African roots, Carolina gold
VOLUME 21, NUMBER 1, SUMMER 2006 PDF Version
Coastal Heritage is a quarterly publication of the S.C. Sea
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African roots, Carolina gold
The African contribution to the immensely lucrative South Carolina rice industry.
the early 1960s, when Emory S. Campbell was a young man, he moved from
his family home on Hilton Head Island to Boston and suffered a bout of
culinary shock. “It took me a long time,” he says, “to adjust to the
fact that there was something other than rice that people could eat for
Hilton Head’s population was tiny
during Campbell’s youth, with only 1,125 residents in 1950. Connected
to the mainland by ferry, the island was isolated, and the Campbell
family—like other African Americans on the island—embraced traditional
folkways. And that included eating rice at every evening meal.
Campbells would simmer meats, vegetables, beans, or field peas in a
stew, which was poured over rice. In winter, they’d add oysters to the
mix; in the summer, shrimp or garden greens. “You’d have fish or
vegetables prepared in such a way that you put it over rice,” says
Campbell. “Collard greens, cabbage, lima beans—all those are cooked in
a soup or gravy that you’d put over the rice.” For breakfast the family
usually ate grits, but on special occasions the children might be lucky
enough to eat rice, a “real treat.”
few years in Boston, Campbell returned to South Carolina as executive
director of the Penn Center on St. Helena Island. Since his retirement
in 2003, Campbell has continued as an educator and consultant,
describing the culture of his fellow Gullah/Geechee people, descendants
of African slaves who labored on antebellum rice plantations. Along the
coast of the Carolinas, they are known as Gullah, but in Georgia and
northern Florida they are called Geechee.
Gullah people have struggled to sustain their folkways in a time of
rapid coastal development. While pressures of the modern world have
diluted their creole language and culture, a blend of African and
European influences, the Gullah attachment to rice remains strong.
in recent years have gained insights into the African contribution to
Carolina rice’s origins, rice’s place in lowcountry history and its
creole cuisine, and the grain’s role in the Atlantic world of trade and
Joseph Opala, who teaches
African-American history at James Madison University in Harrisonburg,
Virginia, has examined the similarities between lowcountry Gullah
culture and that of the “Rice Coast” of West Africa, a 700-mile,
Opala worked for 17
years in Sierra Leone, where rice is not only the nation’s staple crop
but it is also central to the people’s identity. “They’d say, ‘Joe,
we’re Sierra Leoneans, we’re rice eaters. We eat rice three times a
day, morning, noon, and night. Other foods are fine, but if we ever go
to bed with our bellies empty of rice, we’re just miserable.’ ”
Opala later visited the South Carolina sea islands, Campbell met him at
the airport and explained, “Joe, this is your first time here on the
islands, and I’ve got to tell you. We’re Gullah, we’re rice eaters. If
we don’t have rice, we’re miserable.”
could two peoples thousands of miles apart, separated by the Atlantic
Ocean, describe themselves in such similar ways? Because Africans of
the Rice Coast and many lowcountry blacks have a shared ancestry split
by slavery. Centuries and human bondage didn’t destroy many cultural
links, particularly those of traditional foodways.
Opala, “The dishes prepared in Sierra Leone are very similar to ones
that are traditionally prepared in South Carolina, and in some cases
have exactly the same names. When I told Sierra Leoneans that the
Gullah eat okra soup, red rice, and rice and greens, they became
convinced that lowcountry people were family.”
ATTACHMENT TO RICE
the past few decades, scholars have unearthed evidence that many
cultivation techniques used on early rice plantations in North America
originated on the Rice Coast of West Africa.
Africans had been growing rice for thousands of years before Portuguese
mariners began exploring the region in the mid-fifteenth century.
Before European contact, West Africans knew how to grow it in dry
upland areas and in irrigated wetlands; and how to plug hollow tree
trunks as irrigation devices for cultivation, among other techniques.
the 1720s, Carolina rice growers were telling slave traders that they
wanted skilled Africans from the Rice Coast above all others. During
the eighteenth century, more enslaved Africans from the Rice Coast were
hauled into the ports of Charleston and Savannah than any other African
region. “Rice growing was a particularly complex form of agriculture,
and that’s why planters needed people from that part of Africa,” says
“There’s a pretty substantial
literature now on technical connections between the Rice Coast and the
lowcountry,” of South Carolina and Georgia, Opala adds. “We know what
kinds of rice-growing techniques existed along the Rice Coast and how
that knowledge affected the rice industry of the eighteenth century
lowcountry. The slaves knew more about the business of the rice
plantation than the family that had owned that plantation for
generations. But one of the things that hasn’t been written about much
is how rice is central to the cultures of the Gullah and of the people
of the Rice Coast.”
