Food, History

Carolina Gold Rice – History of a Heritage Grain

Carolina Gold tops the list as one of my favorites of the traditional southern foods I have learned about since moving to the Lowcountry in 2016.

For years after first arriving to Hilton Head Island, I worked as a server in Hudson’s restaurant on HHI, which is known to many as the oldest dining establishment on the Island. The restaurant has its own storied history to tell. It was originally an oyster packing plant, and many of the long time employees will attest that they have had more than one run in with paranormal experiences there in the quiet hours.

That is a story for another time. Originally, I thought of Hilton Head as a touristy area in the full swing of the summer, which it undoubtedly is, but as I began to ingrain myself into the community and soak up my surroundings, I became absolutely fascinated by the amount of history that is wrapped up in this tiny bit of square mileage.

Much of the history of anything in this area is tied to the roots of the Civil War, and the food is no exception. I find it amazing that everything, even the food we choose for our plates, ties back to a greater story.

While working at Hudson’s for just over four years, I got closely acquainted with many regional dishes and elements of cuisine that were foreign to me prior. Though the restaurant is well known for its traditional fried shrimp platters, they are also cranking out a rotation of specials that stay incredibly true to the heritage of the area. I always appreciated the hands-on learning we were afforded while working there. We were encouraged to taste new things we hadn’t tried, ask questions and understand pairings and flavor profiles. I regularly received an amazing education on local cuisine and under their employ.

One of the more popular pairings I can recall was a blackened grouper dish perched upon traditional Carolina Gold Rice. I remember asking my manager at the time about what made it so different from regular rice? Was Carolina Gold a brand name we should mention in presenting? I needed answers!

What in the Heck Makes Carolina Rice…Gold?

Like most folks, I thought that this variety of rice was the brand actually named “Carolina Rice,” found at any local grocery store in dry bulk bags. Turns out, Carolina Gold Rice is completely unique and steeped in history. I learned the basics about it from my managers and Chef at Hudson’s so that I could speak to it with customers. I found out that it was a heritage grain and that the dish was prepared with “rice middlins.” For those who have never heard this term, It is when the hull of the rice grain is cracked and shelled away to reveal the soft, inner middle of the grain. It is essentially a grit with a delicate texture and rich flavor, perfect for traditional chicken bogs, or even risottos. Turns out, it gets its “Gold” designation from the hue of the golden stalks of the plants as it grows. Makes sense, checks out.

Meeting the Masters

Cut ahead to current times. I have become quite enthralled with learning as much as I can about the history of the Lowcountry, but still (until recently) had yet to come across any of this form of rice for sale in order to attempt making my own. I was visiting Palmetto Bluff Farmer’s Market on a sunny Wednesday this June, and much to my delight, I came across the table for Rollen’s Raw Grains, a local Carolina Gold producer based in Hardeeville, SC.

I had the pleasure of speaking with Co-Owner, Frances Chalmers and hearing first hand about the grains. Much to my surprise and delight, she explained that there are a number of varieties of Carolina Gold. Their display located at the Farmer’s Market is complete with small bowls filled with each to allow you to see the size, texture and weight of each grain.

First and foremost, this is a heritage grain, also referred to as “Ancient” or “Heirloom.” A grain earns this designation by staying true to its original form from the time it was introduced and should have remained in original form and unchanged since that time. These grains usually date back prior to the introduction of scientific plant breeding in the early 1900’s. In other words, they are the “OG grains,” and, in turn, are generally more nutritious and digestible due to this factor.

These are considered raw grains. Because of this fact, they need to be kept refrigerated or frozen to keep from spoiling. It is admittedly strange to see that the bags of rice actually sweat, which seems counterintuitive to what we have ever learned about keeping rice dry.

Frances explained that this is due to the grains being unenriched, which is what brings them their signature earthy, almost nutty flavor and slightly chewy texture. It is also what makes them so delightfully soft and hearty. Most rice can be purchased and tossed into the pantry for an age, which is due to the method of processing and enriching. Carolina Gold is more regal than that. Though the preparation is similar to store bought, this variety is delicate, hearty and requires tender loving care.


History of the Grain

So where does Carolina Gold Rice come from, and what makes it so special? I researched it a bit and found an incredibly educational article on the topic from Serious Eats website. Full disclosure that this is where I gleaned all of the historical references listed here, as they did a fabulous job of researching and presenting the factual data.

