I’ve cooked with Carolina Gold Rice for the better part of the last decade–catching on to the ingredient, along with so many others, in better restaurants across the southeast US. Admittedly, I was clumsy around it at first, worried my lack of technique or general lack of knowledge about what made it so special might make me more likely to mess it up than it deserved. It wasn’t inexpensive either, not like a “normal” bag of rice from the grocery or wholesaler that costs pennies per pound. This stuff had the word “gold” in the title; we regularly paid more for that rice than we did for a lot of our proteins–and not just chicken either. At the end of the month, inventory required weighing that rice and the other grains/dried items that lived alongside it in the walk in. It wasn’t uncommon for them to be our most valued line item.
As a youngster I grew up just an arms length away from agriculture. My parents and grandparents always kept a small garden. When I was very young and my parents were still married, that garden was bigger than it was small. To this day I remember the temperature of red bliss potatoes as they were pulled away from the coal black soil in a planter box in my mom’s sideyard. Those potatoes surely spawned my curiosity for food. Tomatoes still warm from the vine and cucumbers that grew impossibly on a tangle of vines thick and wild all tasted so profoundly of themselves. My parents and theirs raised a pretty high bar for the supermarkets they’d later shop at. What those small and not-so-small gardens did for me as a child was instill a deep connection for the food I ate and where it came from. This is something I’ve only forged more deeply as days have stacked up behind me.
Across the street from my father’s parent’s home used to live a small “farmer’s market” called Tony’s. Tony was something of a shopkeep extraordinaire–not really capable of running the place all by his lonesome on account of some mental limitations, but he was always there, stocking cantaloupes and handing the impossibly thin plastic produce bags to whomever was closeby. He wore a green apron with his namesake embroidered on the front and a matching hat that never quite went on the way most would suggest it should. Tony was the life of that place and I so adored my trips there to see him. The thing about Tony’s Market was that it always smelled of produce–not in a contrived sort of way where it’s mixed with the smell of refrigeration and damp cardboard but it smelled of the stuff it was stuffed with. The bins of overripe cantaloupes wreaked of the way a cantaloupe should smell when you pull it up to your nose before you decide which one is the one. The tomatoes smelled like tomato vines–that unmistakable reflection of summer unlike any other–the haunting smell that you chase when it’s cold out and all you want is some cheap white bread, a smear or three of Duke’s and some salt and coarse black pepper–and that one, perfectly warm from the sun, so close to exploding, tomato. One. Per sandwich. Tony and his market made a monster out of me before I ever knew what was happening or had a choice or a say.
As I’ve grown into adulthood and have settled into the days of thinner and thinner hair and a metabolism with much less, ummmm, resolve, I’ve settled, too, into the understanding that I have with how food makes a place and how important ingredients are in telling that story. I’ve come to grips with how fundamental and formative all of those trips to Tony’s Market were in my youth, how the work done by my mom and my grandparents and so many strangers filled me with an unwavering and limitless curiosity that still burns white-hot within me today. That curiosity leads me into the less visited areas of the library–the places where the carpet hasn’t yet faded from foot traffic and where the books may be covered with several layers of dust. I have piles and piles of books that keep me from having the types of friends who volunteer to help you move and a wife that uses them, reluctantly, as furniture. These days the books tell the story of ingredients. In a larger way, they tell the story of place and time, of people, of regions, of states here and not here, of music and language and commitment and perseverance. They tell the how and the why that’s so often missing when I’m standing in the kitchen writing a prep list to make a dish that reads with only a few words on a one page menu. The stories create context for me in a way similar to those first potatoes I dug with my little hands or the way the smells of fresh produce did at Tony’s Market.
A few years ago I started using Carolina Gold. I remember someone saying something in passing about how it had an aroma of bay laurel and then trailing off as they walked away mumbling words about storage or shipment and preservation and the Civil War and whatever. I’m sure I was half listening and only got half the words. That’s math that doesn’t generally find a correct answer at its end. I spent a little time as a cook even then doing research about those ingredients. I asked lots of questions (as I continue to do), not for the sake of challenging anyone but because the “why” seemed so much more powerful in helping shape the food than anything else. My chefs and mentors were always patient with me and helped me come to understand Carolina Gold better than I’d imagine most cooks who continue to use the rice in restaurants today. It wasn’t until I moved here that I came to understand it, though.
