Carolina Gold Rice

Posted on November 19, 2007 in Other writing

A version of the following article appeared in the Spring 2005 Oxford American.
Carolina Gold
     February 2004. It was raining to beat hell, and we had come from all over the place — and all walks of life — to get to Middleton Plantation south of Charleston on that dreary morning to plan a symposium focused on the once illustrious rice that the fortunes of the lowcountry were built on. We were introducing ourselves and staking our claims, when Savannah eye surgeon Dick Schulze tried to describe the rice he’s been growing for twenty years.
     “It’s like pornography,” he said. “I can’t really tell you what it is, but I know it when I see it.”
     Well, that was a revelatory moment for me, because I thought we were all pretty sure what Carolina Gold was. We were farmers who had grown it, scientists who had experimented with it, educators who taught about it, cooks who had cooked it, developers who had found land to grow it on, distributors who had sold it, historians who had researched it, and writers who had written about it. We may have chuckled at Schulze‘s comment, but it was pretty remarkable that, in a room full of experts, no one could say exactly what our organization and symposium were about. Genetic diversity? Heritage? Taste? Nostalgia? Fanaticism?
     A look into the literature of rice written prior to what I think of as the Food Movement (which followed on the heels of the Civil Rights Movement and the Women’s Movement, when the study of the work of slaves and the work of women finally became worthy of academia) reveals many romanticized versions of life on the old Carolina rice plantation. Not until the culinary historian Karen Hess began in the late 80s to unearth the pathways of the grain itself did a fuller picture of the rice plantation — and kitchen, begin to form. Using the works of the historians Daniel Littlefield and Charles Joyner as springboards, Hess launched a far-reaching, oft-hypothesizing treatise on the West African rice kitchen that was transposed into the lowcountry surrounding Charleston and Savannah. Littlefield had in the early 80s first written that it was the enslaved Africans who had taught their masters rice cultivation (not the other way around); Joyner’s Down by the Riverside: A South Carolina Slave Community (1986) shrewdly limned the task system that defined the rice plantation and set it apart from the cotton manors of the rest of the South. But it was Hess who gave Carolina Gold a heritage, a place, and a cuisine of its own.
     Glenn Roberts, a huge fan of Hess’s and an ambitious grower of several heirloom grains, is the driving force behind the Carolina Gold Rice Foundation which is sponsoring the symposium in August. Roberts admits that, personally, the conference would be a success simply by having Hess speak, since her view takes in so many disciplines. But a symposium that includes tours of rice fields in August? In Charleston? In the heat and humidity?

“[That’s] when the rice is the prettiest, right before harvest,” Richard Schulze, Jr., told me as we toured Turnbridge Plantation near Savannah (see photo, left), where he now practices medicine with his father, who has turned the rice fields over to him. “The fields really do look golden when they’re ripe and plump with grain.”
     That’s also when no one else would dream of holding a conference, so there are hopes of attracting such luminaries such as Dr Gurdev Khush, who is head of the Plant Breeding and Genetics Department at the International Rice Research Instiftue in the Philippines. Merle Shepard and Hal Hanvey of Clemson’s Coastal Research and Education Center are working closely with Khush in hopes of developing modern, high-yielding varieties of Carolina Gold.
     “There are many reasons to save Carolina Gold,” Roberts explains in one of his typical raves. “It’s very growable; its starch structure is characteristic of the best rices; it’s aromatic — very floral, in fact; it’s a hand rice — that is, you can grow it without tools; and it’s sustainable and it reseeds itself and it’s disease resistant and it’s got a great future because it can make fabulous new rices and dishes.”
     I interrupt. “New rices and dishes?”
     “We’re already crossing it with other rices in hopes of reducing lodging [the tendency of the tall plants to fall over in the field] by shortening its height and increasing its yield while maintaining the color and taste of Carolina Gold. It can be cooked in risottos and as sticky sushi rice, but, of course, you know that it also will cook with each grain separate and dry, if you know how to do it.”
