Spring 2017 CGRF Meeting
At the April 7 meeting at the Vendue Inn in downtown Charleston, Ethnobotanist Francis Morean from Arima, Trinidad, told the story of Moruga Hill Rice, a bearded upland rice preserved by the Merikins, a community of Gullah-Geechee British Royal Marines who fought for liberty and land during the War of 1812 and took the plants of the Georgia sea islands to southern Trinidad in 1816.
Approximately 40 farmers now keep the historic rice in cultivation, growing it on hills and in cleared fields, not in water impoundments. To this day the farmers preserve two messages in their community: that the original home of the rice is Africa and that their former home was the Lowcountry and Chesapeake regions of southeastern America.
Morean, the keynote speaker at the Spring meeting of the Carolina Gold Rice Foundation, recounted the complex story of Hill Rice (Creole Rice, Providence Rice, Mountain Rice) in Trinidad. He told of its neglect by government agencies, its important place in communal rituals and spiritual rites, its connection with initiatives to grow teak on the island, and its particular association with an isolated, almost insular, community centered in the long under-developed countryside around Prince’s Town, Trinidad.
The rice is of particular interest to those who love Southern food, and the Gullah-Geechee people in particular. As research by the Carolina Gold Rice Foundation strongly suggests, Hill Rice was known as bearded upland rice in the United States and was the one West African rice that became a crop rice in the late 18th and 19th centuries. Since it could be grown as a garden plant, it had none of the liabilities of “wet rices”: malaria, huge capital outlays for infrastructure, enormous labor demands for ditching, planting, and harvesting. It could be grown by enslaved Africans as a provision plant or a small farmer as a local cash crop.
While naturalists Mark Catesby, John Drayton, and R.F.W. Alston documented at least three West African rices planted in the Lowcountry during the slave era, their notices invariably indicated the small scale of plantings compared to the two great commodity rices produced in the region: Madagascar (or Carolina) White and Gold Seed (Carolina Gold) — rices genetically of south Asian origin. After 1790, however, a new African rice appeared in the South, and its culture was not restricted to the coastal plain along the tidal rivers: bearded upland rice.
Where did this rice originate? According to Nathaniel Cutting, the ship captain who conveyed a 30 lb. cask of seed to Thomas Jefferson in 1789, from "River Denby, about the Latt. 9.° 30' North” near present Conakry in Guinea. Jefferson had read reports of dry culture upland rice from John Boardly Blake & L. Lamy from Cochin, China, and realized its great advantages for small-scale farmers. When Cutting found upland rice in Africa and shipped it to Jefferson, the avid agriculturalist sent seed throughout South Carolina and Georgia. Of his recipients, Abraham Baldwin of Georgia was most energetic, spreading seed throughout his state in the 1790s and 1800s.
Some called it red bearded rice because the grains in some were red; most called it bearded because there was a spike on the awn of the grain (a natural defense to inhibit consumption by birds). A landrace, it was diverse in coloration. American farmers preferred white rice and selected their seed to promote lighter coloration. Francis Morean indicated that in Trinidad consumers preferred red grain rice, although a number of gradations of color from red to white exist there too. The pericarp covering the starch grain is red in all strains.
Bearded upland rice became functionally extinct in North America over a century ago. Indeed Edmund Ruffin, the agronomist, noted in the 1850s that planting of the variety was being suspended. While no reason is given, it is probable that the red strains of the rice made cultivators fear it was a form of red weedy rice, a primitive rice variety that can take over rice fields and supplant crop rice because of its quick germination. At any rate, red bearded rice had vanished from the American landscape by the early 20th century. Where did this important grain from the African diaspora survive? In southern Trinidad among the Merikins.
Dr. Michael Purugganan, Dean of Science at New York University and one of the geneticists involved in identifying survivals of African Oryza glaberrima in Suriname, attended the meeting. Because of his knowledge of African glaberrima varieties, Purugganan, and Dr. Amy Lawton-Rauh, a geneticist and friend of the Carolina Gold Rice Foundation from Clemson University, will do the genetic analysis that will pinpoint whence Moruga Hill Rice derived in Africa and where it stands in the taxonomy of rices.
Because the preservation and restoration of classic Lowcountry ingredients stands at the heart of the Carolina Gold Rice Foundation’s mission as a non-profit institution, another important feature of the Spring Meeting was the formal repatriation of sea island seeds (Jimmy Red Corn, Carolina Gold Rice, Carolina African Runner Peanuts, Sea Island White Flint Corn) to the Gullah-Geechee People. Queen Quet, leader of the Gullah-Geechee, received the returned ingredients.
The presentations by Dr. Brian Ward, Dr. David Shields, Queen Quet, and Francis Morean were videotaped and after editing will be posted on the Carolina Gold Rice Foundation webpage.
Because Francis Morean believed it was important that the quality of Moruga Hill Rice preserved by the Merikins be understood, the Foundation arranged a tasting. This was possible only because the Vendue Hotel and chef Forrest Parker of the hotel’s restaurant Drawing Room made facilities available for the preparation and serving of food. Chef B. J. Dennis, who had spent time in Trinidad with Francis Morean learning island foodways, Chef Forrest Parker, Chef Davon Coad, and the extraordinary bakers from Root Baking Co. and Butcher & Bee provided a sumptuous feast using tradition Moruga and Lowcountry ingredients.