BY BETH BROWN ABLES
PHOTOGRAPHY BY JESSICA BARLEY
It’s a golden southern morning and blessedly cool as Jon Stauffer heads out early to survey his cornfields. The kernels he planted in the rainy spring are now dry stalks, their husked kernels burnished, indented and dry. His wife Michelle busies herself inside baking buttermilk biscuits in cast iron pans and stirring a pot of buttery grits. There are apples to slice and plates to set, because after the morning’s work everyone is going to be hungry. Their son Grant checks on his flock of chickens and gathers fresh eggs. Meanwhile, friends are on the way over to help with the many chores involved to process the crop and prepare it for milling. It’s harvest day.
This may read like idyllic family farm life from the 18th century, but the Stauffers are first generation farmers working land purchased just five years ago. Since 2015, their family business, Colonial Milling, has grown and milled heritage non-GMO corn in Pauline, South Carolina.
“We’ve realized that living and eating this way, simply and with the freshest ingredients, just tastes better,” Michelle says, unsealing a jar of homemade strawberry jam.
Theirs is a history unfolding. Jon and Michelle met in high school, and their roots in the Spartanburg community run deep. After a summer job cutting hay when he was 16, Jon knew he had found his calling. So after years of funneling his love of the outdoors into a landscaping business, farming beckoned in earnest. When the couple began searching for land, a listing for an antebellum home from the 1790s on 25 acres felt as if handed to them from across the centuries.
The farmhouse echos with history: handmade bricks on the chimney are etched with dates, names and thumbprints; hand-hewn logs hide under the plaster in the front room and the kitchen connects to the main house by a narrow hallway. While playing outside, Grant often comes across arrowheads, hand forged nails and once even a rusted bayonet.
“It’s a work in progress that’s for sure,” Jon says as he surveys their recent renovation project: resetting and plastering the brick pillars on a wide back porch. His eyes pass over the field of corn banking a creek, across free ranging chickens, the mill house and the vast kitchen garden and he smiles. “We wouldn’t have it any other way,” he says.
Jon’s farming technique is at once age-old and new utilizing cover crops and companion planting to create bionutrient-rich soil essential to cultivate an heirloom crop. Both varieties of corn they grow, Hawkins Prolific and Hickory King, require careful tending in order to produce flavorful kernels ready to mill. From seed to field to table is a careful journey, one that requires faithful dedication. After harvest, the corn is ground onsite using a circa-1930s grain mill fitted with a pink granite stone before it is sifted into cornmeal, grits and polenta.
The resulting product is delicious– sweet, golden and possessing a depth of flavor absent in commercial products– which is why local-centric restaurants such as The Kennedy (opened by SC Chef Ambassador William Cribb) clamber to feature Colonial Milling’s products on their menus. They are telling the same story really, of what can be produced by the land: good, simple food. It’s a story that requires work, but with the help of friends and food these chores are transformed into something more with children, chickens, kittens and a dog lending an air of celebration to this harvest morning.
It is a way of life ripe for community. “We love having people over, and it seems like all of our friends are good cooks and love sharing meals.” Because most of them have small children, easy gatherings make the most sense.
Harvest may not be your particular excuse to gather. Instead maybe it’s the first chilly morning of the season or celebrating friends in town or an impromptu neighborhood get-together. Michelle says she favors recipes that come together quickly, creating a comforting and delicious fall brunch.
The Stauffers live by the sentiment, “make a life you love,” words which reflect in a home and a business brimming with simple pleasures: a morning’s work, friends around the table, and a perfect bowl of grits. Good for centuries before, and centuries to come.
½ c. heavy cream
2 Tbsp. butter
1 tsp. kosher salt
1 c. stone ground heirloom grits
2 oz cream cheese
¼ c. sharp white cheddar cheese, grated
Over medium heat, bring three cups of water along with the first three ingredients to a boil.
Stir in grits. Reduce heat to medium low and cover. Simmer for 15-20 minutes, stirring occasionally. After grits are fully cooked and creamy, fold in cheese and serve.
My first tip for light and flaky biscuits is to use cold ingredients, even frozen butter. My second tip is to not handle the dough too much.
2 c. all purpose flour
1 Tbsp. sugar
1 Tbsp. baking powder
¼ tsp. baking soda
1 tsp. kosher salt
6 Tbsp. frozen butter ( I use a box grater) into the flour mixture and stir well.
1 c. cold buttermilk
Preheat cast iron skillet in 450 degree oven. In a large bowl, mix all dry ingredients together. Grate butter directly into bowl. Stir well. Add buttermilk to the flour mixture and stir only until liquid milk has absorbed (the dough will still be crumbly).
Pour dough on a lightly floured surface. Pat the dough with your fingertips into a rectangle. Fold the dough in half, then lightly press the dough again into another rectangle. Repeat this process 5 times. This process helps you get a flaky, layered biscuit.
Cut your biscuits and place them in your cast iron skillet. Bake 20-25 minutes until golden brown.
Baked Eggs in Spinach and Mushrooms
Adapted from Smitten Kitchen 2 pounds (32 ounces) fresh spinach
1 small onion, finely chopped
3 garlic cloves, minced
4 Tbsp. butter
1 pound mushrooms, thinly sliced
¾ c. heavy cream
¾ tsp. kosher salt
¼ tsp. freshly grated nutmeg
8 large eggs
black pepper to taste
Preheat the oven to 450 degrees and butter a 9×13 pan.
In a large skillet, sauté spinach in batches with 1/4 cup water. Once all the spinach can fit in the pan, cover and simmer for two minutes. Drain in a colander, speeding along the process by squeezing handfuls of leaves to remove excess moisture. Chop and set aside.
In the same skillet, melt butter over medium heat. Sauté garlic and onion until soft. Add mushrooms and cook until they release moisture and begin to brown. Stir in cream, salt, nutmeg, and spinach. Bring to a simmer and then remove from heat. Carefully pour mixture into the greased pan. Using two spoons, create 8 wells for the eggs (at this point, you can cover and refrigerate until you are ready to bake your eggs).
When ready to bake, crack an egg into each well, sprinkle with pepper and bake 15-30 minutes, until whites are set and yolks are runny, depending on your preference.
1 ½ pounds fresh okra 3-4 inches long
2 c. water
2 c. white vinegar
3 Tbsp.kosher salt
1 Tbsp. sugar
1 lemon, sliced
4 cloves of garlic, peeled
2 Tbsp. mustard seed
1 Tbsp. coriander seed
1 Tbsp. red pepper flakes
1 tsp. fennel seeds
1 tsp. celery seeds
1 tsp. black peppercorns
In a small saucepan, mix water, vinegar, salt and sugar. Bring to a simmer.
In each clean quart jar, place 1 Tbsp. pickling spice mixture, a slice of lemon, and 1 peeled garlic clove. Tightly pack trimmed okra in the jar and carefully pour the hot liquid over the okra leaving 1/4 inch headspace. Fit canning lid and ring to your jar.
Place jars in hot water and bring to a boil. Boil 15 minutes then carefully remove jars. Allow to sit on the counter overnight, then check to see that your jars sealed. If you have one that didn’t seal, that’s okay! Keep it refrigerated and eat it within a few weeks.