Rice is an overlooked culinary component, often viewed as a necessary, but not particularly flavourful, staple to a meal. It’s a supporting cast member to the star on the plate, the designated driver of all things delicious.
But then there’s Carolina Gold rice – a product so sought after in the 18th and most of the 19th Centuries, both in North America and in Europe, that it made the Lowcountry and Charleston, South Carolina, one of the richest areas in the United States for a time. In the mid-18th century in Bluffton, rice fields sprawled throughout much of the forested land south of the May River, as the grain became the South Carolina colony’s most lucrative crop.
Carolina Gold rice was named for the unique rice fields, which turn a gleaming gold when ready to harvest.
“What I love about Carolina Gold,” said chef Michelle Weaver, who specializes in Southern cooking , “is that it’s the most diverse rice I’ve ever worked with. It can work as sticky rice, in porridge, in risotto, whatever you need.”
Despite a subtle nuttiness, the rice is not particularly aromatic, which means it inherits the flavours it’s sharing the plate with.
Some have called Carolina Gold the world’s greatest rice. But the crop nearly disappeared in the late 19th and early 20th Centuries. First, the Civil War wiped out many of the ancient rice fields. Then two massive hurricanes swept through South Carolina in 1910 and 1911, destroying the 30% of the rice industry that had managed to recover. Finally, the Great Depression in 1929 was the knockout punch, putting an end to commercial harvests.
“Then, in the 1950s, [the brand] Uncle Ben’s comes in,” said chef Sean Brock of Husk, one of Charleston’s most acclaimed eateries. “That’s when rice went into [a] mass produced, total mechanized phase of production.”
As a result, Carolina Gold disappeared for most of the 20th Century. Until, that is, Dr Richard Schultz, an eye doctor from Savannah, found Carolina Gold seeds sitting unloved and unused in a USDA seed bank in the mid-1980s. He mainly wanted to find a rice to use as bait in his duck-hunting hobby, but eventually produced enough to begin selling it to the public. By 1998, Anson Mills, which specializes in heirloom southern grains and vegetables, began planting it.
Essentially, the rice industry in South Carolina – and the rest of the U.S. – mirrors what happened to the US beer industry. Large-scale corporations had wiped out small businesses by the mid-20th Century, only for artisanal methods and small-batch production to re-emerge in the late 1990s. Small, local breweries are now enjoying a full-on, trendy resurgence.
This article is excerpted from “The Story of Carolina Gold, the Best Rice You’ve Never Tasted.” Read the full text at www.seriouseats.com.