Written By David S. Shields
Originally published in The Rice Paper Newsletter, Spring 2011
Before The Quaker Oat Company wheeled out its gun in 1904 and began puffing rice — before Snap, Crackle & Pop excited the ears of sleepy children in 1928, hot rice dishes graced the breakfast table. Now they have disappeared from the family table and vanished from the breakfast bill of fare. Here we will recall rice's place at the morning meal before the rise of cold cereal with milk as family fare in the early 20th century.
Edmund Ruffin, the volatile Virginia-born agronomist who many viewed as the savior of the south's cotton-starved soil, published a landmark survey of South Carolina‟s agriculture in 1844. It paid acute attention to rice, the state's staple grain. In Appendix B, Ruffin provided four culinary and two household recipes for rice that were “common with us” yet “may not be found in all the manuals of house-keeping:” instructions how to boil plain rice, two recipes for breakfast rice bread, a related recipe for rice griddle cakes, and domestic directions for making glue and starch from rice. Ruffin's brief foray into the kitchen is most interesting in its indication that the Carolina breakfast table was where one encountered rice in its baked and fried forms. (SOURCE: Edmund Ruffin, Report on the Commencement and Progress of the Agricultural Survey of South Carolina (Charleston: SC, 1844), p. 29.)
Rice Breakfast Bread
Mix a spoonful of butter with some hot hominy, very thoroughly, and spread it to cool, then beat up an egg very light, add some milk, then mix in the hominy with rice flour until it is a thick batter, add salt, q.s., stir it well, then drop it from a spoon into an oven and bake quickly. (Vaux)
Another Rice Bread
Have a buck for this special purpose — mix over nigh some hominy, or the eyes of the rice, boiled soft, with milk and rice flour, (having added salt q.s.) into a stiff batter, so that it will just pour —set it where it will not get warm, which injures it; in the morning stir it, pour it into the pan and set it to bake. (Gallivant)
Griddles for Breakfast
Mix a thin batter with milk and rice-flour, adding salt, q.s. have your griddle-iron hot, grease it with lard, pour some batter on, spread it thin, turn it and brown it both sides.
Of the three recipes supplied, only the last retains some familiarity in the eyes of 21st century breakfast eaters, because it it is recognizably a form of pancake. In the 19th-century griddle cakes had already become a breakfast fixture throughout the United States. Best selling cook books, such as Miss Beecher’s Domestic Receipt Book (1856), supplied guidance for a whole range of “griddles” — buckwheat, corn, rye, wheat, and rice. The cooking surface was prepared similarly for every sort of griddle. The cook heated the griddle, put a piece of salt pork on a fork, and rubbed it evenly over the surface. This method prevented excess fat from being absorbed into the cakes. Beecher did offer one exception. “Fried Rice for Breakfast” uses day old rice cut into slices and fried brown in sweet lard. When reading through Beecher‟s chapter of breakfast recipes, one learns that the Breakfast breads that Ruffin has procured from Carolina cooks belong to a category of breakfast preparations called "drop cakes," thick batters spooned into tin rounds in Dutch ovens and baked until firm. The Gallivant Rice Bread departs from the norm by eschewing eggs, a usual ingredient in this sort of preparation.
Miss Beecher expanded the repertoire by adding “Rice Waffles” to the breakfast table.
A quart of milk.
A tea-cup of solid boiled rice, soaked three hours in half the milk.
A pint and a half of what flour, or rice flour. Three well-beaten eggs. Bake in waffle irons. The rice must be salted enough when boiled. (pp. 96-97)
The rice waffle, particularly in its form employing rice flour, became a fixture in American breakfast in the 19th century. Light, crusty, and a touch sweet, it paired well with preserves, and, when hot, with a dusting of confectioner‟s sugar. The lightness of the waffle, paradoxically, made it a favored component of hearty breakfasts, preceding a substantial meat: “Breakfast — Rice waffles, mutton croquettes, fried raw potatoes.” (SOURCE: Estelle Woods Wilcox & Ellen Clow, Practical Housekeeping (Minneapolis: Buckeye Publishing Co., 1883), p. 389.)
One notices in the preparations encountered so far the absence of an ingredient that became increasingly prominent at breakfast over the course of the 19th and 20th centuries — sugar. Because the natural starches in rice, when cooked, converted into sugars, there was, perhaps, a sense of redundancy in amplifying the sweetness. Nevertheless, the mid-19th century boom in cookie baking and sweet biscuit manufacture set cooks tinkering with formulae until a creditable sweet rice biscuit could be created. In 1854's The Complete Biscuit and Gingerbread Baker’s Assistant we encounter an early example:
3 lbs of flour, 1 lb. of rice flour, 1 lb. 10 oz. of loaf sugar, 1 lb. of butter, 1⁄2 oz. of volatile salt, and 3⁄4 pint of milk, or 4 eggs, and the remaining portion milk.
Mix the two flours together, rub in the butter with it, make a bay, add the sugar, and make them into a dough. Roll it out in a sheet the six of an inch in thickness, cut them out with a plain round cutter of three inches in diameter, wash the tops with milk, and throw them on rice flour; place them on buttered tins so as not to touch, and bake them in a moderately brisk oven. (SOURCE: 3 George Read, The Complete Biscuit and Gingerbread Baker’s Assistant (London: Dean & Son, 1854), p. 52.)