As a child in grade school, I remember being taught at a high level how terrible the Civil War was, and how, ultimately slaves worked in fields in the south harvesting cotton against their will. They were brought here as property, shipped often in shackles and held tangled together at the bottom of enormous clipper ships for weeks on end from one coast far, far away, to their eventual end here on American soil. They were auctioned off at public markets and given new or abbreviated, sometimes made up names so they could be identified. Receipts were given. In order to get the slaves to pick more cotton, they were whipped and beaten, abused and mistreated. They were appropriated to small “shacks” behind or just away from the towering, columned, perfect mansions of their owners. The slaves and the cotton, I was taught, were the reason our country divided against itself, why brothers from the same town wound up staring at each other from the sights of their own guns, why General Sherman burned practically everything in the South. It’s why I was taught, that the whole thing happened: cotton.
Since moving here, I’ve come to learn a different side of the story we were taught as kids. It’s much more complicated and nuanced; it’s, at least for me, much more hopeful a story. And, quite frankly, it has nothing to do with cotton at all. Here in the lowcountry, cotton wasn’t super productive. Maybe something about the soil here and it having too much sand in it or something but cotton wasn’t grown much here. Indigo was. Tobacco was not. What was grown here, and grown to a scale that exceeds the power of my brain to comprehend, was rice. So much rice was grown here, in fact, that it accounted for a majority of the entire national economy leading into the Civil War. South Carolina, the lowcountry of South Carolina specifically, produced the majority of that majority.
Middleton Place was a powerful contributor to rice production in the lowcountry at its height. Nestled along the banks of the Ashley River not far from Charleston Proper, the Middleton Family built a plantation of remarkable sophistication and immense scale. They erected gardens, moved earth and backfilled it to make symmetrical ponds, managed livestock like water buffalo and, for a time, kept cashmere goats among others. There were gardens within gardens, planted with flowers of endless variety, all set to bloom throughout the seasons. The garden is a spectacle that’s nearly impossible to understand–it’s precision of design astounding by even today’s standard.
The gardens may well be the very best reflection of the power of rice in the lowcountry at that time. Rice propped up the Middleton’s, affording them quite literally a chance to move mounds of dirt, to carve and plant the earth like an artist using paint on a canvas. They explored political ambitions and built estates filled with irreplaceable art and furniture. Rice paid for it all. Rice is found on that furniture, carved deep into the wood as a reminder of its place around it. Rice is found on buttons that adorned fine clothing, it’s found painted onto porcelain china in the formal dining rooms where the Middleton’s would entertain. Rice was everywhere, quite literally.
Rice and slavery couldn’t exist here independent of one another. Slaves, in large part, came here from West Africa and were already familiar with the techniques required to grow rice successfully. They (the slaves) were sold at a premium because of that knowledge. 40% of all slaves bought and sold on American soil came through Charleston. They built an economy where there wasn’t one. They built an economy.
The land around Middleton Place a couple of hundred years ago looked in some way similar to how it does now–the swamps again a curious tangle of prehistoric water and ancient creatures wound around and between and under cypress trees painted black from water the color of the darkest tea and standing sentinel as part of a confused landscape–their simple branches dripping with lichens of Spanish moss. Alligators and snakes live beside one another, visible only above the surface of the ancient water below. When the slaves arrived, this is the landscape they arrived to. This was what would become neighbor to their home and their place of work, ten hours a day, seven days a week. The weather here is impossibly hot and often so thick with humidity, it more closely resembles water–toeing the line between helpful and hurtful as you labor under midday sun. Those swamps would have to be cleared, trees and stumps and roots notwithstanding, to make room for tiny grains of Carolina Gold. The land would have to be diked, and sluice boxes constructed from the felled trees to direct the incoming and outgoing tides appropriately. Tools had to be forged. Trees carved and hollowed to create massive and hearty mortar and pestle to clean and polish the rice. All of this, it turns out, was done by hand. It was also a year long process, a constant ebb and flow of managing planting with harvesting and drying, repairing dikes and levees and the sluice type boxes used to direct the moving tides, the burning and clearing of the remnants of a recent harvest to again plant on barren land for the coming year’s crop. All of this was done by hand.