Rice was also
precious to the lowcountry aristocrats who enslaved West Africans.
Particularly before the Civil War, the swells of Charleston, Savannah,
Beaufort, and Georgetown revered the grain. From the 1720s to 1860, no
other commodity was remotely as important to the region as rice.
Indigo, cotton, forest products, and manufacturing never came close to
matching the riches that planters drew from slave-based rice
Lowcountry wealth seemed
exotic, even decadent, to visitors, especially American northerners.
Rice planters took pride in having the best of everything: horses,
houses, clothes, art, furniture, and food. One observer pointed out
that their luxuries denote “a higher degree of taste and love of show”
than those found in northern states.
they could afford a cornucopia of grains, planters paid thrice-daily
respects to rice. In planta-tion houses and summer homes, rice was at
the heart of every course of every meal: soups, main dishes, side
dishes, desserts, and breads. Carolina Gold rice —the variety named for
its dazzling color in fields—was famous for its cooking qualities,
aroma, flavor, and texture.
rations of rice, meanwhile, were given to plantation slaves. But
Africans had to stretch rations by growing subsistence crops in private
garden plots after their daily tasks were completed. In the early
nineteenth century, a lowcountry slave noted, “Most everybody have rice
of their own, for we all had land to plant, and most everyday we done
our task time enough to work for ourselves.” To supplement rice dishes,
Africans would add fish or wild game or use leftovers from the
planters’ hog killings such as pig’s feet, ears, heads, and entrails.
the Civil War, the Carolina rice economy struggled and then died out.
The grain’s importance to high society faded. For the Gullah people,
however, rice has sustained its central place through generations,
though it was either grown locally as a subsistence crop or purchased
from commercial growers elsewhere in the United States. Gullah people,
living on isolated sea islands or in mainland pockets, continued to
grow rice in their gardens and in some cases in freshwater swamps until
the 1950s and ‘60s.
Still, for most
lowcountry whites and many urban blacks, rice holds no special meaning
now—with one exception. On New Year’s Day, South Carolinians enjoy a
dish of rice and black-eyed peas or tiny red field peas, usually cooked
with bacon, called “Hoppin’ John,” which is supposed to bring good
luck. Folklore says that people who “eat poor New Year’s Day eat rich
the rest of the year.” “Hoppin’ John,” writes culinary historian Karen
Hess, “is the signature dish of South Carolina, black and white.”
John is a pilau dish (pronounced “perlow” by the Gullah), a kind of
stew. To make a Gullah pilau, you heat a broth fattened by bacon or
saltpork or seafood. Once the broth is simmering, long-grained rice is
added—two parts liquid to one part of rice by volume. The pot is then
covered, the rice steamed until nearly dry and its separate grains
visible and glistening.
“You’d name the
pilau after what you put in it,” says Campbell. “If you put oysters in,
that was an oyster pilau; put in shrimp, that was a shrimp pilau.”
the case of Hoppin’ John, black-eyed peas and pork are mixed in. Its
name likely comes from the French Creole term for black-eyed peas: pois
pigeons (pronounced “pwah pee-JON”).
known as a dish popular with slaves, Hoppin’ John’s beginnings trace to
Africa and the sugar islands of the Caribbean. Botanically, the
Carolina black-eyed pea (Vigna unguiculata) is closer to the bean than
the pea. The slave trade brought the black-eyed pea from West Africa to
the West Indies. By the early eighteenth century, colonists carried it
to Carolina, where slaves grew it in provision gardens.
is just one example of hundreds of plants that arrived by circuitous
routes from the Old World to the 13 British colonies. Europeans usually
experimented with crops in North America only after planters had
already tried them out in the West Indies.
were exceptions, however. At least some rice varieties were carried
directly from Africa to the North American colonies as food for slaves
and were probably never intended to be planted for export.
favorable trade winds from homeports, Europeans would pilot their ships
to the West African coast, where captains would buy slaves and
provisions for the Middle Passage across the Atlantic. Once loaded,
ships would continue following trade winds, southerly and westerly, to
the New World.
