Ode to a Secret Kitchen

Written By Glenn Roberts

Originally Published in the Rice Paper Newsletter, Spring 2012


Long gone, those serendipitous early evening “plates” from a nondescript home kitchen on James Island just across the Ashley River from Charleston’s famed peninsula. Secret meals, screeching hot, consumed ravenously and privately in a car. You couldn’t resist the clandestine and primal pursuit of well-being. And you brought beer for company, or, if you were lucky, some ultra-smooth, clear-beaded homemade “good” would silently appear in a jelly jar along with your plate, silver, and cotton napkin. 

Those plates were loaded with miraculously delicious rice casseroles concealing wild herbs, seafood netted that day by hand, or wild fowl, just shot. Your portion of rice casserole possessed the crisp caramel grains that sizzled next to the bottom and sides of the iron pot creating an impossible and delirious collision of shatter and velvet textures with each bite. There were fresh picked and stewed greens on the side, grown in the kitchen garden you walked by to get to the back door — and plenty of homemade pepper vinegar drizzled over them. Hot peppers from family saved seed came from that same garden to season vinegar made from wildly aromatic black muscadines. Hot crackling cornbread or stately biscuits with huge swipes of melting butter, churned that day, screamed to be eaten now

That biscuit wheat was grown just across the Stono River on Johns Island and the corn was in patches all over James Island and both were milled fresh weekly. Even rice was local ... pounded by hand then winnowed by fanner basket the ancient way then right into the iron casserole pot and into the oven. That oven heat roiling off your plate could hurt you if you tried to touch your food while walking back to your car.

Majestic women gathered and processed these ingredients, cooked these foods and were glad to share a portion of their family supper out the back door for a dollar or two if they knew you and were confident you wouldn’t talk too much about their talent or location. This was the ultimate local food experience decades ago that spoke of rural mystery and island life. 

This food, a furtive swirl of Huguenot Cocotte and African culinary genius, made you swoon. This food was the pinnacle of pilau, purloo, purlow, or any other spelling you wish — the distinctive center of Charleston rice cuisine.

These hidden homes and kitchens have vanished along with notions of hidden gardens — all shadows of culinary wonder along the Carolina Sea Islands. Ironically, if somehow just one could appear by magic today, the dining experience would certainly become a sought after pop-up event announced to a chosen few in code on Twitter. The unmarketed appeal of this style of food experience would be limitless.

We remind ourselves that centuries of touch and intuition, in addition to chef dedication and cutting-edge culinary concept, moved Charleston into the global spotlight as a world class culinary destination over the last decade. Charleston’s culinary fame is based upon the integrity of its kitchen gardens and small farms growing the foods that created our cuisine — this alone, our local cuisine identity and its heritage, resonated with the talent of our world-class chefs. But we perceive an equally exciting future for Charleston food in local home kitchens, not just in our famous restaurants. A future that affirms the heritage of our Lowcountry family gardens and farms on a personal scale.

Charleston chefs help in the genesis of our idea to increase awareness and support for the growing community of local food and gardening enthusiasts. We are excited that a few passionate Charlestonians have quietly initiated the restoration of backyard family rice gardening for all residing in the Charleston Lowcountry. This is, after all, the Carolina Gold Rice Foundation’s culinary ideal. In our view, local gardeners will inevitably grow their own rice in a region that consumes more rice per capita today than anywhere else in the South.

The Carolina Gold Rice Foundation is making tons, literally — more than 15 tons to be exact — of Carolina Gold and Charleston Gold rice seed available, pro bono, to qualified growers this season. Many are small-plot backyard growers with aspirations to cook and serve the rice they grow in their own homes. The rest are scattered all across the South and even into Appalachia. Our intention is to make the Carolina Rice Kitchen, our local cuisine, accessible to home cooks, not just professional chefs, through support of personal kitchen gardens. In pursuing this goal beyond seed and growing advice, we are sharing the home kitchen traditions of the Carolina Rice Kitchen in our future newsletters. 

The dishes include a stunning list of easily prepared rice casseroles and rice breads and extend to more esoteric but uncomplicated ideas including rice beignets, rice custards, rice biscuits, and myriad rice scones and pastries. Until the 1980s, Charleston enjoyed the Holiday tradition of exchanging rice breads from home to home. The Carolina Gold Rice Foundation is committed to repatriating this tradition. Modern and antique recipes for Rice Pain de Mie and Rice Challah, both finished with Benne Seed, are but two of many traditional Charleston Holiday breads we will cover in future newsletters.

Beyond our interest in rice, The Carolina Gold Rice Foundation plans to promote kitchen gardening of benne whose leaves and young pods are more delicate and flavorful than many garden greens and okra. We already love benne wafers and candy here, so restoring the historic culinary applications of this plant, a plant critical to successful rice farming over the long term even in kitchen gardening scale, is inevitable. 

Of particular interest: we wonder why no home cooks have latched onto Benne Ice Cream. It is beyond superb and unique. We prepared and served “ices” aplenty here in Charleston before the Great Depression. We will present a lovely and simple recipe for Benne Ice, among others.

The Carolina Gold Rice Foundation is focused upon the day coming when the ghost of our secret kitchen is no more. We know the community of local rice cooks will return to their home tables and prepare spectacular foods that accompany rice in the field and on the stove. We will advocate for authentic rice food craft taking center stage in our homes while Charleston basks upon the world stage.