“Don’t stir the pot,” said Nana.
Crowded together at the stovetop in her Queens Village apartment, my grandmother grabbed my hand away from the rice spoon. Her narrow kitchen contained an enamel sink, gas oven, and a Coldspot refrigerator stuffed with the mystery scraps that elderly women can’t bear to throw out, a sign of lifelong frugality or early-stage dementia, both possibilities that wouldn’t occur to me as a rude teenager who showed up occasionally to abuse her generosity — a quiet bedroom to myself, hot meals, season tickets to the opera — and in return would clean out the frost-crusted liver pudding, half-eaten bowls of grits, mold-crusted jars of improperly sealed pepper jelly. But I also never stayed long because, this being the late 1970s, our conversations were haunted by uncomfortable truths about our family history.
“Please don't bring your friends around.”
I stared at her, confused. She sounded afraid.
“I mean those people who work with you.”
Counselors at a summer camp for disadvantaged inner city youth.
Her beliefs held steadfast through the civil rights era: My grandmother was raised on one of the sea islands near Charleston by parents who lived through the Civil War and passed their complicated attitudes to the next generation. After witnessing battles over racism, over religion, over politics, all over the turkey and greasy gravy at Thanksgiving gatherings in her apartment with my slightly more progressive parents, who passed their attitudes onward as well — I had learned to simply let Nana show me how to cook rice properly.
She preferred Uncle Ben’s Converted.
Yeah, I know.
My people are rice eaters. Marry into my family a potato or pasta eater and we will convert you. To brown rice, red rice, basmati and jasmine, Forbidden rice, Arborio, and yes, even commercial brands of white rice like Uncle Ben’s.
But here’s the issue. The roots of rice in the South have always troubled me. The story begins on fertile coastlands that belonged to ancestors who first settled there over 300 years ago. My grandmother, Lydia Alta Anderson Mitchell, was born in 1893, one of seven daughters whose father was a storekeeper and circuit court judge. He managed to send them all to college in an era when many Southern women didn’t have that opportunity. They were beautiful, funny, elitist, stubborn, both vengeful and loyal. Their collective nickname: the Queens of Edisto.
My grandfather was Nana’s childhood sweetheart, a neighboring farmer’s son with artistic aspirations, by all accounts a charming rascal who hauled her North during the 1920s. When he died of an aneurism in the middle of the Depression, Nana was left to raise their three sons alone on a teacher’s salary, and despite the urging of her family, never remarried or moved back home; but she always put food from home on the table: boiling hog heads in that little kitchen, diligently pouring bourbon on fruitcakes kept in a hallway closet, preserving pumpkins, Jerusalem artichokes, watermelon rinds, serving age-old dishes based on rice raised with blood, sweat, and tears. Without her cooking, I would not have such a strong connection to my culinary legacy or the desire to rectify it. Over the past year, on multiple trips to Charleston and beyond, I talked to others wrestling with the same issue, around the time when a white supremacist was on trial for murdering nine A.M.E. parishioners, and a Black Lives Matter activist was arrested for tackling a Secessionist Party protestor waving the Confederate battle flag.
First, a history lesson.
Rice is fundamental to the Carolina Lowcountry kitchen, where the pot contains ingredients introduced from West African, French Huguenot, and Caribbean Creole cultures, where Senegambian jollof turned into red rice and Parisian beignets de riz became calas and johnny cake. While imported grain established rice as a cash crop on the southern Atlantic coast as early as the late 1600s, a farmer named Hezekiah Mayham in 1786 planted the first documented field of the subtropical japonica that would eventually be called Carolina Gold.
No one is exactly sure where it came from — the origin story of this “gold seed” is one of those quandaries that still give food historians and geneticists heartburn. (Scientists may be getting closer to cracking the genomic mystery, curiously enough, by tracing funeral practices involving rice that traveled from the Tana Taraja region in South Sulawesi to Madagascar.) The name derives not only from the hue of the grain as it ripens, but also references the fortunes created as the demand grew for the starchy new variety. Cookbooks, plantation diaries, and oral histories document the profound influence of this crop on the Lowcountry. The wealthiest planters slept in Chippendale-style mahogany or cherry four-poster beds carved with panicles of rice. A long-handled silver spoon originally used in England for serving stuffing became a treasured heirloom on Charleston sideboards when placed next to bowls of rice instead. The spoons are still in demand. A cousin gave me one as a wedding gift.
