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Joni Woolf: Now let us consider rice

A letter received this week from one of our regular readers has sent me on a search for how rice has evolved as such an American food. Ms. Hetty Harrington sent me her mother’s recipe for rice pudding, a recipe that was probably 100 years old. Her mother was born in 1883, in the hills of North Carolina, an area she called “of rocky farms and distant towns.” Most of the food came from the family farm, but rice pudding was a real treat. Even so, it was simple, uncomplicated, and inexpensive to prepare. Her mother’s recipe follows:

1 ½ cups stirred milk (whole milk)
1 cup risen cream  (cream skimmed from day-old whole milk)
½ cup rice
Pinch of salt
1 egg
¼ cup sugar
In good-size pan, boil milk, cream, rice and salt for ½ hour. Stir, or it will stick to the pan. Take out some of the hot rice and let cool. Beat egg into sugar. Mix egg/sugar in the cooled rice and pour all back into pot and cook slow till mix gets thick. If you have them, it’s better with teaspoon vanilla and handful of raisins. (Ms. Harrington notes how conservative her mother was with the store-bought items, i.e. vanilla and raisins — they were considered luxuries.)

This recipe reminded me of my mother’s rice pudding, though I have no recipe from her small collection. I do know she used left-over rice — she didn’t start from scratch; and she added eggs, milk, sugar and vanilla and baked it in the oven. We considered it a delicacy — but then, we knew little about real delicacies in rural South Georgia. In our home, rice was the preferred starch. Where other families — our local kin — ate potatoes as a regular side to their meat and vegetables, we sat down to rice two or three times a week. My mother was the only person I knew, at the time, who served rice with chili. Rice pudding was a rarity, but rice with country-fried steak and gravy was served once a week.
These rice remembrances  sent me to the cookbook shelf, to John Egerton’s “Side Orders: Small Helpings of Southern Cookery & Culture.” Egerton is a widely-recognized authority on Southern food and cooking, having published several books and hundreds of articles on the social history and culture of the South, and especially its food. The rice that we eat today, he points out, does not come from China. It is grown in the South, and has been for three centuries. Today 90 percent of the rice eaten in this country was grown in the American South. It is also eaten by people in traditional rice-consuming cultures, such as Hong Kong and Indonesia — imported straight from the U.S.A.
“The persistence of food habits and images is always strong,” Egerton says. “Rice makes us think of China and Japan and Southeast Asia, not of Arkansas and South Carolina and the Gulf Coast. Yet here it is, a presence in our diet for 300 years — and in Hong Kong, at this very moment, no doubt someone is reaching for a steaming bowlful that came out of a field in the wetlands of Louisiana or the prairie of Texas or the delta of Arkansas.” In other words, we need a new appreciation of this common grain — and who grows it.
Egerton’s way with recipes is as unique as his broader writing style. Here’s how he describes making a pot of Red Rice, as fine a dish as you’ll eat this season. “Begin by frying 4 or 5 strips of bacon until crisp; drain on absorbent paper, crumble and set aside. Put 3 or 4 tablespoons of the dregs and grease into a heavy pot (I use an aluminum dutch oven, but the same large black skillet I fry the bacon in might do just as well). Chop 1 large onion coarsely and saute it in the fat over medium heat for about 5 minutes. I sometimes include some chopped bell pepper with the onions, and a teaspoon or more of minced garlic. When the onions have begun to get soft and translucent, add 2 cups peeled and chopped tomatoes (fresh or canned), reserving the juice. Season the pot with ½ teaspoon salt, ¼ teaspoon black pepper, 1/8 teaspoon of cayenne and 1 tablespoon Worcestershire sauce. Simmer and stir the mixture; adjust the seasonings to suit you. Add 1 cup of raw, long-grained rice and continue cooking uncovered, over low heat for about 10 minutes, stirring occasionally. If it seems too dry, add a little of the tomato juice or a little hot water; the mixture should be quite moist but not standing in liquid. When the consistency and taste are to your liking, transfer the contents to a 1-quart baking casserole with top, stir in the crumbled bacon bits, cover the dish and bake it for about 45 minutes in a preheated 450-degree F. oven. Once or twice during that time, lift the lid and stir the rice gently with a spoon so it won’t get dry and hard on the bottom or around the edges. As soon as the rice is tender, it’s ready to serve.” (Note: There are many recipes for this rich dish — some called Red Rice, some Savannah Rice, some Spanish Rice. They are all similar, varying in small ways. Most use a lower oven temperature — 350 degrees F. — when baking. Some complete the process on stove-top, watching carefully, and fluffing the rice at the end of the process. All ovens differ, so use your best judgment on the temperature that will produce perfect results. I would probably use 375 degrees F. and cook for one hour.)
Egerton is an entertaining and informative food writer and his recipes are almost as much fun as the 100-year-old recipe from Hetty Harrington. Southerners keep making history with their foods and the way they prepare them. It’s a good way to be remembered.

Joni Woolf, a writer and editor, now lives in Schley County, having moved from her home in Macon several years ago. Contact her at indigojoni@windstream.net