To harvest and produce Carolina Gold was something of a spectacle, a not uncomplicated but labor heavy, multi-stage affair of breaking the rice loose from the straw that it grows within first, then removing the rice from it’s husk, separating the rice from the husk and chaff through a process called winnowing, and then “polishing” the rice by abrading it against itself to remove the oil-rich bran that surrounds each grain and would result in it’s spoilage during extended time at sea. This whole process was done with rudimentary tools, wooden tools carved from felled trees, shaped into giant mortars and pestles, the pestle itself two tools in one depending on the end being used. Small, pliable “baskets” were woven from seagrass or marsh-grass and used to “throw” the rice in a process called winnowing. All of this was done out of doors, the rise and fall of joust-like pestle finding its end over and over again in a mortar filled with several pounds of now-dry Carolina Gold rice still in its husk. Broken rice grains were worthless at market so the process required a deft hand and careful attention from start to finish. Broken rice was served to livestock. And to slaves. (These days it’s haute cuisine in restaurants throughout the south.)
As we sat and watched a couple of period-clothed educators leading a class about Carolina Gold under the cover of a freshly built pavilion surrounded by the primitive grounds of greater Middleton Place, I sat stunned by the scale of what was happening in front of me. I listened closely as they described how fatal the whole process was. How, at no point, did the slaves get a break from their work. How, when it was as cold as it gets, they were standing in knee deep water readying the land for another planting. How, post harvest skies would be so thick with smoke from burning rice fields, the sun was hidden for weeks at a time. They told us how much earth was moved in the name of rice in the American South–more than even that in the construction of the great Pyramids in Egypt. They explained how respiratory infections strangled workers, how yellow fever was always lurking–how malaria from the swarms of summer mosquitoes was often inescapable. Gators and snakes, oddly enough, were far less worrisome than those tiny, flying, hypodermic needles. Not one of ten slaves in the lowcountry would see the age of sixteen. One third of all slaves perished in a single year’s time.
When it was my turn, I took a few tries with the pestle, twisting it against the mortar of rice below me in an attempt to mimic what I’d seen only a few moments earlier. I was struck mostly by the weight of the pestle itself, and by the tremendous amount of work it took me to net only a tiny handful of usable, clean rice. I was beading with sweat in only minutes, in spite of being in the shade and wearing both shorts and short sleeves and musky from the shellacking of bug spray I’d applied once and applied again over the course of the morning. The handle of the pestle had been long since worn smooth, calloused hands doing their own polishing. I stood next to the small harvest we’d all worked to produce under the shade of midday sun on Labor Day weekend. The rice had been harvested by hand and dried as it always had before it ever found its way to the pavilion where we sat and listened. It’s straw and husk were strikingly gold in color, against a stark white grain of rice hiding desperately beneath.
I’ve experienced formative events in my lifetime. I’ve worked on an organic farm in the middle of August fighting bugs and weeds for my portion of sun-warmed produce of all colors. I’ve slaughtered chickens in the warm breeze of a coming fall in the open air of a multi-use farm where animals wandered around freely as they’ve always done and produce grew without chemical pesticides. I’ve pulled beets from below a small layer of morning frost where they lie insulated from the cold by the blanket of earth surrounding them. I’ve met evangelicals of food and food production and listened with ears perked about what they were doing and why. I’ve woven all of those moments into the fabric that makes me continue to cook food in spite of the economics of the whole thing. I’ve used them as a bellows blowing onto a smoldering fire, inciting my curiosity to grow greater and greater as I learn more and more. This moment, the moment when the story of those bags of rice came into focus the way Tony and the gardens of my youth helped me understand food and seasons, may well be the most formative of all.
As a Southerner, it’s often difficult to come to grips with the time long before my time that’s so hurtful to discuss honestly. It’s something I struggled with mightily in my youth, quick to associate a slow southern drawl or the hillbilly twang of my parents with someone who’s under or uneducated. I wasn’t ever really able to be honest with that history because I don’t guess I ever got enough information to help me understand it; food has been the language that’s helped me understand the story of the south for me. It’s provided the narrative and the narrator that puts images into context and adds subtitles and plots to such vague and obscure generalizations that confine all southerners to their own, often black and white, parts of our past. I’ve come to understand nuance in the ways of Appalachian cooking and, since living here, the layers of history and inseparable assembly of landscape and knowhow that created a cuisine all it’s own. I’m a better person because of food–because of the stories i’ve been told and continue to tell about the food where I come from that makes me who I am. I wasn’t around when all of that bad happened and wouldn’t dare pretend it away. There was good that came from all of that, though; not on it’s own, of course, but good just the same. And that good has carved out it’s own place in our past, and will continue into our future–the most powerful marker of a unique culture of people, it’s land and landscape, it’s storied and tortured past, and a people with an unwillingness to let the food of their home remain behind them.