Food & Drink

Grinding to perfection

Lawrence Burwell, left, and Ken DuBard of Congaree Milling Company in Columbia.
Lawrence Burwell, left, and Ken DuBard of Congaree Milling Company in Columbia.

Ken DuBard and Lawrence Burwell are ordering strong coffee and a pot of tea at Drip in Five Points. They are in need of caffeine – especially DuBard, who started his workday just after at 2 a.m.

DuBard and Lawrence are partners in Congaree Milling Company in Columbia, producing local ground white, yellow and blue corn grits, along with flour, cornmeal, polenta and hominy. At the moment it’s a two-man operation working in a shared kitchen workspace at Dano’s on Rosewood to fill orders for their ground corn products. The work arrangement with the restaurant means they can use a portion of the kitchen in the off-hours – which happens to be late night through early morning – when the restaurant staff is not on the clock.

DuBard had been grinding corn in the wee hours to fill an order for 100 pounds of grits that he and Lawrence then packaged, boxed and loaded on pallets for pick-up before the sun was up. Their products are not only sold to individuals and markets but used in Columbia area restaurants like Bourbon, Spotted Salamander and Tazza Kitchen.

It wasn’t always this way.

DuBard started out working “normal hours” in the produce section at Rosewood Market, a little over 16 years ago. His twin brother Ben, who now works for WP Rawl, told him about the work that Glenn Roberts had just started in the Lowcountry, bringing back Carolina Gold rice. The DuBard brothers went to work for Roberts for a few seasons, fertilizing rice fields, before Ken started working for Roberts at Anson Mills, learning the process of milling corn and grain.

DuBard left Anson Mills after about seven years and was searching for something to do when he realized that milling had left him with a specialized skill set – and there was growth potential in the market for someone with that knowledge.

“I believe in organic agriculture and we (Congaree Milling Company) are a facet of that – although we leave the agriculture to others – and it’s interesting. (In milling) there’s the math ... being a businessman you have to promote yourself ... and the manual labor (involved in milling), too, that I enjoy; it keeps me feeling good. There’s nothing wrong about feeling tired when you go to bed at night.”

Burwell said there’s always a sense of urgency in milling corn. He likes the challenge of having to constantly mind the mill, making sure the grind is perfectly adjusted for Congaree Milling Company products. “Sometimes the corn might be dense, sometimes it might be flinty and ... you have to keep an eye on it even though you’re trying to move fast. Sometimes the mill will kick out too much corn meal and the mix will be bad, so you have to do the math and you have to do it all over again.”

Burwell and DuBard have been milling long enough that they can tell by touch whether the grind is correct. To ensure quality, though, the mill they own also uses a series of sifting screens to help prevent mistakes.

DuBard said, “you also have to periodically go in and cook your stuff, because the quality of the corn meal changes. We’re using organic hybrid corn now – a cross between flint and dent, the two basic types of field corn. Sometimes it can be too flinty, and you get really hard grits that take longer to cook – sometimes it’s more denty and (the mill) starts to throw a lot more flour and meal.” Then you have to pay attention to make sure you’re milling grits, he noted.

DuBard is working on certifying the mill as organic but in the meantime sources his organic corn on the open market, using certified organic when he can but using GMO-free conventional corn when there’s a shortage of product. More important, he said, was finding a source for corn that had a good seed house (for crop consistency) and cleaning facility (for removal of corn silks and any other organic material) so that they were assured quality grain. DuBard even tried growing his own corn, “but I’m a terrible farmer.”

Burwell and DuBard are focused on their process. The men mill, sift and clean whole grain corn – meaning the kernels are still intact and that there is a lot of natural oil left in the end product. That means the shelf life of Congaree Milling Company’s products is not a long one. Once opened, unused portions must be stored in a freezer to prelong its life.

“We’re concentrating on flavor and everything else is secondary,” said DuBard. “If you’re just thinking about quality, we’re happy with what we’ve got.”

The men are looking for a dedicated space for Congaree Milling Company with a kitchen for nixtamalization, the wet process that uses pickling lime (or lye) to remove the bran and germ from whole kernel corn and then causes the kernel to puff up to more than twice its size to create a hominy grit. The hominy can be boiled or sauteed, put into pozole or dried and milled into masa flour for tortillas, empanadas, tamales and more.

They want their business to be “the grist mill that is identified with Columbia in the 21st century,” said DuBard.

“Columbia has really supported us from day one – from the stores (that put products on the shelves) and the farmers markets to restaurants and chefs and the public buying retail,” said Burwell.

“I’m looking forward to being able to supply more jobs,” said DuBard.

Basic coarse grits

Serves 4-6 people

1 cup grits

3 cups water or stock (1/2 cup water or stock can be substituted for 1 1/2 cups heavy cream or milk, added in thirds at a time at the end of the cooking time)

1 teaspoon salt, or to taste

1 1/2 cups grated cheese (cheddar, gruyere, parmesan, etc) (optional)

In a large pot, add grits and water (or stock), stirring to combine. Using a fine strainer, remove any floating particles off the top. Add salt. Bring to a boil then reduce heat to low and stir every few minutes, taking care to scrape the grits off the bottom of the pot.

Cook at a medium-low temperature until grits soften and firm up, about an hour. If using milk or cream, add a bit at a time, stirring to combine.

Taste and finish with salt and cheese, if desired.

Congaree Milling Company

Ground white, yellow and blue corn grits, flour, cornmeal, polenta and hominy;

Find them at USC’s Healthy Carolina Farmers Market on Tuesday, City Roots on Thursday, Rosewood Market on Friday, Soda City on Saturday and on occasion at other markets. The Gourmet Shop and Crave carry Congaree Milling Company products on their shelves.