan (if they do stick, you should change the pot). Add the bay leaf and continue to simmer for another 45 minutes, stirring as often as possible; add more water if the grits seem too thick.
When the grits are finished, season them with salt, white pepper, lemon juice and hot sauce. Fold in the butter and cream cheese. Spoon into bowls and serve each bowl topped with a cured yolk.
Sorghum syrup is available at gourmet and whole food groceries, as well as online.