“Sweetie, buy a rice cooker,” red beans-and-rice maestro Pableaux Johnson advised fellow food writer Kim Severson when she asked him for perfect rice advice. “That’s how little old Cajun ladies roll and little old Japanese ladies roll.”
But that’s not exactly how Charlestonians roll. Long before the 1950s, when Toshiba Electric Corporation started marketing a plug-in cooker, Lowcountry cooks had adopted a stovetop gadget for producing tender, separate grains of rice.
“Charlestonians believe rice steamers are the ordained way to glory land,” The Island Packet’s David Lauderdale wrote in a 2013 ode to the three-piece pot.
The Charleston Rice Steamer works on the double-boiler principle, with a boiling basket supporting the inset where the rice goes. Mary Geer DiRaddo, who wrote a cookbook celebrating the contraption, in 2008 told The Post and Courier’s Teresa Taylor that local cooks were so confident in the steamer that they never peeked under its lid. “Very few Charleston ladies could cook rice in a saucepan,” she said.
Although Charleston Cooks now sells an Italian-made version of the steamer, the traditional model was manufactured by WearEver, a company launched in 1903 by ALCOA.
Fifteen years after Oberlin, Ohio, inventor Charles Martin Hall hit on a method for producing inexpensive aluminum, consumers were still wary of eating off it. WearEver popularized its aluminum cookware through a corps of college students who sold pots and pans door-to-door.
The company kept up its promotional activities even after the U.S. Marine Corps contracted with WearEver to supply its utensils: In 1929, the prizes distributed at an Atlanta cooking program included a 24-pound sack of flour, a meringue pie and a card table. And as The Journal Constitution reported, “Margie Belle Russell of 318 Sixth Street, Apt. 2 won a Wearever waterless cooker.”
In Charleston, many cooks purchased their steamers from Kerrison Dry Goods. The store in 1969 tried to lure News and Courier readers with steamers priced at $7.88, just a few cents cheaper than a man’s seersucker robe. “Holds in natural flavors, vitamins, etc.,” the ad promised.
Edwin Poulnot, whose family owned Kerrison, “has gone to great lengths to keep people supplied with Charleston rice steamers, still a popular wedding gift,” Lauderdale wrote. Poulnot first imported three-cup steamers from Brazil, then switched to a Mexican producer in order to supply The Vegetable Bin and Burbage’s. “Enough for eight Charlestonians or 16 Yankees,” a sign accompanying their display promised.
Charleston Rice Cookers now sell for $40-$110 through online retailers, including charlestongiftsonline.com. Locally, there’s a stack of $39.95 steamers by the door of Royall Hardware in Mount Pleasant. As DiRaddo said, “you get very tasty results.”