By 1700, when the Carolina
settle-ment was only 30 years old, Europeans already had more than a
century of slaving experience. Ship captains ex-changed information on
how to keep as many captives alive as possible, as cheaply as possible.
It became common knowledge among ship captains that if kidnapped
Africans from the Rice Coast were fed familiar foods, they would be
less likely to revolt during the Atlantic crossing.
routinely purchased rice from African communities to feed human cargo
during the Atlantic passage,” says Judith Carney, a geographer at the
University of California at Los Angeles.
women milled the cereal by hand, working above deck with mortars and
pestles to remove the husk from the grain, which was fed to the crew
and to slaves below deck.
Surplus food rice, arriving on slave ships to the New World, was used to plant subsistence gardens.
early as the 1540s, ships were transporting rice to the emerging sugar
plantations of the Brazilian tropics. For generations afterward in
Brazil, slaves and escaped slaves—called maroons—planted rice in
small-scale gardens. Early South American colonies, then, used rice
primarily as food for captives or as livestock fodder.
century passed before rice was grown extensively in a North American
British colony. By 1648, pamphlets and letters from Virginia mentioned
its cultivation there, though probably not for export markets. One
Virginia colonist pointed out that “we perceive the ground and Climate
very proper for (rice cultivation) as our Negroes affirme, which in
their Country is most of their food.” But the Virginia climate was not
suitable for large-scale rice production.
RICE TRAVELS THE WORLD
No one knows exactly when rice was introduced to Carolina. Two rice
species might have been grown in Carolina very soon after the colony’s
beginnings—the only two species available anywhere in the world for
cultivation: one Asian (Oryza sativa), and the other African (Oryza
glaberrima). Within the two species are countless rice varieties with
various characteristics. Commercial rice farming in North America was
based on Asian rice, but Carolina colonists originally thought that
their rice was of African origin.
the traditional “foundation” story of Carolina rice, a storm-damaged
ship en route from Madagascar in 1685 limped into Charleston for
repairs. The English ship captain gave some rice seeds to a Charleston
doctor, and the Carolina colony’s rice industry supposedly grew from
Some historians are skeptical of
the Madagascar story because it too conveniently shows Europeans as the
exclusive agents of early Carolina rice cultivation. It might be an
accurate account—no one really knows—but some historians argue that
Africans were more likely to have been the first to plant rice in
Carolina. Africans had expertise growing rice, and Europeans did not.
generations, Europeans were given exclusive credit for introducing
valuable crops into the Americas. Now perhaps Africans should be given
more due for their own largely hidden agri-cultural exchanges from the
Old World to the New World.
grew crops that they preferred, creating a parallel system of transfer
of many plants to the Americas,” says Carney. “It was an amazing form
of technology transfer.” In their small private plots, Africans created
what Carney calls “the botanical garden of the dispossessed.”
first planting of rice in Carolina was most likely a subsistence crop
by Africans, says Opala. In their small gardens, Africans in Carolina
were growing numerous rice varieties—perhaps both African and Asian
species—from various sources. Some rice varieties were carried over on
slave ships and intended as food for slaves, according to Carney.
in the early Carolina colony probably were familiar with Asian rice. By
the sixteenth century, the Portuguese had brought Asian rice varieties
to the Rice Coast of West Africa, where it was planted widely.
Asian rice have flourished in a Carolina slave’s garden and caught a
European’s attention? Says Opala, “A planter likely saw a patch of rice
growing in a slave’s food patch and decided to use it. That’s
speculation, but it seems a logical way” that an Asian rice variety
could have been introduced to Europeans, who then planted the slave’s
seeds in an effort to produce a crop for export.
the very least, the earliest Carolina rice industry was a creole
phenomenon, a blending of African and European knowledge. White
planters in the Southern Colonies usually did not experiment with crops
brought directly from Africa. For instance, according to the
traditional Madagascar story, white colonists believed that the Asian
rice brought into Carolina was an African plant.
for suitable crops to grow for export markets, colonists in the
American Deep South usually looked for agricultural successes in the
Mediterranean, China and Southeast Asia, and the Caribbean. Southern
planters would invest commercially in African plants only after crops
had been successfully grown in the West Indies or after slaves in
America had cultivated them in garden plots.
than directly importing African crops, “planters more often discovered
them in the gardens of their slaves,” writes Joyce E. Chaplin, a
Harvard University historian in a 1993 book.
planters, for instance, found lucrative commercial uses for sesame seed
(known locally as benne), which had originated in Africa, after seeing
it grown in slave gardens.
