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Carolina Gold Rice

A delicious rice that’s worth its weight.

by Ari Weinzweig

A scoop of Carolina Gold rice with butter melting into it.

It’s said (apparently by a lot of people though I can’t tell you where “they” started saying it) that only those who grow up in rice growing and rice eating cultures can truly give rice the respect it deserves.  And only those folks can really bring rice to the culinary heights it can achieve. Which is why I’m going to tell you right up front—I’m not a native rice eater. I grew up on potatoes—mashed, fried, baked, chipped, chopped, saladed and sautéed.  Mr. Potato Head was one of my favorite toys, you might even say a childhood hero. As an adult, I became a big convert to pasta. I will happily sit down to a bowl of either, any and every night of the week. But while I’ve learned to love risotto and paella, the truth is that rice is not in my roots—I don’t ever claim to cook it with the reverence of a someone who grew up eating rice every day.  That said, I can tell you that even in my semi-educated state, this newly arrived Carolina Gold rice is a major rice revelation . . . I’m up to about my tenth time tasting it and I’m still blown away by how incredibly good it is. If you have even the slightest interest in food, history, or human interaction and the power of vision and persistence you should try this rice. 

South Carolina and Glenn Roberts produce really good rice!

Unlike the South Side of Chicago where I grew up, South Carolina is major rice country.  People eat it with every meal. I feel like I’m out on a limb to say they eat it the way so many Italians eat pasta but that is indeed what many of the folks I talk to who grew up down there tell me to be true.  So who am I to doubt it? Pretty much everyone I know from that fair Southern state seems to be a rice, eater I’m sure my belief would be right up there. Catherine Horton, who was raised in the region, told me that, “there was always a steaming bowl of rice on the table.  For me, it’s the ultimate comfort food.” Most everyone else from the area that I’ve asked says much the same thing. I think more important though than the statement, is the way their eyes look when they say it. Alive and excited, culinary emotion coming out in a way that words alone can’t really convey.  

Their passion, and that of Glenn Roberts, founder of Anson Mills and the man we have to thank for this incredible rice, is really what’s driven me to get to know it.  Carolina Gold Rice is of interest (that’s an understatement—I should say, “has me so excited”) for two reasons. First, that we have Carolina Gold Rice at all is a milestone on our national drive to restore more flavorful, traditional food.  It’s only in the last five years or so that it’s been available at all—the last commercial crop previous to that was grown in 1927. We’ve been happily selling and serving it ever since it was first revived by Mike Booth and Marion Hartz. Their rice really was good.  Which is why I’m so totally even more excited by this new arrival of organic Carolina Gold grown by Glenn Roberts and crew at Anson Mills (from whom we get our amazing grits and other incredible corn meals). Because this new Carolina Gold is about ten times better than the other, already really good, Carolina Gold. 

The History of Rice

To me what’s most important here is that, although, like all foods, Carolina Gold has roots in other parts of the world, what we have here is a unique American food of major import.  When you look at its history, and then you taste it, you’ll know this is something special.  

The original Carolina Gold rice is believed to have come to the Carolinas in roughly 1685 arriving from Madagascar in the form of a bushel brought back by Dr. Henry Woodward of Charles Town. From that single sack the rice grew to cover the land of hundreds of commercial plantations stretching down from the Cape Fear River basin of North Carolina all the way to the northern end of Florida.  The bulk of the production though stayed in South Carolina, where by 1691 it was so well established that the state legislature allowed for planters to pay their taxes in rice. Rice was originally milled as it was elsewhere in the world, with wooden mallets. (More about this technique in a minute). The first water-powered rice mill was built in 1787.

Neither the cultivation of the rice nor the development of the cuisine that came to be called the “Carolina rice kitchen” could have been possible without the knowledge of the Africans who worked the fields and tended the kitchens. Both men and women took part in the cultivation of rice, with men performing the heavier tasks and women responsible for such tasks as seeding and, then after harvest, cleaning and pounding.  While rice growing started mostly in swamps, African insight is credited with the trunk and dike system set up to manage water in the fields to take advantage of the fresh water tidal creeks.  By 1700 Carolina growers were exporting back to England and down to the West Indies. With time, the name Carolina Gold developed a reputation in Europe as the finest rice in the world, and it saw favor at aristocratic and noble tables in both England and the Continent. The Dutch, who probably the passionate of European rice eaters (having colonized Indonesia and brought back the rijstaffel, or “rice table,” brought it to the Netherlands, paying many times more for Carolina Gold than they were rice from Asia.  Carolina Gold was even exported to India.  

