Middleton Place this month planted its rice fields, kicking off a growing season that concludes in mid-September. But the work of rice production doesn't stop with the harvest.
Before the Civil War, enslaved African and African-American women were tasked with the laborious job of pounding raw Carolina gold rice in a wooden mortar and screening it in a fanner basket. The end result was the polished white grains for which the Lowcountry was internationally renowned.
But not all of the delicate grains survived the process whole. About 30 percent of the grains broke, a rate that's held steady with the introduction of modern equipment.
Since the brokens, or middlins, weren't suitable for export, Lowcountry cooks had to find something to do with them. Paired with peas or thickened with benne flour, the technically flawed rice became a cornerstone of the region's cuisine. (Fractured rice also is well-known in West Africa, Thailand and Vietnam, where the cheaper grains anchor com tam, a popular grilled pork dish.)
South Carolinians prized middlins for their round, creamy texture, which acts like a magnet for flavorful sauces. "I'm really taken with them," this year's winner of the James Beard award for Best Chef Southeast, Ashley Christensen, told Bon Appetit magazine in 2011. "I like keeping them really simple and velvety, where you get the nuttiness and natural sweetness of the rice."
Christensen was likely introduced to middlins by Anson Mills, the South Carolina company that spearheaded the Carolina gold rice revival. Anson Mills' middlins - sold under the name "rice grits" - have shown up at Charleston restaurants including FIG, Husk and Two Boroughs Larder. According to Southern Living, Anson Mills now has to purposely break rice to keep up with the middlin demands of professional chefs and home cooks.