MOVING INTO THE BIG HOUSE
the Carolina colony was founded in 1670, colonists in the British West
Indies had already become enormously rich from growing and exporting
sugar. The Virginia colony flourished by cultivating tobacco and
exporting it to Europe. The earliest Carolina colonists were searching
for similar opportunities to grow a lucrative staple.
someone—white or black—proved that Asian rice thrived in Carolina soil,
some European planters took it up, hoping they’d found the commodity
that would make them wealthy. Asian rice soon proved to offer higher
yields than any available African rice. The Asian rice, moreover,
didn’t break as easily during the milling process as did African
varieties. This made Asian rice more valuable on the European market.
resulting Carolina rice industry flourished almost immediately. By
1700, Carolina was cultivating more rice than there were ships in port
to carry it across the Atlantic. Planters then moved rice fields from
upland areas to more productive inland swamps. By 1720, rice was the
lowcountry’s most valuable export commodity.
expand their profits, the cleverest Carolina planters were always
trying to outwit their competition. The most successful growers
continuously invested in irrigation and cultivation technologies and
Rice planting in the
Southern Colonies was labor-intensive, and it demanded specialized
knowledge. Searching for a competitive edge, planters imported West
Africans from the Rice Coast who already understood the complexities of
growing the grain. Certain African ethnic groups were sought because
they had an ancient tradition of rice cultivation. “These were learned
people who were held in bondage, who had the knowledge of rice from
West Africa,” says Carney.
planters built upon West African knowledge, they also constantly
improved familiar seed varieties and experimented with new seeds,
selecting for special characteristics—disease and pest resistance, for
During the eighteenth century,
planters experimented with rice varieties from West Africa, Louisiana,
the West Indies, and Asia. As a result of field experiments and trial
by error, a new high-yielding Asian variety called Carolina Gold rice
emerged for the first time at about the time of the American
Carolina Gold and Carolina
White—actually two classes of one variety—were named for their
different colors in the field, though they had similar characteristics.
One with a yellow husk was known as Carolina Gold, the most valued rice
commodity on the marketplace; its pale sister was called Carolina
In any field of Carolina Gold,
some Carolina White plants would also grow naturally. If a farmer
sought to cultivate Carolina Gold exclusively for future crops, he
would try to take out Carolina White plants from his field.
rice planters pursued a disciplined breeding effort that lasted until
the Civil War. “It was an extraordinary task to get Carolina Gold seed,
keep the seed vigorous, and make it widely planted,” says Glenn
Roberts, a rice grower and proprietor of Anson Mills in Columbia, S.C.,
and president of the Carolina Gold Foundation, a nonprofit organization
dedicated to reviving interest in the heirloom grain. “To have one kind
of rice planted in a region is very difficult” because other varieties
or classes compete with it. “To think that the lowcountry’s major
export commodity became associated with just one name—Carolina
Gold—that’s just amazing.”
the 1750s, some planters began moving rice fields from inland swamps to
riverine lowlands to capture tidal flows of fresh water. Slaves were
used to build huge flood-control structures along rivers, giving
planters access to larger, steadier supplies of water for field
irrigation. Planters who had opportunities to use the tidal method grew
fabulously wealthy. A slave could harvest five or six times more rice
per acre in a tidally irrigated rice field than in an inland swamp.
second half of the eighteenth century (with the exception of the
American Revolutionary War years) was the economic high point of South
Carolina rice. Several hundred rice planters consolidated their power,
dominating every aspect of coastal South Carolina, creating one of the
richest agricultural dynasties of their era.
after 1800, South Carolina planters increasingly faced competition from
growers overseas, particularly from British colonies in Asia.
