I could always tell when my mom was cooking one of her childhood favorite meals for dinner. She seemed to have a little more love in her wrist as she whipped it, knowing that we were going to eat a dish she had eaten as a child, just like her own mother had, and the mother of her mother before that. Of all the meals in his hometown of his upbringing in Savannah, Georgia, red rice in particular held a special place in his heart.
Although my mother grew up in Savannah, she moved to Detroit in the 1960s with my older sister long before I was born. At the time, my mother had just graduated from Indiana University and accepted a job in the Detroit public school system. By the time I arrived, she was firmly rooted in the community, cooking local Midwestern dishes. So most of what she cooked when I was a kid were recipes she collected from friends and colleagues in Detroit – corned beef and cabbage, local fish like perch and smelt. , and other indicative dishes of the region. Occasionally, however, we were treated to one of Savannah’s specialties that she grew up eating.
I admit I was a picky eater growing up, and not all of my mom’s Savannah specialties were on my must-have list. At the time, some of the crab dishes tasted too fishy for my liking, and I thought even his famous six-egg macaroni and cheese couldn’t beat the canned variety. But I loved his red rice. The dish originated in South Carolina, just across from Savannah. My mom would start by frying several pieces of bacon, which added a smoky, deep flavor to the rice. The kernels were then cooked directly in the tomato mixture, allowing them to absorb all the aromas and achieve a perfectly balanced smoky-sweet flavor profile. It always put a smile on my face and a warmth in my stomach, and I think it took some special skill to prepare the rice in a way that was bursting with flavor while maintaining the perfect texture and consistency – not too much dry, not too soupy. Mom always made a big batch, knowing that all the parents gathered for the family reunion would want a second helping. Everyone was looking forward to that iconic white Corningware baking dish – the one with the little blue flowers on the side – heading to the table; we watched avidly as my mother removed the glass lid to reveal a mound of fluffy, aromatic, and piping hot red rice.
After living my entire life in Detroit, it wasn’t until I left Michigan and moved to Houston for college that I was immersed in the cuisine and culture of a different region. . Once in Texas, I regularly ate Gulf Coast Creole cuisine and quickly fell in love with the food. I’ve savored dishes like okra, which are deeply flavorful thanks to meticulous simmering, and fell in love with crawfish boils, which are as much about the sense of community they create as they are about the contents of the pot. Sitting around the kitchens of my Houston friends and their families, I began to learn the techniques and recipes of traditional Creole cooking. When I graduated from college (and finally had a disposable income that allowed me to pay more than beer and potatoes), I started experimenting in my own kitchen, thinking drawing on the lessons I had gathered. I realized then that these dishes that I had come to love actually stemmed from the same culinary traditions as the red rice that my mother prepared. Living, eating and cooking in Texas has allowed me to rediscover the food of my heritage.
Might as well write fix me a plate was to perfect recipes and create visual storytelling through photography, it was also an opportunity for me to explore some of the culinary traditions that have been passed down from generation to generation in my family. In my research, I learned that there has been a recent push to revive or save some of the heirloom grains traditionally used in these recipes. At the forefront of this push is South Carolina – where Gullah Red Rice originated and was once the epicenter of rice production in the United States – with its production of the coveted Carolina Gold Rice. .
Carolina Gold is loved not only for its nutty, almost nutty taste, but also for its firm texture. This texture allows the rice to withstand boiling better than other varieties, ensuring that the grains do not become gummy or stick together. Rice has become the premier crop in South Carolina due to the state’s optimal growing conditions: moist, swampy, and soft soil. In an effort to control the quality and availability of Carolina Gold rice, the Carolina Gold Rice Foundation was established in 2004. I realized that to truly honor the authentic roots of South Carolina rice dishes, they must be prepared with Carolina Gold rice. After searching high and low at several specialty stores in Texas, I ended up having to ship it from Anson Mills, a South Carolina grower specializing in organic heirloom grains.
Tracing the journey of what it takes to produce a plate of red rice reminded me of my many trips to the low country as a child. Whether it’s a family reunion on Daufuskie Island in South Carolina (which was recently featured in the Netflix documentary High on the pork), or crabbing with my uncles in preparation for crab porridge big enough to feed the entire extended family, some of my fondest childhood memories come from time spent in these lands.
In truth, the historical origins of red rice go back even further. Everything comes from Jollof rice, a dish that originated in West Africa. When settlers in coastal South Carolina and Georgia discovered that the surrounding wetlands were ideal for growing rice, they purchased slaves from Sengegal, Sierra Leone, and Liberia, also known as the name of the “rice coast” of Africa. These slaves brought not only their rice-growing know-how but also their rice-based meals. Red rice originated from this traditional West African rice dish.
Over many decades, generations of families have added their modifications and substitutions. My mother’s tantalizing interpretation was influenced by her upbringing and experiences, just as my dish was influenced by mine. And although my mother never had the opportunity to taste my perfect rendition, it pleases me to know that dozens of people around the world will be able to taste her fluffy red rice in her big white baking dish.
Gullah Red Rice
When Scott was growing up, Gullah red rice was a staple on his family’s dinner table. Get the recipe >