Sarah Rutledge’s “The Carolina Housewife” (1847), published at the height of antebellum rice culture, contains recipes for every meal, including rice crumpets, rice sponge cake, rice waffles, rice flummery, rice blancmange. Her golden-crusted rice casseroles echo the masterpieces of Carême, in particular his Casserole au Riz á la Moderne; her pilau traces the journey of that most fragrant dish from the Persian Empire after the Arab conquest scattered the recipe to the four winds in the seventh century, and evolved into both paella and pullao, as well as arroz con pollo, jambalaya, and Hopping John. Even birds that feasted on Lowcountry rice became a prized dish — the New World epicurean equivalent of the ortolan, Dolichonyx oryzivorus, or bobolink, derives its Latin name from a voracious appetite for the grain — it’s still known regionally as the rice bird.
But Rutledge did not cook for herself. She had slaves to do that.
As more planters shifted to growing Carolina Gold, they paid a higher premium for slaves from the ancient rice regions of Sierra Leone and the Upper Guinea Coast; traders were quick to advertise these skills in auction posters at the Old Market in Charleston. Fields were dug by hand in the lowland meadows and cypress swamps surrounding the region’s great tidal river deltas. Grain was sown by pressing it into the muddy ground with the bare heel, a technique first practiced in the freshwater floodplains of the Sahel of Africa. Harvest in the Lowcountry took place at the height of hurricane season. Panicles were cut and baled. Women pounded the hulls with a wooden mortar and pestle, and then winnowed while tossing handfuls from coiled grass fanner baskets, husks blowing away in the wind. The grain was absurdly delicate and fractured easily during milling, producing “middlings” or “brokens” that became a delicacy of sorts as well. The entire process, from planting to polishing, was punishing work under a subtropical sun, with risk of exposure to malaria, cholera, and yellow fever. Malnutrition and mortality rates were high.
Until recently, I didn't know slaves grew their own rice.
Other species — particularly upland bearded rice introduced from Guinea — were planted in provision gardens, plots granted by overseers to supplement meager rations of cornmeal and pork. The husk of this African rice was reddish-brown to purple in hue, and unlike the golden Asian cultivar served at tables in the “big house,” thrived in dry soil conditions rather than flooded fields. Its origin story is also murky, and involves Thomas Jefferson trying to grow some in a flowerpot, but crops up wherever slave cultures existed in the New World, including Trinidad, El Salvador, and French Guiana. Upland bearded rice is still grown by the Maroons of Suriname, and plays a central role in their ancestor meals. The ceremony called ala mofo nyan, or food for all mouths, often includes offerings of African origin foods like pigeon peas and rice. (Hold that thought, OK?)
When Emancipation liberated the enslaved labor force in the Lowcountry, commercial production of Carolina Gold gradually ceased. Berms, sluices, trunks, and dykes rotted and returned to swampland, the grain barges and settlement houses, abandoned, crumbled in decay, strangled by creeper vines. A series of devastating hurricanes between 1881 and 1911 wiped out the last vestiges of viable rice agriculture in the Lowcountry — the cost of repairing fields outweighed the potential profits. Carolina Gold barely escaped extinction as large-scale farming of inferior grain in Louisiana and Texas supplanted it. Upland bearded rice also disappeared as the rural population that raised it began to shift to Northern industrial cities during the Great Migration. Certain stubborn seedsmen planted them as a hobby, or to attract ducks during hunting season. Carolina Gold eventually had a comeback, but only as a specialty crop, not the goldmine of the Antebellum Period.
Why would anyone preserve a crop, no matter how flavorful and aromatic, with such a disturbing heritage?
Sean Brock’s “Charleston ice cream” is an intellectual construct. A quenelle of creamy white rice snuggled next to a morsel of crab topped by artfully arranged petals in a hand-blown glass bowl, it is featured on a tasting menu at one of his fine dining restaurants, McCrady’s, on East Bay Street.
Surrounded by vibrant paintings of the salt marsh, he sat there and obsessed about this stubbly grain.