continued cultivating rice in their private gardens, though probably
not Carolina Gold. A tall plant that tends to fall over and break
easily, Carolina Gold is difficult to grow. Slaves also cultivated
greens, field peas, and beans, among other crops. The combination of
rice and beans was crucial for slave sustenance, providing an
inexpensive, filling complete protein. Slaveholders encouraged Africans
to grow rice and beans, which were inexpensive foods that could keep
Almost every region in
the New World that established a slave-based economy created a creole
cuisine based on rice and beans. “Rice and beans was the signature dish
of the African diaspora,” says John Martin Taylor, a food writer and
historian. In her book, Karen Hess lists some of these dishes: rice and
field peas of Jamaica; Pois et Riz Colles (red beans and rice) of
Haiti; and Feijoada (black beans, meat, and rice) of Brazil.
time, Hoppin’ John, the slave dish of South Carolina, became the
state’s universal food. Barriers between white and black in antebellum
Carolina were often porous in matters of cuisine. Enslaved cooks used
African cooking techniques and seasoning to transform ingredients
available to them in plantation kitchens. The wives of slaveholders
ordered meals of European origin, but African cooks creatively made
these recipes their own. This mixing of traditions was central to the
creole character of lowcountry cuisine. The tastes and smells of Africa
became part of the slaveholders’ diet and sparked interest in dishes
like Hoppin’ John that slaves cooked in their own homes.
the 1840s, the old slave dish had found its way into the homes of the
super-wealthy elite. “Hoppin’ John,” says Hess, “was an African dish
that moved into the Big House and stayed there.”
FORMER RICE FIELDS, DISAPPEARING, PROVIDE WATER-QUALITY BENEFITS
unique habitat is disappearing on the South Carolina coast, one of the
last of its kind along the entire eastern seaboard. Remnant rice fields
with breached dikes, valuable for wildlife and water quality, have been
changing from open-water environments to swamp forests. In breached
fields, these changes, called ecological succession, have occurred at
various rates in every river basin in coastal South Carolina.
early-stage, open-water environments provide habitat diversity for
birds and fish. Only eight open-water breached fields (50 percent or
more open water) remain in South Carolina—all on the Cooper River.
are special places,” says S.C. Sea Grant researcher B.J. Kelley, a
retired biologist at The Citadel. “We need to take a hard look at
whether these habitats should be allowed to disappear.” For generations
before the Civil War, landowners used slaves to clear cypress forests
along the coastal rivers of the Southeast and build extensive dikes to
control flooding of rice fields. Planters drained or irrigated these
fields to kill weeds and encourage rice to germinate.
the Civil War, the lowcountry rice industry faded, and landowners
eventually abandoned the impoundments. When many dikes broke, sediments
deposited by tidewaters raised field bottoms, triggering the plant
succession process. In 1985, a portion of the Cooper River flow was
diverted to the Santee River, and average water levels dropped farther,
encouraging more rapid growth of plants and trees. Approximately 50
percent of the open-water habitat on the Cooper River has progressed to
later stages since 1985.
continues to grow in remnant fields in the river basins of coastal
Carolina, altering their ecology and potentially their water quality.
Tufford, a University of South Carolina biologist, and Kelley have been
studying the processes and effects of plant communities’ change in
former fields of the upper Cooper River.
has examined the degree to which various successional stages affect
dissolved oxygen levels in the upper Cooper River. Biochemical oxygen
demand (BOD) load is an important—and controversial—water-quality
parameter applied to industries that have permitted discharges. Several
industries are permitted dischargers of BOD in the Cooper River, but
its upper section is largely undeveloped perhaps because of the former
rice fields along its banks.
scientists chose three fields representative of various stages of
ecological succession. One field comprises predominately submerged
aquatic plants. A second field is predominately intertidal, its plants
sub-merged only at high tide. And the third is an intermediate stage
between those two, shallow subtidal with floating leaf plants.
the day, the submerged plants are photosyn-thesizing and they’re
releasing that oxygen into the water,” says Tufford. “And if the tide
is going out at that time, then all of that high-oxygen water is going
out into the river.” At night, the submerged-vegetation field’s
“oxygen-production machine is shut down because there’s no sunlight,”
and submerged plants use up more oxygen through biochemical respiration
than they produce.”
