Calas and Black History

In the course of writing about beignets last week, I learned about another fritter with even deeper historical pockets. The cala, a yeasty variation made of rice, figured into the culinary repertoire of Creole cooks who were known to sell hot calas in the streets of the French Quarter in the 19th century.

I've got a batter of cala dough rising, so I'll report back with the results in tomorrow's blog. In the meantime, let's talk about what got this calas party started in the first place: rice.

The ubiquitous starch that we've all come to take for granted at suppertime, rice was a major contributing factor for a booming slave trade in South Carolina for more than 100 years and has played a pivotal role in African-American history, cuisine and culture.

"From the 1720s to 1860, no other commodity was remotely as important to the region as rice," writes John H. Tibbetts in "African Roots, Carolina Gold", from Coastal Heritage, a quarterly publication of the SC Sea Grant Consortium in Charleston, S.C. "Indigo, cotton, forest products, and manufacturing never came close to matching the riches that planters drew from slave-based rice production."

"Rice was also precious to the lowcountry aristocrats who enslaved West Africans," the paper argues. "Particularly before the Civil War, the swells of Charleston, Savannah, Beaufort, and Georgetown revered the grain."

The city of Charleston (known then as Charles Town) was the hub of the rice-slave industry, which between 1735 and 1740, had imported more than 12,000 slaves from West Africa, particularly from the rice-savvy cultures of Sierra Leone, Gambia, Senegal and Liberia. The inextricable links are documented in "The Gullah: Rice, Slavery and the Sierra Leone -American Connection," written by anthropologist and James Madison University professor Joseph A. Opala.

"Gullah people are the descendants of the slaves who worked on the rice plantations in South Carolina and Georgia," writes Opala, whose book excerpts are available online.

As a result, "The Gullah diet is still based heavily on rice, reflecting the Rice Coast origins of many of their ancestors," writes Opala. "Two traditional dishes are "rice and greens" and "rice and okra," similar to Sierra Leone's plasas and rice and okra soup. The Gullah (and other South Carolinians) also make "red rice" which, when served with a "gumbo" containing okra, fish, tomatoes, and hot peppers, greatly resembles West African jollof rice.

"Hoppin' John," the black-eyed pea dish that is required eating in southern households on New Year's Day, is an example of a pilau (aka perloo, pilaf), a rice-based one-pot dish with ancient culinary references worldwide.

I know these few references only skim the surface of this rice pot, but perhaps a few of these tidbits will set a conversation in motion. With Black History Month underway, it seems fitting to pay tribute to a people exploited and endlessly abused, whose resourcefulness and resiliency ultimately shaped American cookery, as well as that of the Caribbean and South America. Let's all make a pot of rice and while it steams, boils or bakes, let's travel back to 17th-century Carolina and reflect on the blood that was shed and the culinary legacy that has endured for nearly 300 years.

By the early 20th century, the Carolina rice industry collapsed, but the past 10 years have seen attempts in reviving heirloom rice crops.

Carolina Gold Rice Foundation is a nonprofit organization in Charleston, S.C., dedicated to preserving heirloom rice crops, and two South Carolina companies, Carolina Plantation Rice and Anson Mills, sell locally grown varieties of this historically-rich rice, with online catalogues.

Some good reading on the topic:
"Black Rice: The African Origins of Rice Cultivation in the Americas" by Judith A. Carney

"Carolina Rice Kitchen: The African Connection" by Karen Hess and Samuel Gaillard Stoney

"A Revolution in Eating: How the Quest for Food Shaped America" by James McWilliams

Multiple works by Vertamae Grosvenor and Jessica B. Harris

So, go on and share your favorite way of eating rice...or maybe you've got a grainy story to tell. Tomorrow: the calas report.

By Kim ODonnel |  February 21, 2007; 12:42 PM ET Culinary History
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Please email us to report offensive comments.

Are you going to post the calas recipe?

My favorite way of eating rice is in rice pudding - but only homemade, and even though I have her recipe, only when made by a dear family friend. When I make it, it just isn't as good.

I made rice cooked in homemade chicken broth a while ago and my husband thought it was the best thing he had ever had (well, that's an exaggeration, but he did love it). His mom doesn't cook a single thing (really!) and he didn't know that people cook rice this way.

Posted by: star11 | February 21, 2007 3:14 PM

Here's a recipe, from another newspaper:

Posted by: Anonymous | February 21, 2007 4:13 PM

Kim I've always loved your live chats and blogs but never more so than today. My mother's family is from SC and she actually grew up about 60 miles west of Charleston. We eat rice probably 4-5 times a week. I thought it was just something my family does. Thanks to you I got a little bit of a history lesson today. It is wonderful of you to recognize Black History Month and the contributions to the culinary arts. I'd love it if you did a few more before the month is over!

Posted by: VTFlyygirl | February 21, 2007 4:48 PM

I really appreciate the history lesson here!

Posted by: NTT | February 22, 2007 1:11 PM

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