“It's the star,” he said. “I don’t want to mess with it.”
Brock rubbed his eyes and removed a baseball cap embroidered with “McC.”
“From my perspective as a chef, I treat it like a white truffle from Alba. Pondering the aroma and flavor leads you to another realm of respect.”
“It tastes wrong to me,” I said. “Especially smothered in my grandmother’s gravy. Cooks up gummy or burns to the bottom of the pot. I’ve had to completely reconsider what she taught me about the food from here.”
Brock has a great belly laugh.
He opened a plastic container of Carolina Gold fetched by one of his kitchen staff. I grabbed up a handful of the uncooked grain, polished like pearls, almost as precious at $10 a pound, and let it trickle through my fingers as he continued.
“When those dishes were born, it was a much more subtle cuisine.”
Brock told me he bought a copy of “The Carolina Housewife” when he was 19. “I became fascinated with this culture and cuisine,” he said. “It was so drastically different from the hillbilly cooking I grew up eating.”
So, I asked where he did research in Charleston.
At Hannibal’s Kitchen, Safiya Grant’s rice was righteous.
Hannibal's has a narrow dining room with padded vinyl banquettes, a takeout counter, and a pass-through window offering a tantalizing view into a steamy kitchen. On a side street bounded by housing projects and industrial port facilities, in a squat cinder-block building painted haint blue, this soul-food restaurant has resisted the gentrification swallowing gritty East Charleston block by block. It is slightly north of Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church, better known as Mother Emanuel to its parishioners, where Dylann Roof was welcomed to pray during Bible study on the evening of June 17, 2015. Like the church, Hannibal's Kitchen is a community pillar. A pillar built of collards, lima beans, turkey wings, and smoked neck bones, one of the few black-owned restaurants south of the Neck. (Hannibal was the nickname of family patriarch Robert Lawrence Huger.) At the front door, a crowd waited for their orders. Waitresses dodged around with pitchers of sweet tea and platters of crab rice.
The crab rice here is an entirely different construct than that served by Brock, not subtle at all, closer to its Gullah roots and a distant relative of Senegalese thiébou diène, a fish and rice stew. Drenched in butter and topped with shredded crabmeat and shrimp sautéed with bell pepper, celery, onion, and bacon, it references the mangrove swamps of West Africa as well as a Provençal pilau. (Karen Hess devoted a whole chapter to diaspora pilaus of this kind in “The Carolina Rice Kitchen: The African Connection.”)
Blue crabs dwell in the creeks and salt marsh of the Lowcountry estuarine system. While only a few recipes are mentioned — deviled or stewed — in the earliest regional cookbooks, crab is foolishly easy to catch. An apocryphal tale has circulated in my family involving one of my great-uncles, a rope, and a dead dog, but usually a rank chicken neck will get their greedy attention. For several summers, my grandmother brought me down south on visits to her sisters who still lived in the Lowcountry, and one of my happiest childhood memories was the time spent barefoot and sunburnt on the end of a ramshackle dock jutting into the Folly River, net poised as crab after crab rose in the muddy brown water to my bait. Nana and my great-aunts got so fed up picking crab day after day they would sneak the full bucket out of the kitchen and dump them back into the spartina grass to crawl away again. Nana never mixed crab with rice. Shrimp, yes. Crab, no. Not sure why, but it may have something to do with that dog. So, I was grateful for this version at Hannibal’s Kitchen.
Safiya Grant had a long, thin face framed by gold earrings. She slid into a booth opposite me, and her daughter, dressed for a dance class, climbed into her lap.
“You want a little something-something with that? Get the red rice and collards, too.”
Another platter arrived. Her red rice was the real deal, the consequence of tomatoes and chili peppers introduced to Africa, and brought back again on the Middle Passage.
Grant tilted her head in concentration when I asked how she cooked it.
"First, you fry the meat," she said. "And you can use any flavor meat, that's the flavor your red rice is going to be. Italian sausage, beef sausage. Then, you add some veggies, onions, and bell peppers, and put the sauce in, whatever seasoning, and water, stir it up to make it smooth, some salt and pepper, and whatever rice you want. It's an equal share, one to one, cook it until halfway, and for your eye, if you want it a little redder, add some more sauce."
