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A James Island meat-and-two secretly switched to Carolina Gold rice. Here's what happened.

  • 5 min to read

Angie Bellinger has only once bought short-grain rice.

As a young girl on James Island, she was sent to the market with a shopping list and returned with rice that literally didn’t measure up to her mother’s expectations.

“Lord, she was not happy,” recalls Bellinger, who’s boiled rice nearly every day since she opened Workmen’s Café in 2001 just down the street from her childhood home. Bellinger’s mother sent her back to the store to make sure she didn’t ever make the mistake again.

“I learned from being in the kitchen with my mom that short-grain rice doesn’t cook very well,” Bellinger said.

Twice a week, Bellinger fixes red rice. “When I’m off, I check Facebook to see if she’s serving red rice,” said Uptown Social executive chef Jonathan Kaldas, one of dozens of young white men who’ve made Workmen’s a regular habit.

She’s also experimented with brown rice, which gets its cast from beef broth. Also yellow rice, made with a few shakes of Badia Amarillo coloring. When she’s in a good mood, it's shrimp fried rice. The constant, though, is plain white rice, seated on the steam table alongside lima beans.

Regardless of how the rice is prepared, it comes from a 25-pound bag of Riceland brand parboiled. Bellinger buys the bags at Restaurant Depot or Sam’s Club for $10 apiece.

By contrast, the same amount of Carolina Gold rice retails for approximately $175.

Largely because of price, the heirloom grain, which has become both a fixture and symbol of Charleston’s downtown restaurant scene, is completely absent from area meat-and-threes, seafood joints and other casual restaurants owned by descendants of the enslaved Africans and African Americans who cultivated the city’s defining cash crop. It’s hard to make up the difference in cost by selling rice and limas for $5 a bowl.

“I’ve heard of it, but I’m thinking it’s more like for Husk,” Bellinger said when asked if she’d ever considered serving Carolina Gold, which has been hailed as revelatory by cooks and food writers alike. (Bellinger’s right about the Husk connection: founding chef Sean Brock in his 2014 cookbook described Carolina Gold as “the most flavorful rice I have ever tasted.”)

But Carolina Gold, which was returned to commercial circulation in the late 1980s, poses another problem, too. Its grains aren’t particularly long.

Still, Bellinger agreed to swap out her standard rice on a recent Wednesday for Carolina Gold donated by Anson Mills at The Post and Courier’s request. In the style of the old hidden-camera Folger’s commercials, in which instant crystals were substituted for brewed coffee at the nation’s toniest restaurants, customers weren’t alerted to the switch.

Would they notice? Would they care? Would they complain? Bellinger feared the latter.

The switch is in

From the moment her shipment of freshly milled Carolina Gold rice arrived, Bellinger was skeptical. First, she was put off by accompanying instructions, which advised the rice would keep best in the freezer. Bellinger allots most of her limited refrigerator and freezer space to uncooked meat and leftovers from yesterday’s lunch, demoted from the steam table to secondary ingredient status.

“The secret to my red rice — and I tried to pass the secret on to my best friend —is I save my broth from my broccoli casserole, so the waste is very minimal,” said Bellinger, who also chops up cold fried chicken for her recipe. She explained her process as she gathered what she needed to make barbecue pork ribs, turkey wings, collards, mac-and-cheese, cornbread and biscuits before opening her door at 11 a.m.

Second, she wasn’t sure how the very cold grains would react when stirred into simmering tomato sauce.

“It’s immediately going to drop the temperature on that red rice,” she said, shaking her head.

Bellinger simultaneously prepared a pot of unseasoned Carolina Gold the way her mother taught her 43 years ago.

“She said if you can see rice through the water, you don’t have enough water,” she said.

Once the rice was ready, she scrutinized it.

“I can see it’s going to be a little sticky; it’s too tight,” she said, before turning away from the pot. “This rice has got me scared. I’m going to leave it alone.”

Just before service, Bellinger tasted it.

“It’s a coarser texture,” she said. “The flavor’s there, but I just don’t like the texture. It reminds me of grainy grits, and I grew up eating grits. I’d rather have cream of wheat.”

As for the red rice, Bellinger declared the grains had adequately soaked up the sauce. But she still wasn’t pleased with their dimensions, which just barely merit a long grain designation, reserved for grains five times longer than they are wide.

“Yeah, I don’t like this rice,” she said. “If nothing else, this rice is suited for risotto.” (In the realm of Lowcountry cooking, that’s not a compliment.)

By the time customers arrived, Bellinger was distancing herself from the red rice made with Carolina Gold.

“I already don’t like it, but it’s not for me,” she warned one man who asked for it on his plate. “It’s for the customers.”

Customers’ opinions rule at Workmen’s. Bellinger scaled back the salt in her meatloaf to satisfy customer requests, and adjusted her mac-and-cheese to please a patron who identified himself as a macaroni connoisseur. Yet customers didn’t have much to offer about the red Carolina Gold rice.

“It’s really good, but her red rice is always good,” Jimmy Cole said.

Shorter wait for the long stuff

Glenn Roberts, the Anson Mills founder who’s credited with rescuing Carolina Gold from near-extinction, has heard other cooks fret about the stubby character of its grains.

“In the Black Belt, in Alabama and Mississippi, they always ask, ‘Is this really long grain?’ ” he said. He always responds affirmatively, but in an interview admits, “Honestly, it cooks like a medium grain.”

Roberts is sympathetic to the concerns because he didn’t revive Carolina Gold as a vanity project or sentimentality exercise. He’s interested in restoring pre-industrial varieties of rice — as well as wheat, corn and rye — because they contain genetic material, which agronomists may need to stabilize the food supply on a warming planet. But farmers are unlikely to grow crops of yore if consumers don’t want them, so Roberts is working with scientists to bring back strains with widespread appeal.

Namely, Carolina Long Gold is about two years away from release.

“Carolina Gold is right at the goal line, but Carolina Long Gold is the touchdown,” Roberts said.

As first reported by The Post and Courier in 2017, Carolina Long Gold measures about one-eighth of an inch longer than Carolina Gold. When U.S. Department of Agriculture geneticist Anna McClung started her trials, Roberts’ co-conspirator and historian David Shields described Carolina Long Gold as “the foremost agricultural casualty of the Civil War.”

According to Roberts, long grain rice was historically prized in rice-growing regions of Africa, but it’s unclear precisely when, where and how Carolina Long Gold’s genetic antecedents emerged. What is known is Carolina Long Gold was the longest long-grain rice on Earth when Georgetown area planters started to promote it.

“It still holds the record for highest market price in the Western Hemisphere,” Roberts said. “But it only made it to the European market because they were consuming every bit of it. Monarchs were willing to pay anything for it.”

Long Gold was only sold for a few decades before the Civil War wiped out the crop. McClung is now working with 100 distinct cultivars to back breed the lost strain.

“It’s huge, but she’s making it longer every year,” Roberts said.

Back at Workmen’s Café, Bellinger is plotting to retire just before the restaurant’s 20th anniversary, which means she’ll no longer be in the kitchen when Carolina Long Gold is available. But if the heirloom grain’s ready sooner, she might give it a try, depending on the price and storage requirements.

For now, though, she’s gone back to making her red rice with Riceland parboiled. Her customers seem to like it that way.

Reach Hanna Raskin at 843-937-5560 and follow her on Twitter @hannaraskin.

Food editor and chief critic

Eating all of the chicken livers just as fast as I can.