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Jill Neimark

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This Southern-crafted oil is a secret weapon in the arsenals of Atlanta chefs

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Someone putting an okra seed oil label on a bottle
“It blows my mind,” chef Ryan Smith of Staplehouse says of okra-seed oil.

Photograph by Ben Rollins

Okra, that iconic if off-putting Southern cultivar, is unusual for its ability to marry the contrasting textures of crunchiness and slimy goo. To best get past the slime, cooks most often pickle it, deep-fry it, or roast it until it’s charred. It would seem that efforts to find new ways to harness the challenging vegetable would have long been exhausted—and so, I was surprised to open Facebook a few months ago and find a thread extolling okra-seed oil on the page of renowned food historian David Shields, author of Southern Provisions: The Creation and Revival of a Cuisine. He called the okra-seed oil produced by Georgia’s Oliver Farm a “fresh, vegetal, and lustrous oil of great culinary quality.” Pressed for more information, Shields told me it’s a “unique finishing oil, medium-bodied with a slight peppery finish. Salad is its main locus, and it should be used in pickling and in any vinegar and oil combo, such as artichoke hearts or hearts of palm.”

Just as intriguing is the flour that can be derived from okra seeds, which a colleague of Shields’s, Ken Albala of California’s University of the Pacific, had successfully crafted into noodles; Albala noted the flour would be perfect for pancakes.

I couldn’t quite imagine it. Okra seeds look like two rows of pearly plant teeth when the pod is halved. How could those tiny seeds actually transform into fluffy pancakes or chef-worthy oil?

Clay Oliver standing in a field of flowers
Clay Oliver started cold-pressing oils from the sunflowers he grows on his farm.

Photograph by Ben Rollins

To find out, I took a trip down to Pitts, Georgia—150 miles south of Atlanta and boasting a population of 302—to meet Clay Oliver, the 43-year-old working to innovate his family’s century-old farm. Oliver Farm has won regional, national, and international awards for its cold-pressed oils and flours, including those derived from sunflowers, pecans, benne seeds, and, most famously, green peanuts. The oils retain the nutrients and flavors of the seeds and nuts from which they were pressed; the flours are gluten-free, fresh, and fragrant. Oliver Farm products are used by chefs such as Steven Satterfield of Miller Union, Ryan Smith of Staplehouse, and Maricela Vega of 8Arm. In 2016, when food writer Kim Severson profiled Oliver and his green peanut oil in the New York Times, there was no doubt he had arrived.

Today, Oliver produces the equivalent of 80,000 bottles of oil a year. All the oils and flours are extracted by Oliver, his wife, Valerie, and one full-time employee in a building that serves as an office, warehouse, and production facility.

In front of a weathered, one-room log cabin set against a carpet of cotton fields, Oliver greets me with a quick smile. “This was my great-great-granddaddy’s house,” he says of the cabin, then gestures to a larger white house next door. “That’s the house I grew up in.”

Oliver has told the story many times of how, in the years after his father died and the recession hit, he began to transition from commercial farming to growing sunflowers and, in 2012, to cold-pressing sunflower and other oils. Okra-seed oil, which he began pressing in 2017, is his biggest challenge yet. “Okra seed is really, really hard and puts a strain on the press,” he explains. “Only one of my presses is strong enough for it.”

Clay Oliver pouring seeds into a press

An okra seed press dripping oil into a container
Pressing oil from 50-pound bags of okra seeds is no easy feat. Only one of Oliver’s presses can handle the task.

Photograph by Ben Rollins

Clay Oliver carrying a bag of okra seeds

The okra-seed oil appears to be worth the effort. “It blows my mind,” says Smith of Staplehouse. “It’s incredibly tactile and savory, with more umami and viscosity than most oils.”

8Arm’s Vega uses it as a finishing oil on dishes ranging from an heirloom-tomato salad to Sea Island peas with chard stems, broccoli, and pickled raisins. “It has a mineral earthiness to it that complements raw and fresh flavors,” she says.

“It pops with flavor without any of the typical okra muddiness,” says Greg Lipman, chef and owner of Piastra on the Marietta Square. “I drizzle it over chicken and fish and put it in relishes.”

Okra-seed flour, in turn, is great for drilling down flavor in gumbos, says Matt Marcus, chef and owner of Watershed on Peachtree. “It starts an explosion of flavor throughout,” he says.

Oliver’s interest in okra oil was spurred by a Facebook conversation a few years back between Shields and Chris Smith (who later wrote The Whole Okra: A Seed to Stem Celebration). “I went to a local store and bought a single bag of okra seeds and tried it,” Oliver says. Now, he buys 40 bags, each weighing 50 pounds, at a time from various suppliers.

“I would love to find a local grower and build an industry right here,” he says; he’s currently able to source fresh, raw peanuts and pecans from local growers and sunflowers from his own farm.

It is late afternoon now, and Oliver is strolling through one of his 150 acres of sunflower fields, where the enormous, golden blossoms bend toward us like benign aliens. There is only blue sky and green-gold expanse. Just then, he bends down to pick up an army-green metal tractor toy. “This belonged to my brother and me,” he explains. “I am the fifth generation to work this farm. My kids will be the sixth.”

