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Outside the tiny town of Oriental, just a few miles inland from Pamlico Sound, is a view that hasn’t been seen in North Carolina in a hundred years. It’s rice.

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Outside the tiny town of Oriental, just a few miles inland from Pamlico Sound, is a view that hasn’t been seen in North Carolina in a hundred years. It’s rice.

North Carolina’s Rice Revival

Outside the tiny town of Oriental, just a few miles inland from Pamlico Sound, is a view that hasn’t been seen in North Carolina in a hundred years. It’s rice. Get there at just the right time, during Tidewater Grain Company’s harvest season in August and September, and the green stalks will be shoulder-high, each one topped with drooping amber fringes of rice that look like clusters of golden beads.

The rice that’s returned to these chessboard-flat fields, where the elevation is barely 10 feet above sea level, isn’t just your basic long-grain table rice. It’s Carolina Gold, the rice with a story that captivates historians and a taste that draws chefs who want that story on their menus. It even plays a role in the larger narrative of the cultural food traditions that enslaved Africans brought to Southern tables.

Carolina Gold rice is on Chef Keith Rhodes’s menu at Catch in Wilmington. photograph by Matt Ray Photography

Until recently, Carolina Gold has been a South Carolina story. It’s the variety that put antebellum Charleston on the map as having the best rice in America, maybe the best in the world. Does it matter that this crop is now being harvested here in North Carolina? “Having something in our cultural area that’s grown in our area — that kind of deepens the story,” says Chef Keith Rhodes, the owner of Catch restaurant in Wilmington. Rhodes grew up in nearby Porters Neck, and he’s been quick to put North Carolina-grown Carolina Gold on his menu. “It hits home more that this is grown just a few miles away from my community.”

“There’s a fascination with the story of Carolina Gold,” says David S. Shields, an English professor at the University of South Carolina and an expert on heirloom Southern plants. “The idea of a staple that at one time demanded the highest price in the world rice market — you can’t say that about too many other heirloom American crops. And the quality of Carolina Gold — if you have a well-cooked plate of rice with butter on it, it’s an extraordinary thing.”

• • •

Carolina Gold was grown all around Charleston before the Civil War, but rice plantations also moved into North Carolina, where the crop was grown in a few locations as far north as the Cape Fear River. But after the Civil War, it began to disappear in both states, for several reasons. The biggest one: money. Carolina Gold was more expensive to produce than rice grown in Arkansas, Texas, and Louisiana. And when dikes were breached by storms, there were no more enslaved people to provide free labor to repair them.

“The history of rice is tied to African heritage that remains vibrant in the American South,” says culinary historian Michael W. Twitty, who recently tackled the subject in Rice, the final entry in the Savor the South cookbook series from the University of North Carolina Press. He likes to call Carolina Gold “the queen among queens” of commodities, second only to “King Cotton” for its importance in antebellum Southern agriculture.

About two weeks before it’s gathered, Carolina Gold rice has already taken on its namesake amber glow, which it keeps all the way through harvest. photograph by Baxter Miller

Enslaved people who were brought to the coastal South, including North and South Carolina, were mostly from Africa’s west coast, particularly in Liberia and what is now Senegal and Sierra Leone. Rice had been grown there for thousands of years, and West Africans brought that knowledge with them. “There’s a definitive link between rice knowledge and the people who cultivate rice,” Twitty says.

After the Civil War, rice farming hung on for a few decades, until a series of hurricanes in the late 19th and early 20th centuries wiped out the levees that had protected the fields. But the industry was already waning: Carolina Gold was being undersold in the global market and was a crop geared for hand harvest; the machinery that came along in the early 1900s was too heavy for muddy fields. Both Carolina Gold and the Carolinas’ rice industry were abandoned, disappearing for almost a century.

Then, in the 1990s, the movement toward embracing locally grown foods brought a renewed interest in restoring older crops that had been pushed aside for foods that had less flavor but were easier to grow, harvest, and ship long distances. At restaurants across the country, chefs started using their menus to tell stories and highlight flavors that our ancestors had known, a lot of them coming from seeds handed down like family china.

Chef Keith Rhodes of Catch in Wilmington uses Tidewater’s Carolina Gold rice for his hoppin’ John, served with soft-shell crab, shrimp, and crab-okra stew. photograph by Matt Ray Photography

There was also increasing demand among chefs for basmati-type rices, which are more aromatic than the more common japonica rice strains. The original Carolina Gold, a long-grain rice, was rediscovered in the 1980s, leading to the establishment of the Carolina Gold Foundation, which works with farmers who want to grow this variety. Led by people like Glenn Roberts of Anson Mills in South Carolina, Carolina Gold took off with top chefs.

Rhodes had been cooking with Anson Mills’ Carolina Gold rice before Tidewater Grain’s version came on the scene. “The rice we’re getting now, from North Carolina, it tends to be a little bit fresher,” he says. “Just a little more versatile, a softer kind of rice.” Like several other chefs who are using it, Rhodes agrees that it’s great for wetter preparations, like stews, versus dryer dishes like pilafs. “It has a great flavor,” he says. “And it will hold its texture well. When we’re making bogs, we can sprinkle it right in, and it won’t overcook.”

• • •

Bringing Carolina Gold to North Carolina wasn’t as simple as sticking seeds in the ground, though. In large-scale farming, risk can get expensive. So far, only one company has been willing to try it — Tidewater Grain Company. It’s the brainchild of two lifelong friends, Al Spruill and Tommy Wheeler. Spruill is a fifth-generation farmer who understands how to cultivate field crops, while Wheeler spent most of his career as a NASCAR general manager. As young men, Wheeler went to Davidson College to study physics, and Spruill studied agriculture at North Carolina State University.