Knowing how to cook rice comes naturally to many Sandlappers, or residents of the lowcountry, though rice hadn’t been grown there for sixty years when the Schulzes began planting. Eating habits die hard: a trip to any grocer within 50 miles of Charleston will reveal an aisle devoted almost exclusively to rice and beans. When I take folks on culinary tours of Charleston, a trip down that aisle with its 25- and 50-pound bags of rice is as eye-opening as the butcher’s case filled with pig parts, sausages, puddings, souse, and “butt’s meat” (smoked hog jowl). It’s fascinating that any vestiges of the Carolina rice kitchen survived the last century. But in fact there are still laws on the South Carolina books that protect the culinary heritage, albeit in a roundabout way.
     The rice and beans that comprised a large part of Carolinians’ winter diet should have sustained them with complete proteins, but by mid-twentieth century, the rural population of the state, largely Black, was suffering from malnutrition. Because no one was growing it, the rice they that these descendants of rice plantation slaves were eating came “from off.” Degerminated and stripped of its nutrients, the long-grain, polished white rice was barely food. In 1956, the press dubbed the General Assembly in South Carolina the “Segregation Session” because so many bills that were intended to prevent integration were passed. But in the midst of the blatant racism, legislators passed Senate Bill 181 into law. The bill provides “for the enrichment of rice by the addition of certain vitamins and minerals; to prescribe the nutritional qualities…; [and] to regulate labeling.” When Fritz Hollings was elected Governor in 1958, he found that the poverty and malnutrition continued until the law was enforced. All rice sold in South Carolina to this day must be enriched with the nutrients that are stripped away in processing; further, it must come with instructions not to wash the rice before cooking, which would rinse away those beneficial additives. Selling unenriched Carolina Gold in South Carolina is therefore technically a crime, but the demand far outweighs the supply for this resurrected heirloom. That was hardly always the case.
     When Schulze first convinced the Rice Institute, part of the USDA, to propagate some seed rice for him, they did so from a few grains of Carolina Gold that they had been given them in 1927 by Theodore Ravenel, perhaps the last commercial planter of the grain. A graduate of Princeton, Johns Hopkins, and Oxford, Schulze was no stranger to research. An avid hunter, he had begun growing rice in the late 70s neither as an agricultural or culinary experiment, but to attract wildfowl. He soon learned that he was more interested in the rice than the ducks were, and he began researching the fascinating history of its culture in the lowcountry, where rice had been king for two hundred years. Everywhere he looked — in novels, agricultural treatises, market reports, and histories — he found references to the great Carolina Gold, “the favorite of emperors.” But not even the culinary sources described its flavor, and the precious strain was being grown nowhere that he could find. Littlefield, Joyner, and Hess had not published their findings. There was no Carolina Gold Rice Foundation.
     Charleston had a mere handful of restaurants then; other than a couple of “soul food” joints, none of them served rice in any form (and, ironically, most still don’t). Even the “ricebirds“ had left the state in the 1920s, seldom to return. When Alexander Sprunt and Burnham Chamberlain compiled their massive and seminal South Carolina Bird Life in 1949, they wrote, “The bobolink, to give it its correct name, still comes to Carolina, but the rice is gone. Except in a few fields privately planted, worked, and harvested, rice is no longer grown. The association, therefore, between grain and bird is unfamiliar to most….”
     Prior to the Civil War, Carolina Gold could very well have referred to the vast wealth of the planters. The numbers are staggering: in mid-nineteenth century, over seventy-five thousand acres of rice were productive in the Carolina lowcountry, yielding one hundred and sixty million pounds of rice. In 1860, when the total national crop of rice was five million bushels, three and a half million of them were grown in a narrow stretch of land near the South Carolina coast. By 1901, however, only thirty-five thousand acres were being planted. And in 1920, the few fields here and there that were maintained as a novelty did not total five hundred acres.
     In 1986, the Schulzes were given fourteen pounds of Carolina Gold seed rice, the first to be seriously planted in fifty years. Throwing all caution to the wind, they planted it all that spring; it yielded sixty-four pounds. In 1987, they planted most of that rice, which yielded about five hundred pounds. The bobolinks returned en masse, and at the end of the second year’s harvest only they and some redwing blackbirds had eaten the Carolina Gold grown at Turnbridge, which the Schulzes were cultivating for three years to guarantee a pure strain.
