The Unexpected Reemergence of an Elusive Strain of Rice

The rice mill at Middleton Place Plantation, South Carolina. Photo by Brian Zinnel (CC BY-SA 4.0).

The history of the African diaspora in the Americas is a patchwork of oral traditions and cultural practices that had to endure centuries of slavery and oppression. Major chunks of it might be lost forever, but then, unexpectedly, some elements might make an unlikely reappearance. Such is the case of hill rice — a strain that was a staple of slaves’ culinary tradition in South Carolina and elsewhere, before disappearing around the turn of the 20th century. At the New York Times, Kim Severson retraces the recent, surprising discovery of hill rice on the Caribbean island of Trinidad by B.J. Dennis, a Charleston-based Gullah chef.

Mr. Dennis had heard about hill rice — also known as upland red bearded rice or Moruga Hill rice — through the culinary organization Slow Food USA and the Carolina Gold Rice Foundation, the group that brought back Carolina Gold in the early 2000s. He’d also heard stories about it from elderly cooks in his community. Like everyone else, he thought the hill rice of the African diaspora was lost forever.

But then, on a rainy morning in the Trinidad hills in December 2016, he walked past coconut trees and towering okra plants to the edge of a field with ripe stalks of rice, each grain covered in a reddish husk and sprouting spiky tufts.

“Here I am looking at this rice and I said: ‘Wow. Wait a minute. This is that rice that’s missing,'” he said.

It is hard to overstate how shocked the people who study rice were to learn that the long-lost American hill rice was alive and growing in the Caribbean. Horticulturists at the Smithsonian Institution want to grow it, rice geneticists at New York University are testing it and the United States Department of Agriculture is reviewing it. If all goes well, it may become a commercial crop in America, and a menu staple as diners develop a deeper appreciation for African-American food.

“It’s the most historically significant African diaspora grain in the Western Hemisphere,” said David S. Shields, a professor at the University of South Carolina and chairman of the Carolina Gold Rice Foundation, who works with Mr. Dennis on historical culinary projects and was with him that rainy day in Trinidad.

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