"What kind of rice?" I asked.
"Any kind. It doesn't matter." She shrugged.
Before Grant's family bought the business, two other owners operated soul-food restaurants at the same address. The Hugers eventually changed the menu — she is the third generation to cook there.
"In the ’60s, they used to have bologna sandwiches, cornbread, that kind of thing," said Grant. "People who went to school around here, they used to jump the fence — hope you don't get caught — it was like a snack place for them. Teachers would send across to get lunch and stuff, too."
Grant's daughter squirmed out of her lap and danced away. I scraped the rest of my lunch into a plastic clamshell. Before she disappeared back into the clatter of the kitchen, I asked Grant a parting question.
"Where do you get your rice?"
"Bulk, from Costco.”
Not long after rice production failed in the Lowcountry, German scientist Erich Gustav Huzenlaub and British chemist Francis Heron Rogers invented a method of parboiling commercially produced rice to retain greater nutritional value. The Huzenlaub Process yielded a less starchy grain resistant to weevils. It was also the color of a manila folder. The original patent number 368,092 application filed in Great Britain on November 30, 1939, claims:
“The method of this invention produces the highest degree of gelatinization possible in a rice grain, leaving it totally free from any white, chalky, light refracting spots or sections on the grain surface or grain interior, it produces a rice grain without any hint of colouration [sic] beyond the slightly creamy tint that which is usually regarded as a characteristic of the very highest grades of rice, and it produces further a rice grain which is free from any objectionable odor during subsequent cooking.”
American businessman and candy heir Forrest E. Mars Sr. acquired a stake in the patent for this easy-to-cook “converted” rice in 1942. The first Converted Rice Inc. plant set up in Houston subjected Gulf Coast grain to Huzenlaub’s parboiling; the company swiftly obtained a wartime government contract to supply rice to U.S. Army mess kitchens on fighting fronts from Europe to Africa. By 1947, when it arrived in American grocery stores, the new brand acquired a name and a face on the packaging: a genial elder servant wearing a waiter’s jacket and bowtie, with an honorific historically reserved by Southerners who avoided calling black men “Mister.”
Uncle Ben may never have existed, although Mars Food corporate lore references a black rice farmer, last name unknown, in Beaumont, Texas, as his inspiration. A waiter named Frank Brown, however, who worked at the Tavern Club in Chicago, did consent to have his portrait painted for $500. The restaurant was a favorite haunt for the agency reps who created the first advertising campaign, featuring his image, which appeared in Life Magazine on October 27, 1947. Tag line? “The sunny-colored rice that cooks white.” In six years, the brand became the top-selling packaged long-grain rice in the country.
A curious thing happened in 1971. Uncle Ben disappeared from the packaging. This was the tumultuous year when President Richard M. Nixon made disparaging remarks about women, blacks, Mexicans, and Italians on secret White House tapes. The U.S. Supreme Court overturned the draft-evasion conviction of Muhammad Ali and, in Swann v. Charlotte-Mecklenburg Board of Education, also upheld the use of busing to achieve racial desegregation in schools. Three drunken white males in Drew, Mississippi, killed Jo Etha Collier, an 18-year-old black woman. James Earl Ray, Martin Luther King Jr.'s assassin, was caught in a jailbreak attempt in Tennessee. The Black Panthers were accused of an attack at the Ingleside police station in San Francisco that left one officer dead. Don Cornelius debuted as the host of the new musical variety show “Soul Train.”
Uncle Ben returned to the box in 1983.
Nana died the next year.
Not only was this her invocation at the table, the invitation to an open refrigerator, and even the welcome to a stash of bourbon in her liquor cabinet, but also a battle cry for an independent woman who lived 92 years, never said a peep about money missing from her purse or unwritten thank-you notes, and cried down the phone line when her uppity granddaughter got a scholarship to Vassar. Until the end, she also never burned a pot of rice on that modest apartment stove so far from the salt marsh.
Two decades later, Mars Food hired another agency to promote Uncle Ben to chairman of the board. He was reimagined in a lavish corner office, in a bright blue suit, still wearing the same bowtie, and dispensing “grains of wisdom.” Socially minded critics were ambivalent about the campaign’s intent.