     The following fall, two golden fields of rice there yielded a ten-thousand-pound crop (before milling) from about a dozen acres, a small corner of the four-hundred acre property. Milled in a century-old machine and not polished, the first crop was nutty and aromatic. It’s buttery and delicate as well. We planned a celebratory feast. “Enthusiast brings back a famous rice,” The New York Times proclaimed, reporting on the rare harvest. For 15 years now, foodies have paid a premium to the Schulzes’ yearly choice of charity in order to taste the mostly middling rice (fragile, it is often damaged in the milling process). But not every year has been as successful as the golden harvest of 1988.
     That the Schulzes have been able to grow rice at all is a fluke of nature, the modern world, and sheer determination. The Wright River, which provided fresh water to the rice grown there in former times, is now brackish, thanks to manipulation by the Army Corps of Engineers. Fields must hence be flooded with fresh water from wells. Harvesting is amazingly done by mechanical combine at Turnbridge because the fields sit on an unusual lowcountry outcropping of clay that will support it. Even so, “We’re on a treadmill,” Dick confides. “I tell you, if you want to make a lot of money, don’t go into medicine and don’t go into farming.”
     He’s looking out over a 12-acre field in September of 2003. “Looking at that wood stork reminds me of this farming business. They have an interesting feeding pattern. They’re community feeders: what they do, like porpoises attacking mullet, is to work in concert with each other, so that they feed more efficiently. We have our weak links here on the farm. Leroy is one of them. He was supposed to put the herbicide in, but look a that field: it’s full of grass. The grass seed is smaller, so it will be separated out at harvest, but it’s a fierce competitor and will lower the rice yield.”
     It raining and we’ve left Dick’s Mercedes wagon for Richard’s Prius. To Richard he laments, “The rice doesn’t have the rich green I’d like it to have; it looks a bit anemic. I wonder if it’s got the right amount of fertilizer.”
     Richard tries to be upbeat. “What we need to do is to get in here and harvest our rice, get the seed, treat it with a fungicide, store it properly, and get our crews down from Tillman [Schulze’s quail plantation, twenty miles north] and the get the fields prepared for next year.”
     Point-blank, I ask Richard why he bothers planting the rice.
     “I was given this wonderful place — I didn’t earn it myself — and l feel an obligation to carry on some of the traditions that came along with it.”
     “Even after last year’s disastrous harvest?”
     “None reached the table,” Dick sighed. “With a little luck we might get 3000 pounds this year, to give us, I’d say, 1200 pounds of seed…. Now that we’ve got a combine, which is critical, I’ve been thinking that if we could have a little cooperative of rice farmers — there are a lot of fallow fields around here — and if we had a clever marketer…” His voice drifts off as we watch the almost motionless egrets and alligators in one of the ponds.
     Roberts was a step ahead of him. By February 2005, the Carolina Gold Rice Foundation — a cooperative of rice farmers, and much more — had both Schulzes on board. Clemson University is reaching out to involve rice experts from across the globe, and the foundation’s symposium held that summer was world-class. Dick Schulze has written about his experiences as a rice farmer (I wrote the foreword)) and spoke at the symposium in 2005. Richard married at 42 and is the father of a daughter. Their 2004 crop at Turnbridge was one of the best ever, and Roberts harvested double crops (August and October) from three of his fields.
     Carolina Gold is now being grown in Arkansas, in several South Carolina counties, and in South America. Judith Carney, Professor of Geography at UCLA, published a stunning examination of rice and slaves, Black Rice: The African Origins of Rice Cultivation in the Americas in 2001; she, too, presented her findings at the conference; as did Bernard Herman, the Director of the Center for Material Culture Studies at the University of Delaware, whose topic is the architecture of the rice plantations. Karen Hess, unable to travel, was filmed with me in a filmed half-hour interview that is available from the Foundation.
