African-American Jewish writer Michael W. Twitty digs deep into the history of rice and the role African-American slaves played in the dissemination, cultivation, and harvesting of one of the world’s most beloved grains.
My own story
Rice has played a pivotal role in shaping my identity. My favorite rice dish growing up was my Alabama-born grandmother’s red rice (often misnamed “Spanish rice”), a tasty, tomato-rich rice pilau with bell peppers, onions, and spices. Little did I know then that if you followed that one dish back through all of the mamas and grandmas that came before her, you would go overland from Alabama to South Carolina and then across the Atlantic. My grandmother’s great-grandmother was born in Charleston, the center of red rice country, and her great-grandmother’s grandmother was born in Sierra Leone, among the Mende people. To this day, one of the staple dishes of Sierra Leone is jollof rice, the West African antecedent of red rice.
Prepared in different ways up and down the Atlantic world rice belt, today’s versions of red rice essentially maintain the same orange-red glow, as well as a taste that is pleasantly warm and pairs well with just about any leafy green or protein.
As a culinary historian and historic interpreter, I am never happier than when I’ve got in front of me a solid dish of red rice. This simple, hearty dish—one of the many direct contributions of West Africa to the southern table—isn’t only an edible link to my genes, my DNA, blood, and bone. It’s a way to my heart. They say in Sierra Leone that if you have not eaten rice that day, then you haven’t really eaten at all. I appreciate that sentiment, as fare like pilau (in some places called perloo), a simple southern chicken-and-rice dish, or a rice crepe stuffed with green onions, Vietnamese herbs, and fresh seafood, triggers some of my most Pavlovian moments.
But even more important, rice connects me to every other person, southern and global, who is nourished by rice’s traditions and customs.
A grain of the global South
There’s an apocryphal story that rice entered the South through Charleston in 1685. A ship blown off its course from Madagascar to England landed unexpectedly in Charleston, where aid was provided to the crew. The grateful captain repaid the colonial British governor’s hospitality with seed grains from rice, which from then on could be grown in Carolina and used to enrich the colony for all time.
Though rice most likely was already here when the ship from Madagascar arrived, this story of rice’s entrance into the South highlights how significant it was for the region. In the antebellum South, if cotton was the king of commodities, then rice was the queen. And the queen bought incomparable economic power. Charleston and, later, Savannah were thriving cosmopolitan trading ports, with fabulous wealth guaranteed by the cultivation of cash crops, which relied on the knowledge and labor of enslaved West and Central Africans.
West Africans from Senegal to Liberia, the western half of Cote d’Ivoire (the Ivory Coast), and deep into the interior along the Niger and other rivers, had grown rice for almost four millennia by the time the transatlantic slave trade picked up in earnest. With the spread of Islam and the settlement of the western African coastline by the Portuguese, the indigenous African red rice known as Oryza glaberrima and several other wild and cultivated species were joined by Oryza sativa, or “Asian rice.” On the island of Madagascar, some of my other ancestors were growing the latter, their ancestors having brought seed from Indonesia in outrigger canoes. As African and Asian cultures mixed, rice became both a staple and the central feature of Madagascan economic life. In West Africa, too, my forebears knew this reality, with women taking a primary role in the processing of the crop.
It’s no accident that my grandmothers passed their knowledge of rice culture from generation to generation. From 1750 to 1775, planters from southeastern North Carolina through South Carolina and Georgia to northeastern Florida imported thousands of enslaved human beings, many of them women, to properly grow and process husked rice. The Mende, Temne, Sherbro, Manjack, Balanta, Papel, Kru, Vai, Kissi, Grebo, Bassari, Limba, and many other ethnic groups were already rice-production experts, and in Africa, once their rice was grown, they processed it with incredibly beautiful winnowing baskets and expertly carved standing mortars and pestles that, in the right hands, produced thousands of tons of polished, unbroken rice.
From this period in the eighteenth century came the inflorescence of what historian Karen Hess famously called “the rice kitchen.” Southern rice dishes were based on West African precedent: the rice was steamed, with each grain separate and distinct, and paired with soups, stews, heavy sauces, and fried or grilled proteins.
On the other side of the South—along the Gulf Coast and up the Mississippi River valley—Africans were sent, carrying rice that had originated in Benin and Senegal, to develop the Louisiana colony and environs in the 1720s. While the Low Country experienced its own rice boom, rice in the Louisiana area became a staple thanks to ethnic groups from Senegambia, including the Bamana, Serer, Diola, Fula, and Malinke, who made up roughly two-thirds of the African people who were imported through the French trade. Other Africans arrived with similar knowledge because they grew Asian rice to supplement supplies on slave ships sent to the Americas. During the French colonization of Louisiana, in Creole cuisine, and later an amended Acadian (or Cajun) cuisine, rice took a central role—in contrast to its status as a luxury food in most of France at the time. Piping-hot rice fritters, red beans and rice made by Haitian émigrés, gumbos with bowls of rice, and a wealth of variations on rice bread, mushes, dressings, and pilaus poured out of Louisiana kitchens high and low.
In the American colonies, and, of course, after the American Revolution as well, these African experts in rice cultivation were forced to work under the lash in an environment featuring new germs, relentless insects, and intense heat and cold. Rice fields took many lives as malaria and yellow fever plagued the “street,” the Low Country term for enslaved people’s living quarters. It was so bad that one-quarter of all Africans arriving in North America went to Charleston, many to make up for earlier losses of life in the marshes where rice was grown. Slaveholders, on the other hand, often had two residences: one in the country for the winter months and one in the city for the summer, when insect-borne diseases were at their height. Rice, for all the joy and nourishment it has given, was part of a system that created inequality for generations.
