Against the Grain

Cooks prize the flavor and texture of Texas long-grain rice, but suburban sprawl is gobbling up the fields where it is grown.

April 27, 2005|By Stephen G. Henderson | Stephen G. Henderson,SPECIAL TO THE SUN

CHINA, Texas - Two brothers, George and Bill Dishman, are slowly driving along dusty roads a few hours southeast of Houston, down 'round the Gulf of Mexico. The land here rolls for miles in all directions, flat as a frying pan.

"This is rice country," Bill says, in his easy drawl that makes the word sound more like "rise." He has on a pair of dark sunglasses and, though he's 71 years old, has a lean, youthful mien.

"There used to be more rice fields, but they keep on urbanizin' and urbanizin,' " George adds, nodding at an unsightly McMansion that recently parked itself in an open pasture.

Fiddling with his car radio, George, 76, wears a Panama hat and denim jeans so heavily starched and pressed they could probably stand up on their own. Finally, he finds a tune he likes, the 1941 classic "Deep in the Heart of Texas."

It's an appropriate melody, as the Dishman brothers are headed to a town so deep in the Lone Star State it's called China (population: 200). Here, for the better part of a century, their family has planted long-grain rice. So seemingly remote are these coastal plains, which locals like to say are "spittin' distance" from Louisiana, it's difficult to envision their being "urbanized." Yet, as Houston's sprawl continues to grow eastward, rapidly increasing land values make rice farming less profitable.

"And, when an old farmer dies, there's no young one coming up," says Bill.

Which explains why the Dishmans occasionally take a nostalgic drive, to see what may be a vanishing way of life. They know every inch of this land - who owns this, who's planted that - and commonly refer to men their own age as boys, as in "Charlie Bollich was one heck of a rice breeder. He's a good boy."

Bollich, who retired in 1991 from Texas A&M University Rice Research and Extension Center, provides some useful statistics.

"At the peak of production, in the 1950s through '70s, there were half a million acres of rice fields here in Texas. But it's declined a lot, even in the last five years. Right now, we're down to probably 200-300,000 acres," he says. "The cost of production is sky-high. Unless you have inherited land, you couldn't get into rice farming today unless you have money to burn."

A global favorite

There's an irony here, because for nearly all of recorded history, rice has been one of the world's most basic foodstuffs. Even today, it's the dietary mainstay of an estimated two-thirds of the earth's population. In Cambodia, for instance, the verb for to eat, translates literally as to rice.

Across the globe, there are nearly 40,000 varieties grown. Rice has little or no fat, no cholesterol and is a good source of B-complex vitamins, minerals and amino acids. Its neutral flavor readily adapts to varying global tastes and so is the basis for everything from rice pudding to sushi.

China and India led global production for centuries, but America came on strong in the early 1900s, and now is one of the world's leading exporters of rice. The USA Rice Federation, based in Washington, estimates that the United States supplies up to 14 percent of the rice that enters world trade.

Most of what's raised in states like Arkansas, California, Louisiana, Mississippi and Missouri is long-grain rice - an expensive crop because kernels often break during the milling process. Texas long-grain rice is especially prized, however, because when cooked properly, each kernel is dry, fluffy and completely separated from others.

"It is certainly a part of our heritage," says Katharine Carmichael, a renowned chef and caterer in Beaumont, Texas, one of the largest towns in this area. "My daddy was a rice farmer, so we had a big trash can full of rice out in the breezeway, and Mama cooked rice and gravy nearly every day."

Carmichael says her customers always ask for rice salads - rarely potatoes or pasta - because rice is central to the region's cooking. There's no limit to what can be combined with rice, she suggests, including fruit. She recommends rinsing rice before cooking, then adding a dressing while the prepared rice is still hot. Liquid will readily absorb into each kernel, making the salad more flavorful.

"Texas rice isn't starchy; it doesn't clump together," Carmichael says. "For risotto, you're better off with a short- or medium-grained variety. What's best about long-grain, however, is that it never becomes a sticky glob on your plate."

How it grows

Several factors explain why rice thrives in southeast Texas. First, there is a long growing season of temperate weather. The land, as noted, is exceedingly flat and its clay-based soil retains moisture. Finally, there is an ample supply of fresh water from the Neches River.

Not that the work is easy. At the Dishman Brothers farm, it is immediately evident how much back-breaking effort it takes to produce such a humble commodity.

"Rice is more labor-intensive than just about any other type of farming," says Bill Dishman, Jr., 50, a rare local son who's joined his father in the family business.

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