     The Food Movement may have enabled and necessitated the interdisciplinary study of foods like Carolina Gold rice, but for Schulze and Roberts, it seems that genetic diversity, heritage, taste, nostalgia, and fanaticism are all part of the story.
Schulze’s book is available from The History Press. Here’s the first draft of what I wrote for its Foreword (2005):
     His roots are Texan, and he lives large: the plantations, the vintage roadsters, the hunting trips and safaris, the speedboat. But Dick Schulze has also practiced eye surgery for thirty years, delicate operations of precision and skill. He has made such an impact on my own stomping grounds, the fabled lowcountry of South Carolina and Georgia, that I can’t think of him as anything other than a Sandlapper – one of us. He’s also a farmer who has learned that all the precision and skill in the world won’t keep the rice birds out of the fields or the rains away during harvest.
It’s nearly twenty years ago now when first we met. I was researching the rich culinary history of the lowcountry and everyone told me that I should meet Dick and Tricia Schulze, who were planting the once great but then nearly forgotten Carolina Gold rice. Macky Hill, the heir apparent to Middleburg Plantation, South Carolina’s oldest home, provided my introduction, and I drove from Charleston on the sinuous and live oak canopied two-lane blacktops down to Turnbridge, the Schulze plantation just outside Savannah, on the Carolina side of the river. It was late summer and they were getting ready to harvest their legendary crop of 1988.
Dick’s bright eyes reflected his passion. His arms proudly spread out over his golden, ripe fields of grain. He talked about the land with a historian’s perspective, a doctor’s grasp of biology, a hunter’s love of the outdoors, and a farmer’s practicality. He praised the early Native Americans of Turnbridge, the Guale, whose pottery shards we stumbled upon; he cursed the Army Corps of Engineers. We shared delight at the sight of a stray roseate spoonbill on one of the alligator ponds on the property, several hundred miles north of its normal range. We were aghast at the mass of bobolinks (rice birds) in the fields, until recently no longer common in the area. It began raining, but Tricia drove with abandon through the muck, their golden retrievers at her side. Their only fear of water moccasins seemed to be for their dogs, whom they doted on. I immediately liked the Schulzes. How could I not? I had grown up with scientist parents, and not since childhood had I met others with such ebullient curiosity about the world around them.
The harvest that fall was awesome. I joined Dick and Tricia in planning their celebratory feast: each dish would feature rice, the first real Carolina Gold rice harvested in South Carolina in sixty years. Something truly worth celebrating, a moment in history worth writing about. I called my editor at The New York Times and she agreed. On December 28, they ran my story on the front page of the Living section, complete with a photo of Tricia in the rice fields with one of their dogs. Another photo featured Julius Bing, a neighbor to whom the Schulzes would always give ample credit for his help in the endeavor.
I’ve spent many evenings since with the Schulzes, marveled at their unbridled passion for life. Carolina Gold is just one of many of their muses. I watched them build Tillman, their quail plantation twenty miles north of Turnbridge, where traditional crops such as benne (sesame) are planted in succession for the birds’ peculiar diets. I saw Dick have his mason build a wall with numerous different mortar mixes, each slightly different in color, so that he and Tricia could observe the color as it aged, before they chose the right one to use in the building of their new home. I’ve watched them nurture an oak alley as though it were even more precious than their heirloom rice. I’ve shared bottles of wine with them in the birding tower of the guest house at Turnbridge, everyone stunned by an exceptional sunset. And I’ve water-skied with them on the Fourth of July, an old lowcountry test of those of us supposedly over the hill.
This is Dick’s story. Typically, he tells it without drawing much attention to himself. It’s the tale of a gentleman farmer, a sportsman who claims to be in the midst of “retiring.” I’m reminded of George Washington in his latter years at Mount Vernon, when he dove into various experiments in farming, manufacturing, and commerce. Both traditionalists, Schulze and Washington knew that perhaps the best way to preserve a culture is to do something new with it. To begin again.
I’ve been telling Dick Schulze’s story for years. Now it’s his turn.