Both men were members of the Killing Cans Hunt Club in the Pamlico County community of Whortonsville. “Cans” is a reference to canvasback ducks, a species that needs to be around water to dive down and find food. A duck impoundment — a place where waterfowl like to hang out — is really just a flooded grain field. Like ducks, rice is also a water-loving species. While rice strains in the South aren’t grown entirely underwater, like Asian varieties, they still need fields that can be flooded for weed control after the rice sprouts. And when you flood rice fields, you attract ducks.

The Killing Cans club started in 2009 with eight people who liked to spend time together hunting. A few years ago, the members started to worry: They knew that for their club to survive into the next generation, it would need more land. And land, as anyone who farms knows, is too expensive to leave empty until hunting season. “We were trying to find a different way forward,” Wheeler says. “How do we subsidize this? How do we get creative?”

When they’re not slogging through Tidewater’s rice fields, owners Al Spruill (left) and Tommy Wheeler enjoy hunting canvasback ducks (upper right). Their Carolina Gold rice has become a favorite among North Carolina’s chefs. photograph by BAXTER MILLER, WILLIAM KRUMPLEMAN/ISTOCK/GETTY IMAGES PLUS, MATT HUSLMAN

Traveling around the country on hunting expeditions, Spruill and Wheeler had noticed that the states most popular with duck hunters — Louisiana, Texas, Arkansas — also grow a lot of rice. They started studying wetlands management and discovered that rice was once grown in eastern North Carolina. That gave them an idea: Instead of just growing rice, what if they grew a special rice, a rice for which chefs and serious cooks would pay a premium? In the culinary world, that’s Carolina Gold.

They approached Glenn Roberts, the man who’d gotten Carolina Gold on menus from New York City to Los Angeles and works with the Carolina Gold Foundation, which controls the supply of seeds. “His first question was, ‘Why?’ ” Wheeler recalls. Like a lot of heirloom grains, Carolina Gold can be difficult to grow and harvest, with lower yields. But Spruill and Wheeler stuck to their guns, and by 2018, they’d pieced together small plots around their club’s lodge until they had 120 acres that they could flood in one go. They built almost two miles of levees and used trenches to divide the fields into cells so that they could plant the rice, flood it at the right time, then drain the water.

For a little more than 100 acres of rice, that’s a tremendous endeavor. Spruill and Wheeler invested $1 million in 2021 alone, digging a 360-foot-deep well to provide enough fresh water and constructing a rice mill. When the crop is harvested, growers must mill it to remove the husks, leaving “brown” rice, which is then polished to get white rice. Broken rice grains are sold as “middlins,” or rice grits, which are softer and porridge-like when cooked. And the dust is gathered and sold as rice flour.

One of the challenges of heirloom rice farming is a condition known as “lodging” (seen in the bare patches). Because heirloom rice is much taller than present-day commodity rice, it is known to lodge and make harvest almost impossible. Timing is crucial to minimize the amount of rice left in the field. photograph by Baxter Miller

Tidewater also had to battle some unexpected problems, like a local critter that they dubbed “The Whortonsville Terrorist.” One night, a sensor at Wheeler’s home went off, signaling that water was draining from the fields. He rushed over and discovered the culprits: Crawfish were burrowing into the fertile soil that had piled up when Tidewater dug trenches, and the critters were making holes that let the water run out.

Spruill and Wheeler reached out to sources in Louisiana to learn how to get rid of the vermin. The answer: Why would you do that? Crawfish in flooded rice fields can be a source of income. Spruill solved the problem by adding more heavy clay soil to the trenches, but in the future, he says, they may add crawfish farming to their enterprise.

Tidewater’s rice fields have yielded other benefits: NC State is now doing its own research in an experimental patch that it has on the company’s land. In another area, there’s a field of barley that the company is growing for Epiphany Craft Malt in Durham, which works with brewers across the state. Tidewater is also sending rice husks and rice bran to Ran-Lew Dairy in Snow Camp, which uses the husks as bedding for cows and the bran as feed.

The company’s rice efforts are taking off, too, as cloth bags of Tidewater Grain rices and rice grits increasingly turn up in stores, farmers markets, and gift shops all over the state. Chad Blackwelder, a food marketing specialist with the North Carolina Department of Agriculture and Consumer Services, has connected the Tidewater team with interested chefs. “The chefs in North Carolina are going crazy over this product,” he says.

• • •

During planting season in April and May, Tidewater’s 100 acres look like any other farm fields — wide swaths of small plants with deep gullies running between them. Looking at them, you wouldn’t know that there was anything historical or special about these little sprigs of green grass.

Look a little closer, though, and you’ll see North Carolina turning something very old into something new. Using older strains of plants that haven’t lost their flavor through planting and replanting gets us back to flavors that our ancestors might have known, Wheeler says.

For Chef Rhodes, this rice is not only a connection to place; it’s also a connection to tradition and to his people’s story. When Rhodes cooks with rice from South Carolina or Georgia, there’s a disconnect. He’s not from those areas. But when he cooks with Carolina Gold rice that’s grown here, he’s using something that his own African ancestors brought. “That’s a powerful story,” he says. “It’s such a lens. It means a whole lot more coming from here. It reminds folks of our story.”

Related: Carolina Gold is making a comeback in fields out east, but there are two sides to North Carolina’s rice revival.

This story was published on Jun 27, 2022

Kathleen Purvis

Purvis is the food editor for The Charlotte Observer. She is the author of two Savor the South Cookbooks: Pecans and Bourbon. Purvis has been cookbook awards chair for the James Beard Awards since 2000.