There Was Rice

Duncan Clinch Heyward wrote Seed from Madagascar in the 1930s. He wrote to chronicle rice cultivation in the Lowcountry from its beginnings in the late 17th Century to its end in the early 20th Century

First edition…still think it was designed to look like an old croker sack

According to Hewyard, it was rumored that Captain John Thurber gave rice seed to Dr. Henry Woodward while Thurber’s vessel harbored in Charleston. From whence came that rice seed? You got it. Madagascar. At least that’s how Mr. Heyward tells the story of the beginnings of rice culture round these environs. That tale is repeated in the Rice section of that venerable Charleston cooking tome, Charleston Receipts

“Long before there were cobblestone streets along the Charleston battery, there was rice, and there were slaves – the twin pillars upon which colonial Carolina wealth was built.” Duncan Clinch Heyward. Seed from Madagascar, The University of North Carolina Press, Chapel Hill (1937)

I have copy number 4593 of the original printing. Mr. Heyward claimed to be a distaff relation of Dr. Woodward, too.

From 1685 to 1914, rice grew in the Lowcountry in large amounts. The Big Gun Shoot ended slavery. Hurricanes in the late 19th and early 20th centuries inundated rice fields which could never recover. Subsidence of flooded land didn’t help either. Neither did the discovery that rice could be grown cheaper and easier in Arkansas, Louisiana, and Texas

Local farmers have brought back rice growing round these parts in the last few decades, but we will never be the rice kingdom we once were

Carolina gold indeed

Despite not having large scale rice production for over a hundred years, this part of the world still eats a lot of rice. LOTS of rice.

Mashed potatoes at Thanksgiving? Hell no

It’s always rice and gravy.

Any good meat and three restaurant round these parts always includes rice as a vegetable

Old joke:

Why are Charlestonians like the Chinese?

They eat rice and worship their ancestors

And, oh, what rice they eat! Almost all versions of which evolved from West African cooking through the same people who planted, tended, harvested, winnowed, and packaged the rice for market

From plain white rice steamed hard in the old school rice steamer, to Hoppin’ John on New Year’s Day, to Limpin’ Susan with okra, to all manner of pilaus, and, to get to the point at last, cooked with onions, bacon, and tomato paste to make red rice

Some people add a little sausage to it

Red rice is my all time favorite rice dish, which food historians now tell us is an adaptation of Jollof rice from West Africa. Makes sense considering the slaves who grew the rice were brought from West Africa because of their ability to handle a rice crop

There was rice

There were slaves

My mother makes a baked version with shrimp and sausage. It’s devine. She makes it in an old Le Creuset Dutch oven with a tight fitting lid

The old Piggly Wiggly at the Sea Island Shopping Center in Mount Pleasant made the best red rice. Hands down. Each grain separated. Each grain coated with tomato, bacon grease, a little salt sugar, pepper. Onions cooked to almost liquid. Sausage coins throughout. A little heat from black pepper, but not much else.

I make the red rice from Charleston Receipts. I steam it hard in the old aluminum rice steamer that my parents gave me. It had been given them as a present in the early days of their moving to Beaufort

When I was in college in Chapel Hill, my aunt and uncle who lived there would ask me to make them some red rice and bring it over from time to time. They would freeze it. Both from South Carolina, they just couldn’t find red rice in The Southern Part of Heaven in Orange County, North Carolina

I think red rice might be a dish served from Brunswick, GA, up to Wilmington, NC. The old rice growing areas of the Southeast. I don’t see it anywhere else on the menu

I was asked by a pal in Charlotte, NC, to share the recipe, or I guess I should say receipt

In the old seafood restaurants round here, seafood was always accompanied by red rice and cole slaw

The Shrimp Shack outside of Beaufort always serves red rice with their seafood. It’s perfection, too

