The Story of Carolina Gold, the Best Rice You've Never Tasted

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[Photograph: Vicky Wasik]

Growing up in California, Glenn Roberts knew what was coming each time his South Carolina–born mother cooked up a purloo or a pot of rice and gravy. And it wasn't pretty. "She used to open up a box of rice and swear at it," Roberts says. "She'd pour some of it into the pot without measuring anything, look at the box, swear at it again, and throw the rest in the trash. Our rice budget must have driven my dad crazy."

Roberts, founder of South Carolina–based Anson Mills, which specializes in organic heirloom grains, would eventually come to understand his mother's revulsion. She grew up in South Carolina's Lowcountry, enjoying rice at just about every meal. But it wasn't Minute Rice or Uncle Ben's she was eating—it was Carolina Gold. Her family used to buy the long-grain rice from a local grower, and she would hand-pound it herself, removing the hull and inner coat to reveal its pearly white grain. It was good rice, too—with a rich texture; starchy and sticky; a little hazelnutty, even.

By the time Mrs. Roberts moved to California in the 1950s, Carolina Gold could no longer be found, not only on the West Coast but just about anywhere. Like Mrs. Roberts, many a southern home cook figured that the dishes they grew up with—the purloos, chicken bogs, et al.—would never be quite the same.

Thankfully, due in large part to her son, along with a Georgia optometrist and several members of what's known as the Carolina Gold Rice Foundation (yes, that exists), the Gold of Mrs. Roberts's memory is back, allowing a new generation of home cooks to experience what real Lowcountry cooking was meant to taste like. Chefs are getting in on the action, too, incorporating it into everything from hoppin' John to jambalaya. In Sean Brock's 2014 cookbook, Heritage, the Charleston chef calls Carolina Gold "the most flavorful rice I have ever tasted."

"It's amazing," agrees Sarah Simmons, chef and owner of Birds & Bubbles in New York and Rise Gourmet Goods & Bakeshop in Columbia, South Carolina. Simmons uses a broken version of Anson Mills' Carolina Gold—"middlins," they call them—for a braised chicken and rice dish. "It's so good that we save the cooking liquid," she says. "There's a texture to it; a chewiness because of the starches. It has a bite—so much so that you would have to cook it for a really long time to make it gummy. It tastes more earthy."

Rediscovering Gold

For years, I thought that the Carolina Gold I'd heard countless chefs like Simmons and Brock rave about was the same "Carolina" rice I'd seen a thousand times at my local Stop&Shop or Kroger—the stuff stacked high in clear plastic bags, right next to the Mahatma and the Uncle Ben's. But I was sorely mistaken. What most people think of as Carolina Gold is actually Carolina-brand rice, which is owned by Riviana Foods, a Texas-based company that also owns such ubiquitous brands as Minute Rice, Success, and, yes, Mahatma. It wasn't until I read Southern Provisions: The Creation and Revival of a Cuisine, by David Shields—professor of southern letters at the University of South Carolina, and chairman of the Carolina Gold Rice Foundation—that I finally understood what the fuss was about.

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[Photograph: Shutterstock]

Shields thought Carolina Gold was the same grocery store staple I did when he relocated from New York's Hudson Valley to Charleston in 1984. "A decade would pass before I learned that Carolina Brand [which does sell a parboiled rice called Carolina Gold] was not grown in the Carolinas," he writes, "that it was not the famous staple rice, Carolina Gold, and that its taste was not the storied taste celebrated in the paeans of memoirists and novelists when they described nineteenth-century southern breakfasts and dinners."

The first time Shields tasted the real thing was a revelation. "It just had this really satisfying mouthfeel," he says. "The textural thing people told me about was there; so was the hazelnut thing. All I could think was, 'Boy, this tastes just like I want rice to taste: wholesome. Satisfying.' Part of my boyhood was spent in Japan eating very good rice. I had congee as my morning grain, instead of oatmeal or Cream of Wheat. So I have very strong associations with domestic harmony and tranquility and a bowl of rice porridge. When I tasted Carolina Gold, I had that same sense of satisfaction."

A Sad and Storied Seed

While few people know about true Carolina Gold, it was once the most popular rice grown in America, and the first commercial rice the country ever produced. Thousands upon thousands of pounds of it were exported as far away as France, England, and Asia. In 1820, approximately 100,000 acres of it was growing throughout the South. The rice forged the plantation culture of the tidewater areas of South Carolina, Georgia, and North Carolina, fueling both their cuisine and their economies. The ugly side, of course, is that the great wealth it produced for its growers—and the city of Charleston itself—was built on the tortured backs of slavery. The success of Carolina Gold only made things worse, increasing demand for slaves from western Africa, the continent's so-called Rice Coast, who knew better than anyone else how to plant and harvest it. And, while other rices were grown in the region, by the mid–18th century, Carolina Gold was king.

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[Photograph: Vicky Wasik]

It is said that Carolina Gold—or what was once known as "golden seed" rice—first arrived at the port of Charleston in 1685, when the captain of a merchant ship paid for some repairs with rice seed from Madagascar. Soon after, a man by the name of Dr. Henry Woodward planted some in his marshland, and was impressed not just by the flavor but by the tall golden stalks it produced. (A 1988 New York Times article describes them as "an elegantly shaped grass standing about five feet tall, each stem with some 200 golden grains clustered at the tip.") But, as in a lot of culinary histories, the truth is a bit more complicated than that. In fact, despite Carolina Gold's past fame and glory, we know surprisingly little about how and why it arrived in South Carolina in the first place.

