Perhaps no other cultural staple – both in terms of actual subsistence and in identity-making – is as important or as persistent in the African diaspora in the Southern United States as rice. Rice is deeply associated with American cuisine, particularly the cuisine of the American South – but its origins in this country are distinctly African. Because of the rice industry, the Atlantic slave trade blossomed. Without the triangle trade, the rice industry couldn’t have experienced a boom. It was a vicious cycle, and at the center of it was the idea that people who created this global industry had the self-determined right to enslave Africans, Native Americans, and their descendants in order to accomplish their goals of accumulating wealth and power.
The objective of the institution of slavery was to elicit work from those in bondage; in order to accomplish this, enslavers had to create a separation between themselves as humans, and those in bondage who were then seen as not (or less-than) human. It meant treating people as chattel: objects to be owned, rather than people to be respected. If the institution of enslavement and those who perpetrated it had been completely successful, no hints of African culture of the 16th-19th centuries would have survived to continue into modern life.
In every way, enslavers attempted to strip Africans and African Americans of their identities. African names were replaced with European ones, African cultural beliefs and religious ideologies were forbidden – as were drumming and singing, early on in the development of the Southern colonies – and African medicinal/herbal practices and remedies were driven underground. In truth, none of these practices fully disappeared. Neither did the knowledge of agriculture and food preparation, the keeping of tribal and ancestral history through oral traditions, and the braiding and styling of hair, just to name a few cultural identifiers. Many of these practices instead evolved and were adapted by the people who were forcibly removed to the British colonies, and those practices were covertly retained in enslaved communities across the South. Traditions in food preparation and consumption are longstanding in every culture, and there is no exception amongst the descendants of the enslaved. Scholars have been studying these traditions for decades, and offer interesting reasons why African foodways are so intertwined with American identities today – especially with regards to rice.
In her book The Carolina Rice Kitchen: The African Connection, Karen Hess describes the colonizers of the Carolinas as “less English” than their counterparts in other colonies. The reason, she suggests, is because they came largely from Barbados and the Bahamas; Caribbean sugar-producing islands which had long since perfected the institution of slavery on sugar plantations. Because the culture and the tastes of these second-generation British colonists were already “Creolized”, the adding of rice and African flavors to their tables was easily done, most likely without intention or recognition. Hess suggests, “Wherever African-Americans did the cooking, there were subtle African influences even when they followed the receipts read aloud by their English mistresses as conscientiously as they were able. It was this African presence that accounted for the near mythic reputation of Southern cookery.”
She goes on to point out that truly African dishes sometimes appeared on the dining tables of the Big Houses, and that the enslavers largely enjoyed them, thus enabling the persistence and evolution of the dishes in those recognizable as both distinctly Southern American, and distinctly of the African Diaspora in the United States. Regardless of just how European or African a dish was, the thread that ran through them all, the staple of both enslaved and enslaver, was rice. In this case, a delicate, long-grained variety nicknamed Carolina Gold.
Notwithstanding the brilliance required for the engineering of the fields, and the planting and cultivating the crop itself, the generations of knowledge wrapped up in today’s rice recipes are as indicative of human genius as any other accomplishment. Further, even though Hess argues that “The end of slavery was the end of rice culture in South Carolina…the industry was doomed,”, this does not account for a true cultural end, only an industrial one. The culture of rice as it was associated with cooking and eating within African-descended communities continues uninterrupted. Of course, in the Carolina Low Country, the keepers of this culture, and the link between the past and the future, are the members of the Gullah community (and in the coastal regions of Georgia, the Geechee people).
In recent years, there have been a number of culinary ambassadors from these communities who are demonstrating that not only is rice culture alive and well, but that it also has an unbroken connection from the present and living community elders, back to their emancipated ancestors, and to their enslaved ancestors. Among these ambassadors are Chefs BJ Dennis, Kevin Mitchell, Kardea Brown, and Sallie Robinson, all chefs of Gullah and Geechee descent. From private catering businesses, to research and lecturing circuits, to Gullah bus tours and Food Network shows, these chefs are firmly in a much-deserved spotlight that was prepared for them by their predecessors (Edna Lewis, Anna Pinckney, and Lucille Grant, to name a few – as well as countless earlier chefs whose deeds are lost time time – like Peter, who was enslaved at Middleton Place in the 1840s). There are also African American scholars from other regions of the United States, including Michael Twitty and Dr. Jessica B. Harris, who are studying the global implications of African cuisine and its influence on the world, which overlaps clearly and frequently with the culinary history of the American South.
All of the above culture-keepers are living links to an ancestral legacy that European enslavers attempted to erase through kidnapping, compulsory labor, abuse, and dehumanization. Despite these attempts, African foodways, anchored by West African rice, not only became synonymous with the wealthiest white tables of the Antebellum South, but with southern American cooking as a distinct cuisine. Modern and historic cookbooks continue to praise the virtues of the grain; Michael Twitty’s newest publication, Rice, is devoted to it – you can find your own copy here: https://uncpress.org/book/9781469660240/rice/ – though his scope is admittedly wider than just the Low Country of the Carolinas and Georgia.
In the meantime, to learn more about how rice persists as an important part of African American identity as it lives in the Gullah and Geechee people, The Carolina Rice Kitchen is an excellent starting place. As Hess says of her own book,
This work is a hymn of praise for Carolina rice, the fabled Carolina Gold of yesteryear…This is also a hymn of praise for the rice kitchen that evolved around the use of Carolina Gold. The ancient way of cooking rice developed in the primeval rice lands of India and African became the Carolina way…The princely pilau…is as at home in the Carolina Low Country as in old Persia…the early history of the rice kitchen in South Carolina is inextricably bound up with slavery; it was the black hands of African slaves who cultivated the rice and cooked it…Other influences were present, to be sure, but we cannot begin to understand the history of the Carolina rice kitchen except in the light of this association. So this is also a hymn of praise for the African men and women torn from their homelands so long ago who made it all possible.
 Hess, Karen. The Carolina Rice Kitchen: The African Connection, p. 6
 Ibid. p. 5
 Hess, Karen. The Carolina Rice Kitchen: The African Connection, p. 15
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 Hess, Karen. The Carolina Rice Kitchen: The African Connection, p. 4
 Hess, Karen. The Carolina Rice Kitchen: The African Connection, p. 2
To Purchase: https://uscpress.com/The-Carolina-Rice-Kitchen