On the Carolina coast, rice reigns.
"Charleston, in a sense, was built by rice, and the rice was only made possible by the knowledge of the West Africans who were enslaved and brought here," said Jeff Allen, a researcher, author and agriculturalist focusing on historical foodways and sustainable production.
Rice's economic impact faded after the Civil War, but its importance in the kitchen never waned.
"Rice was served to everyone in the house, including the pets, 365 days a year," said Glenn Roberts, a founder of the Carolina Gold Rice Foundation. He grew up in California with a mother from South Carolina. "She was raised in that black-skillet environment -- first pot on the stove was rice."
"My mother liked to do rice and gravy" as a side dish, he said. She would heat a skillet "screeching hot," pour in bacon fat, add cold steamed rice and cook until crispy, then serve it with gravy. For breakfast, she'd make crispy rice and scramble in some eggs. For a main dish, she'd add chicken or another protein to rice and make a pilaflike dish known variously as perlou, pirlou, pilau, perloo, purloo and perlew.
Cookbook author Vertamae Smart-Grosvenor also grew up eating rice every day. "The most important thing about rice is that you cook it proper," she said. She carefully rinses the rice in three changes of water, ensuring that every trace of stickiness is washed away. Cooked rice should not stick together, she said. "Every grain to itself," she told a group of food journalists meeting in Charleston in October.
Allen, Southern cooking authority Damon Lee Fowler and chef Charlotte Jenkins joined Smart-Grosvenor in a session on the region's foodways; Roberts spoke about rice at another session and expanded upon his remarks in a telephone interview.
Today, Roberts and his foundation are working to re-establish historic varieties of Carolina rice. He also is a founder of Anson Mills, which sells Carolina Gold Rice, primarily to chefs.
"I like to describe it as a spicy floral with almost an almond characteristic," he said. "A lot of people like talking about mineral and hazelnut."
Carolina Plantation Rice is raising and selling Charleston Gold, which Roberts describes as the daughter of Carolina Gold. Charleston Gold is a "long-grain, slightly aromatic rice, high nutty, bordering on popcorn," he said. Now Roberts is working on reviving a variety called Carolina Long. "It was the most expensive rice in the world right up to the Civil War," he said. "Charleston Gold is the first step into moving toward what that rice was."
Smart-Grosvenor's recipes call for long-grain white rice; Jenkins uses converted white rice, which has been soaked and pressure-steamed and cooks up into separate grains. Smart-Grosvenor calls herself a Geechee; Jenkins says she is Gullah. Both words describe people from the coast and isolated barrier islands stretching from southern North Carolina to northern Florida.
Fowler said that defining who is a Geechee or Gullah was easier than defining their cooking. "The cooking is consistently changing," he said. "There's a constant evolution when you're talking about food and the interaction people have with food."
>South Carolina Shrimp Perlou
1 pound medium shrimp
2 tablespoons crab boil seasoning
1 small yellow onion
3 cloves garlic
1 cup long-grain white rice
3 thick slices bacon
Ground black pepper
Peel the shrimp, reserving the shells. Make a shallow incision along the back of each shrimp and lift out and discard the veinlike tract. Cover and refrigerate the shrimp.
Place the shrimp shells in a saucepan; add 2 1/2 cups water and the crab boil seasoning. Bring to a boil, reduce the heat to medium-low, and simmer, uncovered, for 15 minutes. Strain the stock through a fine-mesh sieve into a measuring pitcher; you should have 2 cups. Set aside.
Meanwhile, chop the onion and mince the garlic. Peel and chop the tomatoes. Rinse the rice in three or four changes of water, until water remains clear. Drain the rice.
In a heavy skillet over medium-high heat, cook bacon until crisp, 3 to 5 minutes. Using tongs or a slotted spoon, transfer bacon to paper towels to drain. Add onion, garlic and rice to bacon drippings in skillet; cook, stirring frequently, until all the ingredients are coated with fat and the rice kernels are beginning to turn opaque, 3 to 4 minutes.
Add tomatoes, salt and pepper to taste and the reserved 2 cups shrimp stock. Bring to a boil over medium-high heat, reduce the heat to low, cover, and cook until the liquid is nearly absorbed and the rice is almost done, 20 to 30 minutes.
Stir in the shrimp, re-cover, and cook until the shrimp turn pink and the liquid is fully absorbed, 5 to 8 minutes. Transfer to a serving dish, crumble the bacon over the top, and serve.