In total, the submerged-vegetation field has
a potentially positive effect on water quality, providing a net source
of oxygen to the river.
contrast, the two remnant fields with shallow subtidal and intertidal
vegetation provide a neutral net oxygen effect to the river. “At low
tide their green stems and leaves are always above water, and the
oxygen produced goes out into the air,” Tufford says.
fields, meanwhile, are important habitat for wading birds, waterfowl,
and fish. Previous Sea Grant studies showed that submerged vegetation
absorbs nitrogen and phosphorus. Such open-water rice fields that are
owned by state agencies also provide places for the public to fish and
hunt. Yet these particular ecosystems are becoming increasingly rare.
years, resource agencies and landowners have been discussing which
management options are best for the future of the state’s former rice
fields. One question is whether to allow ecological succession to
continue or to establish active management of the fields.
the early-stage fields, says Kelley, would require deepening topography
in selected fields to create open-water habitat, or building
flood-control “trunks” to allow for increased water flow and public
REDISCOVERING CAROLINA RICE
rice plantations depended on slave labor and expertise, but after the
Civil War many freedmen looked for other opportunities. They didn’t
want to go back into the malarial rice fields. The Gullah people would
say, “I don’t want that mud work.” Instead, they acquired small
landholdings where they farmed, fished, or worked in phosphate mines
and timber mills for wages.
Over the next
half-century, rice plantations struggled with labor scarcity,
hurricanes, and competition from producers overseas and in the Old
American Southwest—Texas, Louisiana, and Arkansas.
last sizable stand of South Carolina rice was destroyed in a 1911
hurricane. Rice fields were abandoned and returned to wildness or
purchased by wealthy northern industrialists for duck-hunting
plantations. Carolina Gold and Carolina White disappeared, extirpated
from the region where they had made the planter elite immensely rich.
some communities, Gullah people continued growing rice until the 1960s.
Some people grew it in dry, upland areas, others in freshwater swamps.
By the middle of the twentieth century, however, it was far more common
for Gullah families to purchase rice from the grocery store.
in the early 1980s, Richard Schulze, a Savannah eye surgeon, began
searching for Carolina Gold rice seed. An avid duck hunter, he had been
cultivating various rice varieties on Turnbridge Plantation in Jasper
County, South Carolina, as food for waterfowl.
contacted Charles Bollich, a plant geneticist at the U.S. Department of
Agriculture (USDA) Agricultural Research Service in Beaumont, Texas.
Bollich found Carolina Gold seed preserved in a USDA gene bank
collection. After preparing the rice seed for two years, Bollich sent
14 pounds of Carolina Gold to Schulze, who planted 12 acres in 1986 and
has every spring since. Now his son, Richard Shulze, Jr., owns the
property and is considering planting 18 acres next year.
did the USDA hold Carolina Gold? “Old grain varieties are
disappearing,” says Merle Shepard, entomologist and former resident
director at Clemson University’s Coastal Research and Education Center.
“Preserving an old grain is almost like preserving a species.”
growers and plant breeders have selected and improved grains for
certain traits, genes could have been lost in the process. To preserve
genetic values, agri-cultural research institutes around the world have
kept older varieties in special collections.
want to make sure you don’t lose a gene that has a value later on,”
says Shepard, who also serves as vice-president and acting chairman of
the board of the Carolina Gold Rice Foundation. “For example, in
selecting and improving grains, you can lose a gene resisting against
disease that can wipe out a whole crop, or a gene that resists insects,
or a gene that imparts a certain flavor. If you lose that old grain,
you can’t go back again, you lose it forever.”
the late nineteenth century, five to 10 rice varieties—including
Carolina Gold—were cultivated in the American South. Plant breeders
used these plants to select characteristics for new rice varieties.
Crops that emerged became the long-grain rice varieties that Americans
consume today. Carolina Gold, as a result, is one of the parents of
today’s U.S. rice industry. Nearly all of the rice that Americans eat
is cultivated in the United States.
there is growing interest in reviving some of the older, heirloom
varieties. Carolina Gold rice has made a small comeback as a gourmet
In 2002, a group of South
Carolina farmers asked Anna McClung, a USDA plant breeder, for purified
samples of Carolina Gold for the historical cuisine market. This was
not an uncommon request for McClung. Over the last decade, she has been
selecting and purifying varieties primarily for niche markets.
