Red Rice: A Bridge Between Cultures and a Lesson in Resilience
My freshman year at Florida A&M University (an HBCU in Tallahassee FL), I lived in a the on-campus apartments with five other girls, three were from Florida, one was Jamaican-American and the other was Nigerian-American. We all shared one kitchen, and we often shared our food with one another. While my Jamaican, Nigerian roommates and I went through copious amounts of rice, freely swapping Rice and Peas for Hoppin’ Johns or Red Rice for Jollof and sharing large pans of Eggs and Rice and Chicken Perloo, my Floridian roommates seemed taken aback by our “foreign” foods in a way that perplex me as well. How was this food new to them but not me? Isn’t this what all black people eat? Weren’t we all African-American?
But after fielding more questions from classmates and new friends about my accent, my foods, my not-so-subtle differences in culture, I had to realize that I’m not just African-American, I am a Gullah- Geechee African American and they were not. My father’s family is descended from enslaved Africans in on James Island. My mother’s family hailed from the coastal regions of southeast Georgia. Both sides of my family were well within the borders of the Gullah-Geechee Nation. And while I had always known that growing up, what I had failed to realize was just how much of an impact that had on the foods I cooked and how closely those food still resembled what my ancestors were eating hundreds of years ago and an ocean away.
Red Rice is a perfect example of one such food. A simple dish of par cooked rice, simmered broth pureed tomatoes, onions, peppers and spices, is almost indiscernible from a West African Jollof which is prepared in almost the exact same manner. Jollof is widely believed to have originated in the “Senegambia region of west Africa, in the ancient Wolof or Jolof Empire, during the 14th-16th century.” a dish which was preceded by Thieboudienne, the national dish of Senegal, with a strikingly similar preparation differing mainly in its inclusion of whole fish, and the starch vegetables to the list of ingredients. Archeologist estimate that Africans living on the costal and river regions of West African had been cultivating rice as far back as the 3,000 years ago. Long before any contact with Europeans.
Along with the language, music, food these food and method of preparation were just some of enslaved Africans brought with them to this new world. Though it didn’t take much to see TransAtlanic slave trade as the source of my and my roommates shared food traditions, it still didn’t answer the question as to why the foods hadn’t made it beyond the Lowcountry amongst other African American Descendants of Slaves (AADOS). For that answer, I would have to look a little closer to home.
In the antebellum south, the watery marshlands of the low country, would prove to be ideal location the cultivation of rice. The waterlogged growing fields also proved to be an excellent breeding ground for mosquitoes and the spread of malaria. For that reason many of the rice plantation owners chose to take up residences elsewhere, many having homes in the more urbanized cities like Charleston and Savannah, while others retreated to the dryer inland forming towns like Pineville and Summerville. The result being that unlike other plantations in the south, those working along many enslaved Africans on rice plantations, weren’t subject to the same oversight and assimilation that those on a cotton plantation elsewhere might have experienced. As a result they retained much of their African language, foods and culture for many, many generations. Even after Emancipation, the watery geography of the regions would leave many of the Gullah-Geechee communities in isolation up into the mid 20th century. As AADOS in other parts of the country became more and more integrated, the Gullah-Geechee people persisted in the preservation of African traditions for centuries.
Today Red Rice remains a staple of Gullah-Geechee cuisine, but unlike many other Southern or Soul food staples its popularity seems to have been limited to the Lowcountry, much like the culture itself. (Although the argument can certainly be made that Jambalaya is merely the next step in its evolution of the dish). It’s not uncommon to find it as an optional side dish in many of Charleston restaurants, or in Gullah-Geechee households and eateries commonly paired with fried whole fish, as though in a subtle nod to it Thieboudienne roots.