Before the Civil War, a variety of rice called Carolina Gold helped make Charleston, South Carolina, the richest city in America. A short carriage ride south of Charleston, the area’s last rice planter, Duncan Clinch Heyward, wrote in his 1937 memoir Seed from Madagascar—which addresses race as much as rice—that his great-grandfather Nathaniel Heyward referred to his antebellum rice fields as “gold mines.” Mature Carolina Gold rice grains certainly look golden, especially in the late afternoon sun. After it’s been milled, the rice is white, but the long grains earned their reputation by being fluffy and sweet.
Charleston reigned at the center of a 300-mile-long by 20-mile-wide sliver of rice-growing coastal land from southern North Carolina to northern Florida. Sixteen rivers and their estuaries spill through this low country with high tides of 4 to 6 feet. The rising seawater forced the rivers to run in reverse twice a day, pushing freshwater into the rice fields.
According to Judith Carney’s book Black Rice: The African Origins of Rice Cultivation in the Americas, when systems devised by Venetian canal builders failed, rice planters learned to rely on the imported knowledge of their West African slaves, who guided the river water with embankments and hollow tree trunks. The Africans knew when to close the floodgates to keep saltwater out because a bar of lye soap would stop lathering as the river became brackish.
In the economic and cultural upheaval that followed the Civil War, rice plantations began to disappear. The younger Heyward stopped growing rice in 1913. After that, highly prized Carolina Gold rice was almost lost, replaced by varieties more suited to mechanical harvesting west of the Mississippi River.
But just a bit further south in the 1980s, Richard Shulze, a Savannah eye surgeon, bought the old rice plantation of Turnbridge in Jasper County, South Carolina, and dreamed of growing rice. In a USDA seed bank, he found some of the last few pounds of Carolina Gold. In his short monograph called Carolina Gold Rice: The Ebb and Flow History of a Lowcountry Cash Crop, Shulze tells of his pursuit of the revival of this heirloom grain. Now the public can see Carolina Gold rice being sown, grown, and harvested between May and September at Middleton Place, a historic plantation outside of Charleston.
Shulze’s success sparked the imagination of Glenn Roberts, founder of Anson Mills. Roberts’ company specializes in returning heirloom grains to market. It now grows Carolina Gold in organic rice fields in Georgia, the Carolinas, and Texas. And it sells Carolina Gold to the public in three forms: whole rice, rice grits, and rice flour. With the renewed interest in terroir and heirloom grains, southern rice fields are once again becoming “gold mines”—at least in terms of color and flavor.
Originally published in Organic Gardening Magazine, December/January 2014
Photo: Frank Hyman