60 percent of U.S.-grown rice is consumed domestically, and about 40
percent is sold overseas. Overseas growers, particularly in Asia, are
flooding the world with inexpensive rice, forcing many U.S. farmers to
search for new niche markets.
studied Carolina Gold seed from a USDA collection in Aberdeen, Idaho,
which includes 22,000 different plant varieties. Carolina Gold, in
fact, had been one of the very first plant varieties to be placed in
the Aberdeen collection. “It went in there in 1902,” she says. “We
don’t know who sent it to the collection. It was probably someone
associated with growers, who knew Carolina Gold was important.”
variations of Carolina Gold and Carolina White had been preserved in
Aberdeen. Plants always mutate in the field, and each version of
Carolina Gold is unique, a “variation on a single variety,” says
To provide a single, reliable
version of Carolina Gold rice seed for farmers, McClung has used
molecular fingerprint markers in the process of characterizing and
purifying it. She has eliminated Carolina White and any other easily
displaying classes of this variety. The resulting seed, called Carolina
Gold Select, is being grown by farmers in several southern states,
including South Carolina, and sold to upscale restaurants and gourmets
interested in using authentic ingredients called for in historical
“It’s a unique, beautiful crop,”
says Campbell Coxe, owner of Carolina Plantation Rice. He grows 20
acres of Carolina Gold Select on his 200-acre farm along the Pee Dee
River in Darlington County. But Coxe also points out that Carolina Gold
“falls down in any kind of wind, which makes it extremely difficult to
harvest mechanically. It’s a labor of love.”
CAROLINA GOLD'S TRAIL
was Carolina Gold rice planted before it arrived in the New World? Was
it brought here from rice farms in Madagascar? Or was it grown in West
Africa before arriving in Carolina on slave ships? Answers to these
questions could complete the story of the rice variety that once
dominated the lowcountry economy.
are using molecular tools to study Carolina Gold’s genetics, looking
for clues to regions where it was planted before it arrived here.
Scientists know that Carolina Gold is a variety from Southeast Asia and
that it likely originated in Indonesia. It was later planted in various
locations, but its genetic trail has been difficult to trace.
traditional farmer would have kept some of the healthiest seeds to
plant each following year. Therefore the seed from generation to
generation changes slightly over time based partly on the farmer’s
selection. When the seed is carried to another environment and planted
there, plants could change in the new conditions.
plants that are most robust in South Carolina might not have been most
robust in Southeast Asia,” says Merle Shepard, entomologist and former
resident director at Clemson University’s Coastal Research and
Education Center. Shepard is growing a plot of Carolina Gold at the
center “You’ll find differences that occur in a rice variety if it’s
being taken around the world and grown in different locations. We don’t
know whether the Carolina rice we are growing right now is the same
rice that was grown in the 1600s in South Carolina or the same as (what
was grown) 2,000 years ago in Southeast Asia.”
But scientists are searching for threads of evidence that trace Carolina Gold’s path from Southeast Asia to the lowcountry.
McClung, a U.S. Department of Agriculture plant breeder, has examined
genetic markers of 1,600 different rice varieties. Carolina Gold
“markers don’t occur very often in other rice (varieties),” she says.
She found that it’s unique genetic markers do not trace to West Africa
or Madagascar, which means that its path to South Carolina remains a
AS A SURVIVING TRADITION
For generations, the modern world has frayed the Gullah culture,
originally forged in the isolation of antebellum rice plantations.
Since the 1950s, resort development, racial integration, the
civil-rights movement, and economic opportunities have transformed the
coast and hastened Gullah’s decline. Many African words in the Gullah
language have been lost. Moving to the North, searching for work in New
York, Philadelphia, and industrial centers of the Midwest, or to cities
in South Carolina, many Gullah people have lost contact with their
aspect of Gullah, however, still thrives among many who left home. Says
Emory S. Campbell, an expert on Gullah, “When I go out and talk to
groups about various aspects of the Gullah/Geechee culture and I
mention rice, people raise their hands and say, ‘Oh, that’s why I like
rice!’ or ‘That’s why my father eats rice!’ ”
Joseph Opala agrees. “When I lecture around the U.S., I’ve always
encountered black people whose ancestors come from the lowcountry, and
one of the stories that I hear again and again is that rice (is central
to their foodways), and this has continued for generations. When every
other element of Gullah culture is gone, rice will remain.”
both sides of the Atlantic Ocean, in the rice-growing areas of Africa
and in the lowcountry among many Gullah descendants, “having
insufficient rice is a condition of misery,” Opala says. “Without rice,
the world is not right. By contrast, having enough rice is associated
with prosperity, with the good life.