In his book, Shields writes that, while genetic analysis reveals that the rice's ultimate source was South Asia, whether it came directly from Indonesia, or indirectly from Madagascar, West Africa, or even Europe, remains a mystery. What we do know, says Shields, is that it thrived as America's primary rice crop up until the Civil War, when the end of slavery, and a series of hurricanes, destroyed many of South Carolina's rice crops. According to the same 1988 New York Times story mentioned above: "The final undoing of rice growing in South Carolina was the introduction of other strains of rice into states where harvesting machinery too heavy for Carolina's muddy fields bested the low country's hand labor." At that point, most of America's rice production moved to places like Louisiana, Texas, and even California, where an influx of Chinese immigrants searching for gold created an enormous demand for the crop.

"Carolina Gold grew increasingly uncommercial with each passing decade of the twentieth century," Shields writes. "Rice breeders paid homage to the strain, though...by making it a parent strain of the new higher-yield and shorter stock varieties created for industrial-scale production." Outdone by its offspring, pure Carolina Gold could barely be found in cultivation by the 1940s.

Still, the rice lived on in many a Lowcountry family's memories (and many community cookbooks) for decades after. "Because it was such a legendary rice, and because it had been central to the cuisine of the southern Atlantic coast, it never evaporated from cultural memory," Shields writes. "Writers' rhapsodies over the taste of 'wild-rice-fed' ducks in old Carolina, the family cookbooks filled with pilaus, perloos, chicken bogs, and other dishes that specified 'Carolina Rice,' made residents wonder what had gone missing."

The Duck Hunter

Dr. Richard Schulze, a Savannah, Georgia, optometrist, was one of those southerners who read all that rhapsodizing over rice-fed ducks. So, in the mid-1980s, the avid hunter of waterfowl decided to plant some rice in ponds located on his South Carolina vacation property. As an astute researcher, the doctor grew curious about the Carolina Gold he'd read so much about. And he soon discovered that seed for the original plant was still being banked at the USDA's Rice Research Institute in Texas. After Schulze made an inquiry with the USDA, an agronomist named Richard Bollock, who shared his curiosity regarding the plant, propagated the seed for him, sending him 14 pounds of the stuff, and he planted it. The following spring, the doctor harvested 64 pounds; by 1988, it was 10,000 pounds. Instead of selling the rice commercially, Schulze donated it to the Savannah Association for the Blind, which sold it to support operations.

Years later, impressed by Schulze's progress and wanting to make Carolina Gold available on a larger scale, Glenn Roberts began work with Merle Shepard of Clemson University and some food scientists to create a stronger, more disease-resistant variety of the rice. They began growing it in 1998 and now have organic rice fields in South and North Carolina, Georgia, and Texas. Meanwhile, another company, called Carolina Plantation Rice, grows Carolina Gold on a historic plantation in Waccamaw, South Carolina.

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[Photograph: Vicky Wasik]

The efforts of all Carolina Gold growers are supported by the Carolina Gold Rice Foundation, a nonprofit that works to improve the breeding and quality of Carolina Gold, formed by Roberts, Shields, and others in 2004. In recent years, the foundation has developed an aromatic variety of Carolina Gold called Charleston Gold, which is sold by both Anson Mills and Carolina Plantation. On the Anson Mills website, it's described as the "love child" of Carolina Gold rice and a long-grain rice. It's stored with wild red bay laurel leaves for three years, giving it "characteristics and lovely aromatics similar to the famous aged basmati rices of India." You can order Carolina Gold and Charleston Gold from both Anson Mills and Carolina Plantation.

The True Test

After listening to so many people sing the praises of Carolina Gold, I decided to order some for myself from Carolina Plantation Rice. It arrived in a yellow cloth bag, impervious to the light damage Roberts says is detrimental to rice's flavor. At first, I tried it plain and simple, preparing it in my rice cooker on a weekday afternoon. As I sat at my kitchen table waiting for it to finish, I could already tell it was different based on the smell alone.

Unlike grocery store rice, which just smells starchy, the Carolina Gold filled the room with a nutty, earthy aroma that had me craving white rice more than I've ever craved it before. Biting into my first spoonful, I could feel the firm texture of each and every grain in my mouth. It had the satisfying bite Shields told me about, the nuttiness, even a floral quality I hadn't quite expected. Yes, it was exactly what I wanted rice to taste like.

Later that night, I cooked more of the rice into a simple purloo of shrimp, bacon, and crushed tomatoes. And, while the shrimp was fresh, the tomatoes juicy, the bacon bacon-y, it was the rice that stole the show. Eating the purloo at my dining room table, I remembered something Sarah Simmons had told me when I talked to her about Carolina Gold. "It's spoiled me," she said. "I can't eat bad rice anymore. A part of me dies every time I see my parents use the grocery store stuff." I get that now. I'm as spoiled as spoiled can be. And, as far as rice is concerned, I've found my new gold standard.