Enslaved people, poor whites, and Native Americans lived together or in close proximity in early southern communities, and rice was consumed across their diets. The typical one-pot meal might have been cooked in colonoware, a type of earthenware created by African Americans along the Atlantic coast and westward. Or it might have been cooked in a cast-iron pot or Dutch oven. Such preparations helped rice-based dishes become practical and popular. Their rice was often the broken, cheaper castoffs. But no matter: rice grits blended well into mixtures of seasonal vegetables, herbs, and spices, along with whatever protein was available, and rice cakes and fritters were made with leftovers. In some ways, rice was kind of a southern manna.
It’s not an accident that South Carolina, Georgia, Florida, and Louisiana produced two of the most African-centered food cultures and folk cultures in America: the Gullah-Geechee people of the Low Country coast and Sea Islands, and the Creoles of African descent in the Gulf region and Lower Mississippi River valley. Rice went hand in hand with new words for dishes born in New World slavery, just as it went hand in hand with the music, religion, dance, and Afri-Creole languages that created new American cultures. But what was most impressive is that these cultures didn’t exist in a bubble; they influenced everyone around them and have had a lasting impact on all of southern culture.
We can see the importance of rice in African American folklore, which carried over rice’s unique mythology from Africa. Supposedly carried in seed form in the braided hair of African grandmothers, rice offered the enslaved a hidden and sacred link to ancestors and their deities. Among my Mende forebears, for instance, rice mixed with palm oil fed the ancestors at their graves. For many other groups, too, African rice was a revered food, not just dinner. According to Newbell Niles Puckett, a folklorist who worked at the turn of the twentieth century, many of these customs endured, empowered by thousands of years of songs, prayers, and recipes. All of this experience, all of these stories, have enriched the southern embrace of rice, right down to the custom of eating rice with black-eyed peas on New Year’s Day.
Rice marched across the South in the hands of the enslaved and enslavers. It was not only a plantation crop, and it was not grown solely in hot, swampy parts of the southeastern coast. In the present day of agricultural monotony, it’s easy to forget that there are thousands of varieties of Oryza sativa, many of them cultivated in the past. Each variety has significant, specific growing requirements, and some are quite amenable to colder or drier climates. Historian David Shields and others have shown that rice was grown in small home plots across the South in places that would surprise us today—from the North Carolina Piedmont to the Eastern Shore of Maryland to the middle of Tennessee. The rice patch, along with the cornfield, sustained many southern homesteads even into the Great Depression.
Today, rice—in its many incarnations and forms—is one of the most popular foods across the South and, indeed, across the nation. As a cash crop, however, rice was badly hurt by hurricanes at the end of the nineteenth century, especially a particularly devastating storm in 1911. Since then, rice has recovered and now is among the top ten produce crops grown in the United States, almost exclusively in the South and California, with approximately half of rice sales by volume going to global markets.
Southern varieties of rice
Many types of rice have graced southern tables, from Carolina White (below) to Carolina Gold (at the top), from basmati to jasmine, from short to medium to long grain. Here, I look at some of these varieties more closely, as they are tied in intricate and rich ways to southern culture. The original African red rice persists in southern lowlands. While it has commonly been viewed as an invasive species, recently it has been experiencing a celebratory boost as an effort to recover several varieties of African rice is underway. This effort is being led by the descendants of enslaved people on Low Country plantations who, during the War of 1812, escaped with the British soldiers from Gullah-Geechee communities to Trinidad. But long before this effort to recover the original African rice, Thomas Jefferson had been keen to expand rice cultivation during the Revolutionary era, when he smuggled, on pain of death, Arborio rice from the Po Valley in Italy to his Virginia plantation. He also acquired rice from the highlands of upper Guinea, a variety that would eventually come to be grown across the South on homesteads. Indeed, this variety gained importance as a secondary staple among escaped enslaved Africans, and Creek, Choctaw, and Seminole Indians, all of whom grew patches of “home rice.”
The history of southern varieties shifted after the end of slavery and after a series of destructive hurricanes at the beginning of the twentieth century. Rice production grew in Louisiana, Mississippi, Arkansas, Missouri, Texas, and, later, California. Texas boasted basmati varieties developed for its eastern region: Teximati is perfect for true Texas chili con carne. But rice grown on homesteads had died out for the most part by World War II. The thumping, rhythmic sound of rice being husked and the songs and beats that went with that laborious activity ceased, and bags of non-local rice filled the family larders. Apart from Louisiana and Texas, in the South, rice was no longer a homegrown, local crop for most southerners, even as they continued to love eating rice.
Today, I’m glad to report one success story in the realm of local varieties of rice: Carolina Gold, the queen among queens. Named for its beautiful husk, Carolina Gold rice was the original variety that turned many Low Country planters into some of the wealthiest men and women in American history, including one Joshua John Ward (above), who held in bondage vast numbers of enslaved people. Carolina Gold’s cultivation fueled an early rice industry that exported millions of pounds of rice to other locations in the Americas and to Europe.
The cultivation of Carolina Gold was revived in the 1980s when a judge who liked to hunt ducks was looking for his prey among its favorite food. Through the efforts of Glenn Roberts and the Carolina Gold Rice Foundation, founded in 1988, the acreage of the crop has expanded, and now Carolina Gold is cooked by outstanding chefs in many southern restaurants and by others who appreciate it as an important ingredient with a story and taste worth preserving.