In time, the rice came to dominate the culture, cuisine and economics of the Carolinas, much as the olive tree did in Southern Italy.  Writer Christopher C. Boyle in “Rise of the Georgetown Rice Culture” quotes surveyor Robert Mills who wrote in 1826 that, “In Georgetown every thing is fed on rice; horse and cattle eat the straw and bran, fowls, etc. are sustained by the refuse; and man subsists upon the marrow of the grain.” In the middle of the 19th century the production peaked as people raised and sold off millions of pounds of rice.  

The Civil War seems to be the acknowledged turning point in the history of the rice.  Production volumes went down drastically after the war; the freeing of the slaves meant that many of the skilled field workers disbursed to other areas and more desirable work.  The plantation masters were stuck in that old-line management quandary of being in charge, yet being dependent on the skill of their “underlings” to get the work done. They didn’t know enough themselves to really keep rice-growing going.  To make matters worse Carolina Lowcountry soil is very soft, a severe disadvantage for 20th century growers trying to work on tractors instead of on two feet.  And like almost all antique varieties that have passed out of commercial production Carolina Gold has very low yields.  Because it grows so tall (about five-foot high stalks), it’s far more susceptible to damage from even modest winds.  With all that working against it, it’s no wonder that what was once America’s premier rice growing region was rapidly replaced by far higher yielding plantations in Arkansas, Texas and Louisiana. The end of the line for modern commercial production came in 1911, when a hurricane took out most of the crop.  As I said above, the last recorded commercial crop (until its recent revival) was gathered in 1927.  

That was it up until the last few years.  For most of the 20th century Carolina Gold was nothing more than a trademark owned by a large rice company that didn’t even grow Carolina Gold rice but liked the name.  But now . . . wow. . . the stuff that Glenn is growing and milling for Anson Mills is something spectacular, head and shoulders above what we were getting, which, again, was already really good.  All of which has absolutely nothing in common with the supermarket “Carolina Gold” rice, which has even less in common with the real article than cultivated wild rice has with really wild, wild rice.  

What makes the difference?  

For opener’s Glenn’s rice is grown organically, and he’s insistent that raising rice without sprays isn’t just the right thing to do for environmental reasons but also because it has huge positive impact on the flavor of the rice.  Beyond that he’s making sure the rice is fully ripened in the field before being brought in. As it does with any other produce proper field ripening is a huge factor in getting full flavor development into our food. (Because it’s very difficult to feel or see the difference with grains I think this issue hasn’t gotten much attention.  But as it does with the Anson Mills grits, the field ripening radically enhances the flavor.) Additionally, the newly harvest rice is stored frozen in the husk until we order it, at which point Glenn mills it with a small rice mill brought over from Japan.  

The mill was especially designed for Glenn, in order to emulate the 19th century hand-pounding which, at that time, was the way that slaves husked the rice and broke off most of the bran to prepare it for cooking in the kitchen. Although I have a hard time getting my mouth around the phrase “hand pound emulation” (try saying it quickly five times in a row), conceptually I get it.  On the cover of Karen Hess’ classic book, “The Carolina Rice Kitchen” there’s a photo of two, pretty surely enslaved, African-American women pounding rice in a two-foot high stone bowl. One woman is poised to pound, holding a five-foot long pole; the other has her pole in the bowl. Clearly the rhythms had to be coordinated to make it possible.  Traditionally the pounding was women’s work. The men did the work out in the fields. The hand-pounding was done right before the rice was prepared, assuring an exceptional brightness of flavor; and it also broke up the grains just a bit, altering the texture and eating experience of the rice in the process. Unlike commercial rice-polishing which takes out the germ and the bran, the hand pound emulation leaves a bit of the bran on the rice grains, which leaves a bit of a “black eye” on some of the grains, and more importantly adds to the flavor of the rice.  Leaving the germ in enhances the flavor enormously. As a result, this Carolina Gold is not “enriched” as other American white rices are. (Because the germ—and hence the rice’s natural oil—is left in, the rice is a perishable product and needs to be stored in the freezer or refrigerator.)  

The other huge factor in the flavor is the “new crop” nature of the rice.  As with so many foods (coffee comes to mind, as does olive oil, tea, etc.) the newly harvested versions of agricultural products have, for a lack of a less obvious word, freshness, and brightness of flavor that you lose as the months pass.  While properly stored rice will be “good” for years, that freshness is lost in a matter of months. Glenn’s commitment to field ripening, germ retention and quick freezing have all made it possible for us to get at this amazing “new crop” flavor.  