The series titled “Unenslaved: Rice Culture Paintings” by artist Jonathan Green is kaleidoscope bright and full of movement. Men pole barges loaded impossibly high with grain. A woman in a polka dot dress and headscarf tosses rice with a sweetgrass basket. Others tote sheaves in fields stretching to a low marshy horizon. For its debut at the Gibbes Museum of Art in Charleston, the series was paired with the earlier work of watercolorist Alice Ravenel Huger Smith, who depicted life on an antebellum rice plantation in softer hues but with more racially fraught themes.
“I wanted to capture it from the perspective of Africans in touch with their own humanity and dignity,” said Green, who showed me a painting from the series when we first met in his Charleston studio. “I wanted to think of the history of the Lowcountry and rice as I know it from my ancestors.”
The soft-spoken artist was born in Gardens Corner, not far from the sea island where Nana grew up.
“I love the fact that you can have two impressions of the same culture,” Green said. “How we do not know each other, even though we’ve been living side by side for hundreds of years? How is it that we have allowed ourselves to treat each other like this for so long? Painting this series as if Africans came here like everyone else, that helped me overcome this fog of slavery.”
“What rice did you eat growing up?” I asked.
“My grandmother cooked Carolina Gold. She grew it. But my mother didn’t go out into the rice field,” he continued. “She used Uncle Ben’s or Mahatma. I cook the way my grandmother did. She put some oil in the pan and then the rice. Threw vegetables in there with the rice, peas, or whatever, and when the vegetables were cooked and the rice brown enough, she added the liquid.”
“The Requiem for Rice” is Green’s next project. According to the website, the multimedia collaboration with filmmaker Julie Dash and composer Trevor Weston is “a lamentation for repose of the souls of the dead who were enslaved, exploited, and brutalized on Lowcountry South Carolina and Georgia's rice plantations and who remain unburied, unmourned, and unmarked.” It will premiere at Charleston’s Color of Music Festival in October. Green commissioned scholar Edda Fields-Black, who teaches the transnational history of Gullah-Geechie culture at Carnegie Mellon University in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, to write the libretto. She is an expert on rice agriculture in West Africa.
Dr. Fields-Black told me: “Never met a rice field that I didn’t love, and literally would have to pull on my boots and want to get into.”
She also spent childhoods visiting her Lowcountry family; her father’s ancestors are buried on several plantations that once belonged to Nathaniel Heyward, whose vast estate included 1,648 slaves at the time of his death. For her libretto, she draws on diaries of plantation mistress Fanny Kemble and oral histories from the Depression-era Works Progress Administration Slave Narrative project.
“I want to bring these experiences to light and create something beautiful about a labor system that was pretty horrible,” Fields-Black said. “We’re using the metaphor of a mass said for the dead, but it’s very much our own creation, an African-American requiem.”
When I talked to her on the phone in Pittsburgh, she admitted never eating rice as a child. “White bread, white potatoes, white rice. My father associated these with poverty and obesity. Now, if I don’t eat rice — brown rice — every day, I get cranky.”
Lucie Kulze climbed on the vintage Allis-Chalmers combine when it stalled. She peered into the unloader as her uncle and father fixed the belt drive. The autumn sky was streaked with cloud, insects hummed in the heat, and a breeze rattled the palmettos. Grain hung heavy, all green and golden. Everyone wore snake boots and kept an eye on the riverbank when a bull alligator coughed. White egrets startled as the combine lurched back into motion, rattling away and burping out chaff, chomping through a rice field bounded by centuries-old canals. Despite the calm day, however, Hurricane Matthew barreled toward the Carolina coast. Lowcountry farmers scrambled.
Kulze is a cousin, our blood tied by multiple generations and entwined family trees. Nana and her great-grandmother were sisters. The 22-year-old brunette has ramrod posture, prefers second-hand work clothes from the Salvation Army store, and instead of pursuing mainstream higher education, chose apprenticeships ranging from permaculture to animal husbandry. Kulze attended the Young Farmers Conference at New York’s Stone Barns Center for Food & Agriculture and forages mushrooms for Charleston restaurants like F.I.G. and Husk. One of her mentors is Dr. Brian Ward of Clemson Coastal Research Center, an heirloom seedsman and founding member of the Carolina Gold Rice Foundation, which provides seed free of charge to planters interested in experimental and heirloom revival crops. (Full disclosure: I nudged her a tiny bit by introducing him.) When the family got a grant to restore the ruined dykes and trunks on their Combahee River property, they started growing Charleston Gold.
