Despite deep Lowcountry ties, the story of rice still not known by visitors
As the Carolina Belle cruises the Cooper River, guests aboard the Charleston Harbor Tours’ boat are pumped with patter about military campaigns, real estate prices and Blackbeard the pirate.
If a fierce wind doesn’t drown out the P.A. broadcast, and the mixed drinks sloshing about in plastic cups aren’t too much of a distraction, passengers can learn where Abner Doubleday was stationed and which laboratory produced a YouTube video of shrimp on a treadmill.
What’s never mentioned on the 75-minute excursion, even when the captain dutifully informs his audience that Charleston was once the richest city in Colonial Americam, is rice. And Charleston Harbor Tours isn’t unique in its evasion of the region’s defining grain.
In a highly unscientific survey that involved multiple horse-drawn carriage tours, this reporter heard plenty about cobblestones and crepe myrtles, but the word “rice” was uttered only once, and then retracted: “He has a bumper crop of rice, well, actually cotton,” a Palmetto Carriage guide said in setting up the story of a planter.
It’s impossible to overstate the influence rice had on the physical bearing and cultural contours of Charleston.
Yet despite the valiant efforts of educational institutions such as the Charleston Museum, which devotes 1,500 square feet to the history of Lowcountry rice cultivation, and rice revivalists such as Anson Mills’ Glenn Roberts, who has labored to popularize Carolina Gold, the message isn’t reaching many visitors.
The typical tourist is more likely to associate the city with shrimp and corn grits than a bowlful of hoppin’ John.
“I’m going to say seven times out of 10, they don’t even know we grew rice,” says Bill Ussery, owner of Gita’s Gourmet in the Charleston City Market. Ussery sells bags of Carolina Plantation rice, to the endless perplexity of shoppers: “They ask, ‘What does this mean, Carolina rice?’”
Why rice is overlooked
Perhaps it’s not surprising that visitors are slipping in and out of Charleston without ever encountering rice. Most guided tours, which Convention and Visitors Bureau research shows is the “favorite aspect” of a Charleston trip for 34 percent of tourists, aren’t long on nuance.
Why rice is overlooked
“They’re not going to be talking about rice per se if they’re walking down the street,” says Vanessa Turner Maybank, who as the city’s director of tourism oversees the guide certification program. (According to Turner Maybank, rice is a recurring theme of continuing education sessions for guides, but she declined to reveal how the topic’s covered in the $45 exam study manual.)
But organizers of the Lowcountry Rice Culture Project, which last week convened a forum of rice experts and enthusiasts in hopes of stimulating more local discussion of the subject, argue the woeful state of rice awareness doesn’t merely represent another gap in Americans’ historical knowledge.
Failing to acknowledge rice, they say, is tantamount to ignoring West African contributions to the region and sidestepping the role South Carolina played in accelerating the slave trade and sowing an economy reliant on human abuse.
“In 1860, there were 14 people in the whole country who owned 500 or more slaves,” says Bob Sherman, an agricultural interpreter at Middleton Place. “Eight of them lived in the Lowcountry. Some historians would argue rice is the cause of the Civil War.”
Sherman tends Middleton’s quarter-acre rice field, which was harvested last week. He speculates that folks from beyond the Lowcountry erroneously believe cotton and tobacco were the only viable Southern crops because rice production has less contemporary relevance — the industry faltered east of the Mississippi decades before the furthest reaches of any living person’s memory — and because they can’t quite picture it.
“We’re a very visual culture,” Sherman says, pointing out that the decline of South Carolina rice coincides with the ascent of photography. There aren’t many 18th-century images of active rice fields, so textbooks and television documentaries often illustrate the hardships faced by enslaved African-Americans with photographs of post-Emancipation cotton pickers.
“You can tell a cotton plant pretty quickly,” fellow interpreter Jeff Neale adds. Until rice is ready to harvest, “it looks like weeds.”
Bringing it home
Even along tourist-trod avenues, there are crannies of deeper rice consideration. At McCrady’s, for instance, chef Sean Brock, an inveterate rice champion who devoted an entire episode of his upcoming PBS series “The Mind of a Chef” to rice, reserves one course on his tasting menu for an unadorned bowl of rice.
Bringing it home
“It’s everybody’s favorite dish, because it comes with a story,” Brock says, adding with a laugh, “which says something about my cooking.”
Yet tourists aren’t the only ones potentially missing out on rice’s local meaning.
According to Lowcountry Rice Culture Project Executive Director Jane Aldrich, area schoolchildren whose standard diets are legacies of Lowcountry rice production don’t always know why there’s a 50-pound sack of rice in their pantries.
Although elementary schools in the Charleston County district are eligible to check out a “traveling rice trunk” with objects including rice seeds, replica Colonial currency, a fanner basket and a miniature drum, rice history is not a required element of the schools’ curricula.
“The discussion works backward,” Aldrich says of the lessons she leads in middle school classrooms. “Who eats rice? Who eats it every day? Who eats rice more than once a day? I then let them know that West Africans grow rice and exist on it. What they discover in the process is that they are carrying on a cultural experience of their ancestors.”
The U.S. Department of Agriculture doesn’t track exactly how much rice is eaten in the Lowcountry. As Dan Sumner, director of the University of California Agricultural Issues Center, explains, rice consumption statistics are difficult to compile because people shop across state lines and eat processed products made with rice flours and other byproducts.
Even without hard data, though, it’s clear to Charleston grocery managers and lunchroom cooks who sling lima beans that rice is a staple in many local households. Visitors, though, might not ever guess it.
“No one knows about rice when they come here,” Middleton Place spokesperson Warren Cobb says. “They think it was cotton. It’s one of those unknown things that rice ruled. And that’s not for lack of promotion or education, because we try.”
Eleven years ago, Middleton planted its demonstration rice field, underscoring the site’s intention to convey to its 100,000 annual visitors the significance of rice. It’s now conceivable that just as Charleston’s original structure and society was determined by what happened on its surrounding plantations, so, too, will its interpretive strategies eventually well up from those tracts.
Reach Hanna Raskin at 937-5560.