Can you really taste the difference?

Ultimately, being a flavor driven food person with a history background (as opposed to a historian who likes to eat), this is the key question I always ask.  In this case, I admit to having approached the rice with a bit of skepticism, always a concerned that the quality of the story might outpace the eating quality of the actual product.  But it only took one time cooking this Carolina Gold to verify that there really is something special to be had here. The rice is really exceptionally flavorful; a bit nutty, almost buttery and creamy to my northerner’s potato-prone palate.  

South Carolina’s eating routines are definitely based on rice.  Native South Carolinian John Martin Taylor writes that, “I grew up with rice and grits.  We never had potatoes except with steak or potato salad,” he told me to emphasize the point.   There are dozens and dozens of dishes that rely on authentic Carolina rice. Hoppin’ John, Limpin’ Susan (rice with okra), Creamed Rice, Rice Fritters, Rice Bread, Low Country Seafood Stew, and dozens of others all start with this special rice.  The best-known dish I’m sure, is what they call “pilau,” which is seemingly at about a six degrees of separation ratio from what we know as “pilaf’s” Persian roots. (You could probably run some sort of seminar on the “proper” pronunciation of “pilau” in South Carolina.  John Martin Taylor says it’s, “’PER-lo,’ per-LO’ or ‘pee-LO’” with the ‘o’ almost sounding like an ‘oo.’”) Some say the recipe arrived in the Carolinas traveling through the hands of Arab traders to Africa, from whence it would have gone on to North America. Alternatively, it’s theorized that Sephardic Jews en route from Provence shared the dish with Huguenots fleeing France who in turn took it to the Western Hemisphere.  Either way, it got there and rice is well-rooted in the Carolina Lowcountry culture. 

In the kitchen it’s of interest for its unique cooking characteristics and nutty, mellow flavor.   Its grains are significantly softer than most other long grain rice and they stay separate when you cook ‘em.   It does cook into an interesting risotto-type dish, which probably isn’t quite as out of place as it sounds. Glenn Roberts is passionate about the connection between South Carolina and the Veneto region in Italy.  Cooks from Venice do love risotto, so it only makes sense that their counterparts in the Carolinas might have used similar techniques. In fact, he adds, “The Carolina Sea Island dish ‘Reezy Peezy’—Carolina Gold slow cooked with fresh field peas—bears its African Gullah name that sounds remarkably like the Italian St. Mark’s feast dish—risi e bisi—Arborio rice with fresh peas.”  Adding to this is the fact that the typical lunch in Charleston was served at the very Italian 3:00, followed by a midday siesta.

The influence may well date to the late 17th century arrival of a team of Italian engineers, recruited to the Carolinas in an attempt to farm Carolina Gold here using Venetian rice growing methods.   Although the Italian techniques ultimately failed, many historians think that African-American cooking (before the Civil War slaves were pretty much the only people in the cookhouse in the South) was influenced by these Italians because, unlike their other European counterparts—who were the landed gentry of the Charleston area by that time—the Venetians actually spent a lot of their time out in the fields working side by side with African and Native American field hands and slaves.

Perhaps the purest way to serve Carolina Gold is as what 19th century Carolinians called “Charleston Ice Cream”—simply cooked rice served in a nice mounded white “ice cream” scoop with a generous knob of soft butter set atop it to melt dreamily down the sides.  Although there are number of long missives on the subject the recommended ratio of liquid to rice seems to be two to one. We’ve been serving it this way as a side dish at the Roadhouse for the last few months and it’s been a big hit.  

My personal favorite preparation is Carolina Red Rice (also known as “Tomato Pilau”), which I learned to make from John Taylor’s “Lowcountry Cooking.”  Dice some bacon (the Arkansas Pepper Bacon is my preference) then fry it ‘til crisp and remove it from the pan. The rice is sautéed (again, akin to Italian rice cooking) in the fat, then stock and tomatoes are added. The rice is then cooked covered (unlike Mediterranean rice cooking) for thirty minutes (John’s recipe recommends the thirty minutes, though other Carolina Rice recipes seem to stick at around 20 minutes for optimal doneness.)  It’s easy and very delicious and the grains keep their integrity nicely through the cooking.

Read more history about rice and African American culture.