This was rice I could respect.
In 1998, two rice scientists collaborated on a new cultivar by crossbreeding Carolina Gold with sturdier japonica varieties. After 10 years of testing and selection, Gurdev Khush and Merle Shepard brought the grain to Anna McClung, a geneticist at the USDA Agricultural Research Service in Beaumont, Texas. (Remember Beaumont, Texas? Where a black rice farmer named Ben reportedly toiled?)
Dr. Shepard told me: “One of the parents of Charleston Gold is a modern, high-yielding ‘green revolution’ rice, but I asked Dr. Khush to keep the gold color on the hull and add an aromatic gene from a basmati. Dr. McClung did the final ‘cleaning up’ of the variety and grew it in regional trials.” Of the 11 historical “rice rivers” in the Lowcountry, the Combahee is the 10th in succession from north to south, where Alice Smith painted her plantation scenes and several present-day landowners, including my cousins, are growing these new cultivars.
The Allis-Chalmers made several more passes through patches of rice ready to harvest, filling two large totes with 700 pounds of grain, which Kulze hauled by tractor back to her parents’ house. She transferred the raw rice to smaller plastic bins and bags, setting up electric fans in the kitchen to aid the drying process. The room smelled of grass. A pot of rice simmered on the stove for dinner.
“What is ghost rice?” I asked.
“That’s when the plant makes a panicle, and the hull is there, but with no grain inside,” Kulze said. “Like it didn’t fill. Dr. Ward says it happens when the soil is high in organic matter.”
Before driving down from Charleston for the harvest, I stopped at the weekend farm market in Marion Square, and bought bags of freshly picked field peas.
If I had an ancestor meal, food for all mouths, it would be Hopping John. Nana said my grandfather ate his cowpeas and rice topped with a big glob of mayonnaise. My father preferred it that way as well. Yes, it’s gross, but as tribute to them, so do I. Always cowpeas, never black-eyed peas. Everyone in the Lowcountry has opinions about the potlikker and whether the flavor meat should be bacon or a smoked ham hock.
No one can agree about the name. Some argue Hopping John (or Hoppin’ for the colloquially precious) is a bastardization of pois de pigeon. Others swear a lame pea vendor named John once limped through the streets of Charleston. The earliest reference in an American cookbook is credited to Sarah Rutledge, who recommended garnishing the dish with a sprig of mint. (So, don’t give me grief about mayonnaise.) In “The Savannah Cookbook” (1933), Harriet Ross Colquitt wrote: “As children, it was our custom, when the word went around that we were to have Hopping John for dinner, to gather in the dining-room, and as the dish was brought on to hop around the table before sitting down to the feast.” Her society-lady recipe collection was illustrated with cartoonish images of possum hunts and vegetable sellers, and headnotes peppered with disparaging remarks about “coloreds” and “dark horses,” ugly names close to those Nana used as well.
Dinner with Lucie Kulze was plain and simple. Rice with peas, the last bolted greens from the vegetable garden, some leftover succotash, and venison shot in the piney woods that back up against the golden fields where, in two days time, the remaining crop would be obliterated by hurricane-force winds and rain. The Charleston Gold was aromatic and fluffy, not split or starchy — complaints I often have against rice that hasn’t been converted.
“What do you think about the history of rice here?” I asked.
“Truth is truth,” she replied. “When I’m out there working, I can’t understand how it used to be done by hand, turning those swamps into fields. It’s almost like Machu Picchu, but in a more buggy, snakey, alligatory environment. Tough as hell.”
Kulze spared me two pounds of Charleston Gold to take home. I hugged this young girl who wears scruffy overalls and eats table scraps cold out of the fridge because she can’t stand to see them go to waste.
At first light, she dragged the salvaged rice out into the last sun prior to the storm, in hopes of dehydrating the grain more before shipping it to a mill in Orangeburg. As I left her to it, she said: “Every single step has been a mountain and this year has more mountains than last.”