Carolina Gold was once the most popular and ubiquitous rice grown in America. The rice was a specialty of South Carolina low country, which produced it as the first commercial rice America had ever sold. The rice was so popular it was a staple of breakfast, lunch and dinner all over America and eventually the world, where it was exported to England, France and Asia. At its apex, Carolina Gold was grown throughout the south, with nearly 100,000 acres in production by 1820. The rice was marveled at for its slightly hazelnut taste, its thick texture and its excellent complement to a variety of other flavors.
Of course there was another side to Carolina Gold, because it was grown in the plantation system that dominated its production in South Carolina, Georgia and North Carolina. The product relied on black slaves to sow, tend and harvest the grains. The product was so successful it prompted the wealthy growers to demand more slaves from western Africa. Western African people were already experienced rice growers, and the West coast of Africa had already been given the name the Rice Coast.
The end of slavery and a series of hurricanes in the Carolinas ended the commercial viability of Carolina Gold. In a New York Times story examining the history of the rice, the newspaper noted that “The final undoing of rice growing in South Carolina was the introduction of other strains of rice into states where harvesting machinery too heavy for Carolina’s muddy fields bested the low country’s hand labor.”
Rice production shifted after the Civil War to Texas, Louisiana and California, where new immigrants from China created a demand for rice.
At that point, most of America’s rice production moved to places like Louisiana, Texas, and even California, where an influx of Chinese immigrants searching for gold created an enormous demand for the crop. Many growers made the rice a parent strain, which further watered down the traditional flavor of the rice. By the 1940s, authentic Carolina Gold was rarely found.
The rice was still alive in lore, however, as writers still waxed poetic about the deliciousness of the rice and family cookbooks memorialized the seed. A brand known as “Carolina Gold Brand” was sold in stores throughout the South, but it was not the authentic strain. In the mid-1980s a curious optometrist discovered that the USDA’s Rice Research Institute in Texas was still banking the original seed. Using the USDA strains as well as the seeds maintained by a few locals, the optometrist and several partners started planting it, reviving it to 10,000 pounds by 1988.
Enter Glenn Roberts, an eccentric who specialized in the study of the history of food. Reviving Carolina Gold for production became Roberts’ obsession. He traveled the back roads of South Carolina, searching first for a Carolina mill corn that was revered in Antebellum recipes. He found it in a field owned by a bootlegger. Roberts harvested the crop, which went back to at least 1600, wowing chefs around the country. Using the template he followed for the mill corn, Roberts eventually discovered the right strain and formed a foundation along with the optometrist, to preserve and cultivate Carolina Gold and other nearly extinct strains.
Roberts’ obsession with culinary history paid off. The real version of Carolina Gold is now found in restaurants around the Americas and the world.