While breakfast rice — whether boiled, griddled, or baked — dominated regional eating in the Lowcountry, it was reckoned so iconic a morning dish that it became part of the national meal as well. In novels of the 1850s the descriptions of breakfasts may be found with some frequency. Here is a political breakfast in Washington, D.C. featuring dishes from all of the sections of the United States: “We sauntered together into one of the largest, and longest, and handsomest breakfast rooms this side of Texas. A table of great length stretched across its centre, upon which was arranged in great profusion, Georgia potatoes, New Hampshire bacon, Virginia oysters and fried eels, South Carolina rice cakes, and Cape Cod fish balls — all strong incentives to the stomach of a hungry politician.” The fame of Carolina Gold Rice and its market spanned the continent, the hemisphere, and the Atlantic by 1855.
Students of breakfast will note that rice was frequently paired in recipes with hominy — meaning small hominy—or grits. Milled white corn existed in a mental zone of equivalency with rice in the minds of many 19th century cooks. Mrs. Lincoln, of the Boston Cooking School, in her Boston Cook Book, offers a version of griddles that announce complete substitutability: “Rice or Hominy Griddle-Cakes.”
During the Civil War the Union Commissary Department specified a daily allotment of “fifteen pounds of beans or peas, and ten pounds of rice or hominy” for every 100 men. There were, of course, regional inflections, to this idea of gustatory proximity. A southern correspondent to the New England Kitchen Magazine observed: “ No southerner in good health and in his right mind ever eats 'hominy with milk and sugar' for breakfast . . . . Hominy in this part of the country is dressed with butter or a little of meat gravy, and is eaten with a chop, or a steak or bacon and eggs, or boiled ham, etc. Hominy thus served is a standard breakfast dish in the South and is fit for a king. It needs no sugar or cream or nutmeg, and to put either on it is to commit a crime against gastronomy. The same observations apply to rice, the standard dinner dish of the South, which the Northern menu-makers tell us to serve with cream and sugar.”
While this 1895 opinion informs us that boiled hominy had supplanted boiled rice as a southern breakfast dish, and that steamed rice had migrated to the dinner menu, the greatest point of interest is the resistance to sweetening grain porridges in general.
The objection voiced here was not universal. Hominy and molasses had been a staple dish of the laboring classes from the 1830s on. Yet the preference for gravy and butter certainly dominated the middle class tables and those of gentry folk. The cookbook writers and arbiters of taste, too, frowned upon adding saccharine to boiled grits and boiled rice. This ban, however, did not extend to dishes prepared by other cooking techniques: frying or backing.
Many testimonies survive to the distinctive qualities of a traditional southern breakfast — the presence of both hominy and rice — the variety of cooking technique — boiling, baking, and frying — and the conjunction of grains and meats. William Gilmore Simms, the novelist and cultural critic, reflected on its character in As Good as Comedy: “A Georgia, indeed a Southern breakfast, differs in sundry respects from ours at the North, chiefly, however, in the matter of breadstuffs. . . . Hominy itself is a breadstuff; a dish that our must but poorly represents. It is seldom eatable out of a Southern household. Then there are waffles, and rice cakes and fritters, and other things of like description, making a variety at once persuasive to the palate and not hurtful to health.” Simms noticed the familiar rice cakes. Yet adds a new dish to the southern breakfast table: the rice fritter, or rice beignet. In this light concoction, rice, sugar, spice, and eggs are transmuted into some fine by boiling lard.
Boil the rice in milk with some powder-sugar, orange-flower water, a pinch of cinnamon powder, and a little butter; when quite soft put to it a liaison of yolks of eggs, pour it into a pan to cool. Make your preparation into balls, about the size of an egg, dip them in egg, fry them, sprinkle them with sugar, and serve.
Jules Harder, San Francisco's great celebrity chef of the 1880s, refined this basic croquette into its most splendid form.
Wash one pound of Rice in cold water and drain it. Then put it in a saucepan with two quarts of boiled milk, the peelings of one lemon and one stick of cinnamon. Cover the saucepan set it on a slow fire to cook gently, and when the Rice is nearly done add six ounces of powdered sugar and two ounces of butter and let it cook until thoroughly done. Should the Rice get too dry while cooking add a little more milk to it. Take it off of the fire, take out the lemon peelings and the stick of cinnamon, mix the Rice well together, and when it is somewhat cool, add to it the yolks of six raw eggs, a little essence of lemon or orange-flower water, (whichever may be desired). Mix it well together and put it into a buttered pan. Cover it with a buttered paper cover and let it get cold. Then roll the Rice in any croquette shapes desired, dip them in beaten eggs, then in fresh bread crumbs, arrange them in proper shape, fry them in hot lard, drain them, roll them in powdered sugar into which add a little ground cinnamon, and then dish them up on a napkin.
His unsweetened version incorporated three ounces of grated parmesan cheese and six egg yolks, frying the fritters in butter rather than lard.
There is something inexplicably satisfying about the lightness, crispiness, sugariness, mellowness of a beignet de riz — or the browned splendor of a rice waffle — or the filling rice griddle. Some pleasures that became passé are novel enough to become pleasurable again. Do Snap Crackle and Pop have to maintain their monopoly over breakfast. Or may their reign be ending?