The Story of a Grain

The Story of a Grain

The first record of rice having been brought into America was in the 1680s, having come into America through Charleston, South Carolina. It was brought over by a Madagascar ship’s captain and given to Henry H. Woodward who successfully planted this long grain rice seed.

Rice planting soon became extremely popular and profitable and Charleston’s rice export rose from 10,000 pounds in the very late 1600s to 20,000 pounds by 1730. Within just 23 years, Charleston had become very wealthy, in large part because of the rice trade. This Madagascar seed became known as Carolina White. Not too long after this, it transitioned to Carolina Gold. It is not known for sure, but this was most likely the selection from Carolina White.

Known as the grandfather of long grain rice in the Americas, what made this rice so special were its superior flavor, aroma, texture and cooking qualities. By the early 18th century, rice became a major export crop of the Lower South. By the 1850’s, South Carolina and Georgia were producing more than 90% of the U.S. rice crop.

Slaves who were brought over from Africa and the West Indies carved Rice fields, still visible today, out of tidal swamp along coastal rivers. They built canals, dikes, and trunks (which are small floodgates), with very primitive tools, clearing the low-lying land of huge cypress and gum trees. This tidal flow method allowed them to flood or drain the fields with high or low tide. It also transformed the coastal Southeast between 1783 and the early nineteenth century. This highly productive method, however, was only practical for the lower stretches of just a few rivers from Cape Fear in North Carolina to northern Florida. Up until the Civil War, slaves planted, tended, and harvested the fields, therefore, making plantation owners wealthy people. Rice plantations, however, required a large amount of capital investment and a huge amount of backbreaking labor. The hydraulic system of a rice plantation required constant maintenance by skilled slaves. Historically, Carolina Gold owed much of its appeal to the way in which it was milled. On a daily basis, African slave women would hand pound hulls from grains, then they were scrubbed white through abrasion. This rice contained whole and broken grains, with germ and flecks of bran intact, and thus the rice held an exquisite texture and flavor. For more than 200 years after that, there would be little change for rice in the United States.

The Civil War and Reconstruction seriously affected the rice culture, as planters, facing chronic labor shortages, were no longer able to compel work in the harsh environments of the rice fields. With a series of devastating hurricanes in the 1890’s that ruined the rice fields, the end had come for the commercial rice growing in the Southeast. Rice growing then ended entirely after the Depression.

Carolina Gold rice differs from other long grain rice because of its starch quality. Depending on how it is cooked, it can produce a fluffy, a creamy risotto, or sticky, Asian-style rice. The Carolina Gold Rice Foundation was formed to advance the sustainable restoration and preservation of Carolina Gold Rice. Their exclusive new crop rice, praised by rice growers around the world, is grown at historic Cherokee Tract on the Stono River in Charleston, South Carolina. This is a pure heirloom Carolina Gold Rice. Highly perishable, it must be stored in the freezer to preserve its subtle almond and green tea aroma and flavor. For tasty Carolina rice recipes, see their website.

For more information on rice, visit the Rice Museum in Georgetown (about a one-hour drive from downtown Charleston). It is located in the Old Market Building and is a prominent symbol of Georgetown County. Another way to learn more about rice is to explore a former rice plantation by kayak or canoe, with a certified instructor and naturalist. Hampton Plantation State Historic Site and a local outfitter, join to offer this relaxing history lesson, as you paddle through the old rice canals. Just a few different, fun ways to learn more about rice and the critical importance it played in shaping the history of Charleston and its surrounding areas!

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