This article appears in our November 2019 issue.

How Richland Rum helped revitalize a small Georgia town

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Richland Rum
The makers of Richland Rum tested 17 varieties of cane before settling on Georgia Red.

Photograph by Gregory Miller

In 2007 fate came knocking at the door of Dutch-born rum connoisseur Erik Vonk in a most unassuming form: a gray-haired man in a pickup truck. Adolph McLendon, the now-77-year-old mayor of Richland, pulled up to Vonk’s 1,700-acre farm and asked him and his wife, Karin, if they’d consider moving their small distillery eight miles north, into town. At the time, there was barely a town to speak of; much of Broad Street was boarded up, and the municipality was flat broke.

“It was so dead, Karin and I never drove there,” Vonk recalls. “They couldn’t even offer tax credits or a loan to new businesses.” Plus, “I never intended to commercialize the operation,” says Vonk, whose grandfather in Rotterdam had instilled in him an appreciation for rum. Vonk started the distillery as a pet project after retiring from his position as CEO of Randstad North America in 2000 and moving from Atlanta to the South Georgia countryside. But the mayor convinced him that having a successful local business downtown would bring jobs and good PR to Richland.

Richland Rum
Richland Rum, served neat

Photograph by Gregory Miller

So the Vonks bought and renovated a turn-of-the-century building on Broad Street and changed the name of their product from Vennebroeck Velvet to Richland Rum. The couple also traded in their home-built 20-gallon still for a 200-gallon pot-bellied copper still from Portugal. They released the first bottle of Richland-branded rum in 2012.

Five years later the distillery has expanded to seven buildings downtown, which 1,000 people tour each month. They come to see the three gas-fired copper stills, five stainless steel open fermenters, two barrel houses, and a tasting room. “It’s become a centerpiece in Richland, a town that has been figuring out what’s next as the economic energy has moved elsewhere,” says Wayne Curtis, a rum expert and author of the book And a Bottle of Rum.

Richland Rum
Georgia Red sugarcane grows on the Vonks’ farm eight miles south of downtown Richland.

Photograph by Gregory Miller

Richland Rum
Fresh-cut mature cane

Photograph by Gregory Miller

Richland is the only single-estate, single-barrel rum made in the country. Before the first frost of each year, the company’s employees use machetes to harvest fresh cane—Georgia Red, which the Vonks, with input from agronomists at the United States Department of Agriculture, settled on after experimenting with 17 different kinds of cane. Distiller Roger Zimmerman boils juice pressed from the harvest into syrup, which he then ferments with a yeast that Vonk spent 12 years developing. Zimmerman distills the liquid before aging it in charred virgin white oak barrels for at least 40 months. The end result is a golden spirit with notes of sweet grass and butterscotch. “My grandpa scorned most rum because it was made from molasses, a waste product,” says Vonk. “He praised single-estate rums.”


Richland Rum

Going coastal
Brunswick, just over a four-hour drive from Richland, has been declared a Main Street City by the National Trust for Historic Preservation, and Broad Street has become a living relic of old Americana.


“It’s a formidable opponent to many of the other rums around the world,” says Vajra Stratigos, director of food and beverage standards for Atlanta’s Fifth Group Restaurants. Since 2014, gold medals from numerous craft spirit and international competitions have come pouring in.

Now fate may have intervened again. This month sweeping changes to Georgia’s alcohol regulations go into effect, allowing distilleries to sell 500 barrels of spirits a year directly to the public—including three 750-milliliter bottles of liquor a day to anybody of legal age. Previously Richland Rum was sold just in liquor stores or online. “It’s going to change everything,” says Vonk, who notes that the state now has more than a dozen licensed distilleries.

Richland Rum
Vonk extracts rum from a barrel.

Photograph by Gregory Miller

The timing couldn’t be better, as Richland Rum prepares for the grand opening of a second distillery this fall in the historic coastal town of Brunswick.

“This is going to be a great step in furthering the revitalization we have underway,” says Mathew Hill, executive director of the Brunswick Downtown Development Authority. Richland’s presence has already helped Brunswick attract a microbrewery.

Richland Rum
Karin and Erik Vonk

Photograph by Gregory Miller

The new distillery and tasting room will be located on Newcastle Street in a 6,400-square-foot space that dates back to the late 1800s and has sat unused since 2006. Vonk plans to redesign the building with a nod to 17th- and 18th-century canal houses in Amsterdam, which were built by Dutch merchants who traded in rum: exposed brick, stained concrete floors, exposed heavy oak and steel beams, and English Chesterfield sofas and gold leaf–framed mirrors. Zimmerman’s son, who lives in Brunswick, will distill unaged “virgin” white rum there.

Back in Richland, Vonk sips a glass of deep-amber liquid drawn from barrel 144, which is ready to be diluted and bottled. “Flowery,” he says as he closes his eyes, passing the glass under his nose. “Ethereal. Ochre.” He pauses and inhales again. “Caramel. Leather. Tobacco.” Then he looks up. “I still can’t believe the only ingredients are sugarcane and water.”

This article originally appeared in our September 2017 issue.

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