Perhaps my preference for silky, long-grained rice is not proof of my picky eating, but rather the ancestral call that perpetually whispers in my ear.
Rice: I've eaten it all my life. If you grew up in the United States, the Caribbean, or Latin America you have likely eaten it for all of yours. While I can distinctly recall it frequenting our supper table, I cannot say I'd ever seen it grown, or even heard of anybody selling it but in a supermarket. In order to understand my connection to this grain, I had to journey through time to discover its history on the diaspora plate.
According to historians, Oryza Glaberrima was first domesticated in Africa in the Middle Niger Delta Region of Central Mali, sometime around 1500 BCE. That is approximately 3,500 years ago. Having already reached success with millet and sorghum, early cultivators of these filling grains took advantage of the regular rising-water floods that enabled the rice to thrive. According to archaeologists, the earliest African rice dishes were mixed with protein-rich legumes like lentils, black-eyed peas, and cow peas to complete a nutritious meal - a wisdom that still sustains us today.
Fast forward to the end of the 15th century, when Christopher Columbus set his feet on the tropical island he named Hispañola, along with his weapons and his food crops. Having seen the successes of rice cultivation in the Eastern colonies, Columbus attempted to cover the Caribbean shores with an abundance of stalks that would grow as dense as they did on the other side of the world. This time, the grain wasOryza Sativa, a shorter grain rice grown in Asia. Attempts were made but the early settlers could not get the crops to germinate.
How is it that some five hundred years later we find rice in almost every bowl on the island now called Haiti and the Dominican Republic, and the islands that surround them? Who figured out how to succeed at cultivating grain all along the Atlantic Coast from Brazil to the United States? This is a lingering culinary mystery that I have yet to resolve in my journeys. I suspect, however, the answer lies up north, in the marshy lowlands of South Carolina and Georgia where rice was grown to fame.
It is widely known (and recorded) that the Africans who settled on Carolina and Georga's Geechee islands brought both the seeds to cultivate grain on the Eastern coasts of the Atlantic Ocean, but also an expert knowledge for how to do so. Documents on both sides of the ocean reveal that slaves may have been selected not only for their strength (as history has so often led us to believe) but for their great wisdom in the ways of working the earth and bearing food. As a result, the success of South Carolina's plantations were greatly due to the production of rice along the marshy Eastern coasts. Perhaps it was this success that spread the popularity of the grain southward, first to New Orleans and then into Central America and the Caribbean.
According to the stories, rice cultivation and preparation in the Americas is a major piece of our culinary legacy. Some of the most inspiring tales I've heard of my people are of the women who made the journey from Africa carrying hidden seeds of rice woven into their braids. They believed, despite every reason not to, that they would survive, thus needing their staple crop on the other side. But they also carried rice because they visioned a future that included us. And when they sewed seeds into new ground they grew deep. Now the year is 2016. We are still cooking rice. I cook mine to glisten just like I was taught, and just like my future relatives will cook them in centuries to come.