Monday, January 25, 2010

The Carolina Rice Kitchen: The African Connection

The Carolina Rice Kitchen:  the African Connection is perhaps the most erudite cookbook I've ever read, excepting maybe The Oxford Companion to Food.  And, it's a cookbook within a cookbook, or rather, a cookbook within a treatise on a specific cuisine:  the Carolina rice kitchen.

Karen Hess has reproduced within her own book an early 20th century cookbook called The Carolina Rice Cookbook, by a Mrs. Samuel Stoney. It seems that Mrs. Sam Stoney's husband was one of my grandfather's cousins in South Carolina, where a lot of rice was grown in the 19th century.  This was no ordinary rice;   it was a special variety called Carolina Gold.  Planters stopped growing Carolina Gold in South Carolina in the 20th century, because it was so labor-intensive, and the soft ground where it was grown was not suitable for machine cultivation.

But in the 19th century, particularly during slavery times, South Carolina grew a lot of rice and had a true cuisine built around rice.  The European-American planters did not come from a rice-growing culture, however.  Their slaves did.  This is the other story behind the Carolina Rice Cookbook that Karen Hess uncovers.

She says that white planters learned everything they needed to know about rice culture and cookery from their African slaves.  West Africa had a thriving rice agriculture for centuries before West Africans were enslaved in large numbers and brought to the United States to grow rice.  In fact, planters especially wanted slaves from the rice-growing areas of West Africa.

It wasn't just that Africans knew how to grow rice:  they also had special ways of cooking it.  Hess says that in South Carolina, people cook rice differently from the way they do it in the rest of the country:  they do it the African way, which is also the Indian (Asian Indian) way.  In Africa and India, people don't boil two cups of water for every cup of rice, and then cook the rice in that water until the rice is absorbed; rather, they boil the rice in a lot of water--perhaps three times the amount of rice--for about 12-15 minutes, then strain the rice and put it back in the pot to "soak" or steam.  The pot is put near the fire, in a warm place, or over low heat.  This way of cooking yields a very fluffy rice, "with every grain distinct," which was apparently desirable.  (The Chinese/Japanese way of cooking rice uses less fuel, however, because less water has to be boiled.)  I have been cooking Carolina Gold rice this way since I read the book, and I like the result.  (You can buy Carolina Gold at Whole Foods and other stores, because some enterprising foodie growers are now growing it again, but it's expensive.)

Another characteristic cooking method in the Carolinas was the pilau.  This was rice simmered in a stock made from chicken or meat.  In this case, the rice stays in the cooking liquid rather than being drained.  The pilau, and jambalaya, according to Hess, came to the Carolinas from Persia by way of Provence.  Many of the Europeans who settled the Carolinas were Huguenots from that part of France.

Hess does a lot of her detective work by way of etymologies.  One of her most interesting speculations is about the dish Hoppin' John and its origins.  Hoppin John is rice cooked with some kind of beans.  In the South the bean is usually black-eyed peas, or some other pea in the cowpea family.  But Hess thinks the word just means "beans with rice."  The word for beans in Malay is kachang.  And the Persian word for rice is bahatta.  If you say "bahatta kachang" fast, it sounds sort of like Hoppin' John, at least if you are a Gullah speaker, as the African-Americans of coastal South Carolina were.  Works for me.

Another interesting etymological speculation in the book revolves around one of my favorite foods, the beignets of New Orleans.  Rice was not as central to the cuisine of New Orleans as it was to the cuisine of coastal South Carolina.  But by the late 19th century, African-American women were selling something called "calas" on the streets, as a street food sold by street vendors. These were fritters made with rice flour, or beignets de riz.  How did they get the name calas?  Hess speculates that African-Americans saw them as a variation on their African akkra, or fried croquettes, usually made of ground blackeyed peas in Africa.  As with Hoppin' John, some consonants got changed and transposed:  akkra became akla, and, Hess says, "cala is a metathetic form of akla, a...common alteration involving transposition."  (I learned from wikipedia that "metathesis" is just the rearranging of the sounds in a word, as for example saying "purty" instead of "pretty.")

Anyway, those wonderful beignets at the Cafe du Monde are French, yes, but they're also African, and they used to be made with some rice flour, or cooked rice mixed with flour.

There are also chapters on rice soups and other rice breads besides the calas, and sweet rice puddings for desserts.  South Carolinians also ate the birds that ate their rice:  Dolichonyx oryzivorus,  Here is a charming recipe from the frontispiece of the Carolina Rice Cook Book:

    "Select the fattest birds, remove the entrails, bake them whole or split them up the back and broil.
Permit no sacrilegious hand to remove the head, for the base of the brain of the rice bird is the most succulent portion. Use no fork in eating.  Take the neck of the bird in the left hand and his little right leg in the right hand. Tear away the right leg and eat all but the extreme end of the bone. Hold the bill of the bird in one hand and crush your teeth through the back of the head, and thank Providence that you are permitted to live.  Take the remaining left leg in your right hand and place in your mouth the entire body of the bird, and then munch the sweetest morsel that ever brought gustatory delight.  All that remains is the front portion of the head and the tiny bits of bone that formed the ends of the legs.  To leave more is to betray your unappreciativeness of the gifts of the gods."

Wonder if you can buy whole rice birds at Whole Foods?

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