This goes great with any manner of fish, shrimp, crab

It’s gluten free

It’s not Keto

It’s not vegan

It is a balm to the soul

If you don’t have a rice steamer, make the rice as set forth below, but add four cups of water, turn into a baking dish large enough to hold all the ingredients, and cover tightly with a lid or with foil and bake for 40-45 minutes, stirring a couple of times

But, really, if you don’t have a rice steamer, then, well, bless your heart

Just kidding

As I said above, my mother has baked her red rice for decades and decades, and it’s amazingly delicious with the addition of shrimp and sausage. I probably should get her receipt

But, I still steam mine

Jeanne Sams Aimar, whom I called Memar, our across the street neighbor growing up, has her version of red rice printed in Sea Island Seasons. Memar steamed her red rice. However, right next to Memar’s version is Mary Olive Whitney’s baked version. No right or wrong to it. Steam it or bake it.

This version is an adaptation of the Red Rice as printed in Charleston Receipts submitted by Mrs. Charles Gibbs (Wilmot Welch).

Scattered, smothered, covered, wrinkled, annotated

Red Rice

1 can tomato paste

3 cans of water – will make sense in a minute

1 large yellow onion, chopped fine

2 tsps salt

2 tsps sugar – yes – sugar

5 slices bacon

1 tbsp or more fresh ground pepper

2 cups raw rice – do not use Uncle Ben’s – trust me

Cook bacon until crisp in a large sauté pan. Remove bacon and crumble when cool. Sauté onions in bacon grease until soft. Do not brown. Add tomato paste, then fill tomato paste can up with water. Add to the onions and tomato paste. Do that two more times for a total of three cans of water. Told you it would make sense. Add salt, sugar, pepper. Cook until smooth, about 5 minutes. Place rice in top of rice steamer and add tomato paste mixture and mix well with a fork. Fill bottom of steamer with as much water so to steam hard but not to touch the bottom of the part that holds the rice. If you steam rice, then you know what I mean. Steam hard for 1/2 hour. Add the bacon and mix well. Steam for another 30 to 40 minutes. If it seems too dry, you can add another half cup of water. You generally don’t have too. Fluff with a fork to mix any sauce that has settled on the top.

Again, if no rice steamer is in your kitchen, add four cups of water and not three cans of water, turn into a baking dish large enough to hold all the ingredients, including the bacon, cover tightly with foil and bake for 40-45 minutes, stirring a couple of times

Serve hot

I put a little hot sauce on the table when I serve it. Tabasco. Texas Pete. Whatever you like

As you savor each bite of goodness, remember to thank John Thurber, Henry Woodward, Wilmot Welch Gibbs (Mrs. Charles), and the thousands of slaves whose names will we never know who really brought, grew, harvested, and taught us to cook that seed from Madagascar

7 thoughts on “There Was Rice

  1. Loved this. My grandmother who was born in Charleston in late 19th century said they had rice 3 times a day.
    And for sure, rice and gravy always over mashed potatoes and gravy.
    Keep writing-


  2. Two things:
    Have you read The Carolina Rice Kitchen?

    My mother’s Aiken family married some Woodwards. My daughter’s middle name is Woodward. I’ve ever checked the relationship with Henry.


  3. Great timing, I called my sister several days ago about this recipe. Our mother had this same one. She cooked her rice in a small cast aluminum pot with a tight fitting lid. I am going to bake mine. Can’t wait,having for lunch today. Must have over looked this in the Charleston cook book. For the love of great memories,Loyd

    Liked by 1 person

  4. I had red rice for dinner last night,used your mother’s technique with the LeCruset pot in the oven. So good! Thanks so much,looking forward to getting more ideas from you. Loyd

    Liked by 1 person

  5. So, Chronicler, fine writing! Yet, I am left wondering – which size tomato paste can? The one the size of about 1/3 of a sleeve of Ritz Crackers, I suppose? cjh

    I have to give Alex Sanders credit for measuring ingredients in terms of “a sleeve.” Ritz, Saltines, the cracker isn’t the focus.


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