A look at the contributions of Africans to the cultivation of Carolina rice crops

September 13, 1992|By Marilyn McCraven

THE CAROLINA RICE KITCHEN: THE AFRICAN CONNECTION.

Karen Hess.

University of South Carolina.

214 pages. $24.95. The author calls this work a hymn of praise for the Africans enslaved and brought to South Carolina to clear the cypress swamps and plant and tend rice crops. But she's too modest. It's more of a symphony than a hymn.

She delves into a variety of disciplines -- including anthropology, political science and sociology -- to examine the complex history of the state's Low Country.

Her work is most interesting when examining contradictions. For example, West Africans -- many from Benin, where rice had grown for centuries -- taught the slave-holders how to cultivate the grain. This contradicts the widespread belief that slaves arrived on these shores unskilled. She notes that African women rTC frequently weren't credited for their recipes that were included in cookbooks of the time.

Contradictions aside, the reasons for writing the book are the far-reaching implications that rice cultivation had on the area and the country. From Colonial times to the end of slavery, rice was a major income-producing crop. Many planters in the lowlands were among the wealthiest in the colonies. Their Carolina Gold -- a particularly fine rice -- was treasured by the emperors of China.

While these historical details are fascinating, they are matched by the culinary history included. Such southern dishes as hopping John and pilau (a rice and meat dish) are traced to Africa by way of Arab countries. The writer is scrupulously careful to separate fact from conjecture when discussing the history of a dish, and her conclusions do not seem far-fetched.

The last third of the book is devoted to recipes from the original Carolina Rice Kitchen, a compilation of recipes released around the turn of the century for a state exhibition. Many of these recipes make for entertaining reading, but aren't suitable for today's convenience-minded cooks.

Ms. McCraven is a copy editor with The Sun.

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