Rice is a 'Frequent Visitor' at Tables in the South, A New Cookbook Digs Up the Complicated Way it Got ThereHistorians in the News
tags: African American history, Southern history, food, South Carolina
“Rice,” the new cookbook from James Beard Award-winning writer Michael W. Twitty, is a thin volume full of depth. The final entry in University of North Carolina Press’s “Savor the South” series, “Rice” has recipes for regional classics like red rice, hoppin’ John and Carolina pilau. But the cookbook also includes the African dish jollof rice, a foundation for jambalaya, and the Haitian dish red beans and rice that morphed into the version now served on Mondays in New Orleans. “The Cooking Gene,'' Twitty’s first book, explored the African roots of Southern cuisine through a personal lens. In his new publication, he examines rice’s role in the culture and economy of the South.
The American South: What drew you to writing a book about rice?
Michael W. Twitty: I grew up with rice being a frequent visitor at the table, but rice for me is not only for the kitchen. It's also a deep part of my family history, being a descendant of the Gullah Geechee and of enslaved South Carolinians.
TAS: Do you feel certain ingredients are key to understanding Southern food?
MWT: The South is where the starches come first. For Native Americans, it was hominy and quick bread made out of corn. For Africans, it was rice and corn and sweet potatoes. And for Europeans, you had the culture of wheat bread. When was the last time you heard of a Southern restaurant that didn't have rice, cornbread or biscuits?
TAS: In your travels to African countries, do you see varieties of rice that have vanished in the United States?
MWT: You’ve got to understand that Africa is still living in the shadow of the colonial period. Part of colonialism is the destabilizing of local economic rhythms to force these people to give up their time, labor and resources. For Africa, that especially included local and communal agriculture. As a result, parboiled rice is a big thing there. Jasmine rice from Thailand is a big thing. A lot of the rice in the field is for communal and ceremonial foodways. Certain types of rice are associated with certain deities or the ancestors of a specific place.
TAS: I was surprised to learn in “Rice” that across the South people cultivated rice patches at home until World War II. Could a home gardener do that today?
MWT: If you wanted to grow 10 to 20 acres, you could probably grow enough rice to eat for quite some time. But people have been growing little bits of these heritage crops as a reminder of their family origins and traditions. I think that's beautiful. I believe it's important for people to have a real world understanding of all the pieces that came to make them.