written by David Shields
Originally published in the Rice Paper newsletter, Fall 2009
Benne seed, or sesame seed, was one of the five most important foodstuffs brought by slaves from West Africa to North America. An entire African-American cuisine grew up around the plant of which only the benne wafer, a cookie associated with Charleston, and benne candy, a favorite confection of the West Indies, survive.
White planters took up the plant in the early 18th century as a source for oil, when experiments in olive cultivation proved unsuitable for most of the south. By the early 19th century it was widely planted from Virginia to Missouri. Of the favorite slave dishes — benne and hominy, benne and greens, and benne soup — only the last entered into southern cuisine generally.
Robert M. Goodwin of Skidaway Island, George, observed in 1824, that for “negroes in this part of the country . . . it [benne] is thought . . . to be much better in soup than okra, and it is used by them in the same manner.” Sarah Rutledge, author of the Carolina Housewife, included a “Bennie Soup” with oysters in her landmark cookbook. But the simpler, classic soup, was consumed more widely, often served over grits or rice, a new world approximation of the Mende treat, fou-fou.
Long grain Carolina Gold was the creation of Joshua John Ward of Brookgreen Plantation in South Carolina. The standard size of a grain of Gold Seed rice was 5/16ths of an inch. Ward, through careful cultivation of a sport of Carolina Gold, managed to grew grain nearly a half an inch long. Requiring extraordinary efforts of seedsmanship and cultivation, it existed on the market from 1840 to 1860, and commanded the highest prices of any world rice on the Paris market. The Civil War brought an end to its availability. The Carolina Gold Rice Foundation has an initiative to recreate the variety in the near future.
Benne Soup Recipe
1 cup benne seed, Enough sesame oil to cover the bottom of a cooking vessel, A handful of wheat flour, Salt & Pepper, onions, A quart of water.
Toast benne seed in a dry skillet stirring constantly 2 minutes until browned, but not burnt. Empty contents of the skillet into a mortar and mash the seed into powder.
In the same skillet cover the bottom with sesame oil (the African-American way of making it is detailed below in the section on oil) and mix in flour. Stir and cook this until you form a brown roux. Fry one large roughly chopped onion. Add finely crushed benne, and then hot water, steadily, stirring constantly. Cook at a constant medium until it is rich and thick and salt to taste.
This is a hearty and flavorful soup. Serve on top of steamed Carolina Gold Long Grain Rice.