An heirloom rice returns

Boston Globe, September 21, 2005

CHARLESTON, S.C.—In the Colonial era, this elegant seaport was the richest city in the New World, thanks to an exquisite variety of rice known as Carolina Gold prized as far away as China that blanketed the lowlands of the coastal era. The hallowed grains are on the rise again.

Carolina Gold’s revival has become important enough to warrant its own symposium, which was held here last month. Academics and foodies discussed the variety’s origins, its role in American history, and how best to grow and market the rice, while savoring interpretations by Charleston chefs of dishes that date to the plantation era.

The rice’s return makes it possible to render the sophisticated Creole cooking of the Lowcountry to traditional standards. At one time, slaves tended the rice under harsh conditions, battling malaria and typhus. But after the Civil War the plantations emptied, Charleston declined, and Carolina Gold faced oblivion. Carolina Gold seeds were preserved in several land-grant universities, including Texas A&M and the University of Arkansas; growers planted it in the mid-1990s to see if they could revive it.

It may be hard to imagine an American rice enjoying the repute of, say, Indian basmati or Italian arborio. Unlike basmati or jasmine rice, Carolina Gold isn’t aromatic. It is delicate, with a nutty tone and a lush feel on the palate. Its grains are full and absorbent enough for risotto yet long enough to fluff and separate — a sweet spot on the rice spectrum.

Most American-grown rice is starchy and doesn’t have a lot of flavor. Commercial brands are heavily processed, leaving little nutritional value. Carolina Gold, grown and milled using techniques with roots in Africa, has grains that straddle the line between long and medium. They’re flecked with ample residual bran from the milling process. As a result, they look like Uncle Ben’s feral cousin — which in a sense they are.

“Carolina Gold in effect became Uncle Ben’s,” says Glenn Roberts, owner of Anson Mills in Columbia, S.C., and president of the Carolina Gold Rice Foundation. “In doing so they sprayed vitamins on it, they milled it to death, they took the germ off. It’s just like instant grits. How much flavor do you have there? That’s what you’ve got with Uncle Ben’s compared to Carolina Gold.”

Carolina Gold complements such Afro-Atlantic staples as smoked meats, shrimp and okra, and dishes that are slow-cooked in a single pot — gumbo, for instance — to produce a rich melding of subtle flavors.

The origins of this versatile grain are fodder for debate. A beloved Charleston story traces it to a ship that sought shelter from a storm in 1684. The grateful captain offered his hosts a sack of Madagascar rice, which was Asian in origin. It’s a romantic myth — inaccurate, it turns out — that skirts the African continent.

But genetic analysis shows Carolina Gold has numerous commonalities with West African as well as Asian varieties, suggesting a cross-bred variety that evolved over time. “There was an infinite number of rices grown here, starting with African rice,” says Roberts, who believes Carolina Gold results from decades of experimentation.

“This was the fabled rice of the plantation economy,” says Judith Carney, a geographer at UCLA. “And there’s been a great deal of history, to some extent from apologists of slavery, that this rice came from Madagascar.” Her research, she says, suggests that African varieties contributed to Carolina Gold, alongside African cultivation expertise.

West African slaves with rice-growing skills fetched a premium at Charleston auctions. Their mortar-and-pestle pounding “the hardest work there is,” says Roberts preserved the rice germ and some of the bran, enhancing both flavor and nutritional value.

Roberts got engineers to develop an industrial mill that emulates the African technique, to avoid stressing the grains with high heat. The added costs, and the short shelf life that comes from retaining the germ, make Roberts’s rice for the foreseeable future a niche item.

“It brings flavor and it brings texture,” says chef Louis Osteen of Louis’s at Pawley’s, one of many Charleston chefs who work with Carolina Gold. “I’m optimistic because it’s good stuff, number one; and it’s local stuff for us. Uncle Ben’s doesn’t have to worry too much, but [Carolina Gold] is a viable economic operation.”

Yet like many heirloom foods, Carolina Gold suffers from the paradox of being a once-widespread and popular item now dependent on an upscale market. Its fate is tied to that of other heirlooms and to the continued interest in traditional American, and especially African-American and Creole, foodways.

Still, prospects for Carolina Gold are the best they’ve been in a century. “We cannot allow this rice to become extinct,” Roberts says, “because it conveys an authentic, tactile sense of the historic slave and master dynamic that inspired America’s first truly Creole cuisine.”

Carolina Gold Rice is available in 14-ounce packages for $6.95 at Formaggio Kitchen, 244 Huron Ave., Cambridge, 617-354-4750, and South End Formaggio, 268 Shawmut Ave., Boston, 617-350-6996; from Lowcountry Foods, which ships 1-pound bags for $5 each (800-538- 0003 or www.carolinagoldrice.com); and from Anson Mills, which ships 14-ounce bags with a 4-bag minimum for $4.95 each (www.ansonmills.com).

SIDEBAR:SAVANNAH RED RICEServes 4

A signature dish of the Lowcountry since Colonial times, this recipe evolved from European and African influences. The texture of Carolina Gold absorbs the tomatoes and smoky flavor. You can also use a high-quality long-grain white rice for this dish, allowing about 5 minutes more cooking time.

1 cup chicken stock; 1 cup canned tomatoes pureed and strained through a broad-mesh sieve;1 canned chipotle pepper in adobo sauce, seeded and chopped (with its juices);2 strips bacon; 1/2 medium onion, chopped; 1 clove garlic, chopped; 1 teaspoon dried thyme; 1 bay leaf, crushed; Salt and pepper, to taste; 1 cup Carolina Gold rice

1. In a saucepan, combine the stock, tomatoes, and chipotle with its juices. Bring to a simmer and set aside off the heat.

2. In a large skillet, render the bacon; remove it from the pan and reserve. Cook the onion in the fat for 5 minutes, stirring often, or until it is golden. Add the garlic and cook for 30 seconds. Stir in the thyme, bay leaf, salt, and pepper.

3. Add the rice and cook, stirring, for 1 minute or until all the grains are opaque. Stir in the tomato mixture.

4. Crumble the bacon and stir it into the pan. Bring to a boil.

5. Cover the pan with a tight-fitting lid and turn the heat to the lowest setting. Let the mixture cook for 20 minutes. Remove it from heat and, with the lid in place, let it stand for 10 minutes. Taste for seasoning and add more salt and pepper, if you like.

Adapted from Anson Mills

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