Per serving: 215 calories; 2.5g fat; 0.5g saturated fat; 115mg cholesterol; 16g protein; 31g carbohydrate; 2g sugar; 1g fiber; 870mg sodium; 45mg calcium.
Note: "Perlou, pirlou, perloo, perlew. They all mean the same thing," Smart-Grosvenor notes in the introduction to this recipe. "This is the signature rice dish of South Carolina. It can be made with shrimp, as it is here, or with meats, sausage, vegetables -- really, anything you have in the pantry."
-- Adapted from "Vertamae Cooks in the American Family Kitchen" (KQED Books, 1996)
>Mama Julia's Sunday Red Rice
4 thick slices bacon
2 thick slices boneless ham (about 3/4 pound), chopped
1/2 cup chopped onion
1/2 cup chopped green bell pepper
1/4 cup chopped celery
1 (15-ounce) can tomato sauce
2 2/3 cups water
1 tablespoon dried basil
1 bay leaf
1/4 teaspoon granulated sugar
2 cups raw converted white rice (Uncle Ben's preferred)
Ground black pepper
Fry bacon in a heavy-bottom pot to render the fat. Remove bacon and reserve for another use.
Saute ham, onion, green pepper and celery in the bacon fat until tender, about 5 minutes.
Add tomato sauce, water, basil, bay leaf and sugar. Stir to combine and bring to a boil. Add rice, cover, and simmer for 20 to 25 minutes or until rice is tender.
Remove the bay leaf. Add salt and pepper to taste. Fluff with a fork and serve. Serves 6.
Per serving: 305 calories; 12g fat; 4g saturated fat; 35mg cholesterol; 14g protein; 35g carbohydrate; 4g sugar; 2g fiber; 1,150mg sodium; 50mg calcium.
-- Adapted from "Gullah Cuisine," with recipes by chef Charlotte Jenkins (Evening Post Publishing Co., $36.95)
>Carolina Gold Rice Pudding
3/4 cup Carolina Gold or arborio rice (see note)
1 (14-ounce) can coconut milk
1/8 teaspoon ground cinnamon
3/8 teaspoon fine sea salt, divided
4 large egg yolks
1/4 cup granulated sugar
1 1/2 cups whole milk
1/2 vanilla bean, split in half lengthwise and pulp scraped, or 1/2 teaspoon vanilla extract
3/4 cup heavy cream, whipped until soft peaks form
Rum-macerated raisins, for optional garnish (see note)
Mix rice, coconut milk, cinnamon and 1/4 teaspoon salt in a heavy-bottomed pot. Bring just to a boil, stirring frequently, then reduce the heat to a slow simmer, cover the pot, and cook for about 20 to 25 minutes, until rice is tender.
If liquid is absorbed before rice is cooked through, stir in some water and continue cooking. Fork the cooked rice onto a sheet pan and allow to cool completely.
Whisk egg yolks and sugar together in a small bowl. Set aside.
Bring milk, vanilla and the remaining 1/8 teaspoon salt just to a simmer in a medium saucepan. Remove from heat. Slowly whisk a ladle of hot milk into the yolk mixture to warm (temper) the yolks. Return the saucepan to the heat.
Slowly pour the yolk mixture into the simmering milk, stirring constantly over low heat with a wooden spoon until the custard thickens and coats the back of a spoon, about 3 minutes. Remove from the heat, pour into a mixing bowl (through a strainer if necessary), and let cool.
Mix the rice with the custard in a mixing bowl. Fold in the whipped cream. Cover and chill until ready to serve. If desired, garnish with rum-macerated raisins.
Serves 6 to 8.
Per serving (based on 8): 300 calories; 21g fat; 15g saturated fat; 140mg cholesterol; 5g protein; 24g carbohydrate; 9g sugar; 1g fiber; 130mg sodium; 85mg calcium.
-- Recipe from chef Micah Garrison, Middleton Place Plantation, Charleston, S.C.
*Carolina Gold rice can be ordered from Anson Mills, ansonmills.com and 803-467-4122.
*To make rum-macerated raisins, warm 3/4 cup rum in a skillet; light carefully with a long-handled match. When the flames die out, pour rum over 1/2 cup golden raisins in a heat-proof bowl. Let sit, preferably overnight.