According to Serious Eats:

While few people know about true Carolina Gold, it was once the most popular rice grown in America, and the first commercial rice the country ever produced. Thousands upon thousands of pounds of it were exported as far away as France, England, and Asia. In 1820, approximately 100,000 acres of it was growing throughout the South. The rice forged the plantation culture of the tidewater areas of South Carolina, Georgia, and North Carolina, fueling both their cuisine and their economies.

The ugly side, of course, is that the great wealth it produced for its growers—and the city of Charleston itself—was built on the tortured backs of slavery. The success of Carolina Gold only made things worse, increasing demand for slaves from western Africa, the continent’s so-called Rice Coast, who knew better than anyone else how to plant and harvest it. And, while other rices were grown in the region, by the mid–18th century, Carolina Gold was king.

It is said that Carolina Gold—or what was once known as “golden seed” rice—first arrived at the port of Charleston in 1685, when the captain of a merchant ship paid for some repairs with rice seed from Madagascar. Soon after, a man by the name of Dr. Henry Woodward planted some in his marshland, and was impressed not just by the flavor but by the tall golden stalks it produced. (A 1988 New York Times article describes them as “an elegantly shaped grass standing about five feet tall, each stem with some 200 golden grains clustered at the tip.”) But, as in a lot of culinary histories, the truth is a bit more complicated than that. In fact, despite Carolina Gold’s past fame and glory, we know surprisingly little about how and why it arrived in South Carolina in the first place.

In his book, Shields writes that, while genetic analysis reveals that the rice’s ultimate source was South Asia, whether it came directly from Indonesia, or indirectly from Madagascar, West Africa, or even Europe, remains a mystery. What we do know, says Shields, is that it thrived as America’s primary rice crop up until the Civil War, when the end of slavery, and a series of hurricanes, destroyed many of South Carolina’s rice crops. According to the same 1988 New York Times story mentioned above: “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.” 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.

“Carolina Gold grew increasingly uncommercial with each passing decade of the twentieth century,” Shields writes. “Rice breeders paid homage to the strain, though…by making it a parent strain of the new higher-yield and shorter stock varieties created for industrial-scale production.” Outdone by its offspring, pure Carolina Gold could barely be found in cultivation by the 1940s.

Still, the rice lived on in many a Lowcountry family’s memories (and many community cookbooks) for decades after. “Because it was such a legendary rice, and because it had been central to the cuisine of the southern Atlantic coast, it never evaporated from cultural memory,” Shields writes. “Writers’ rhapsodies over the taste of ‘wild-rice-fed’ ducks in old Carolina, the family cookbooks filled with pilaus, purloos, chicken bogs, and other dishes that specified ‘Carolina Rice,’ made residents wonder what had gone missing.”


Revival of the Rice

As it turns out, after a long absence of Carolina Gold, a man named Dr. Richard Schultz, an optometrist from Savannah, GA, set out to bring it back to life. As an avid duck hunter, Schultz had become curious about the legendary taste of rice fed ducks. He planted rice in the ponds of his South Carolina vacation property to test the theory. Becoming more familiar with rice planting in this capacity, he grew curious about Carolina Gold, what had happened to it, and why it was no longer in existence.

Schultz reached out to the USDA’s rice research institute (yes, that is a real thing) and found that original seedlings were being held there (heritage seeds). The agronomist that assisted him, Richard Bullock, shared an interest in this heritage grain and was eager to see its return as well. Bollock propagated 14 pounds of the seed and sent it to Schultz to plant, who in turn harvested 64 pounds the following spring. He continued to add to this amount in spades as the years went on, thus reviving the grain.

Later, inspired by this development, Glenn Roberts worked with Clemson University to produce a stronger, more disease-resistant version of the rice in order to make it available on a larger scale. They began growing it in 1998 and now have organic rice fields in South and North Carolina, Georgia, and Texas. Meanwhile, another company, called Carolina Plantation Rice, grows Carolina Gold on a historic plantation in Waccamaw, South Carolina.

Locally, Rollen’s Raw Grains is a family-owned grower. Glenn Roberts and Richard Schultz, Jr. gave owner Marion “Rollen” Chalmers the opportunity to start growing Carolina Gold Rice and Charleston Gold Rice at Turnbridge in Hardeeville, S.C. 

In addition to growing heritage rice at Turnbridge, Rollen grew Carolina Gold Rice on Daufuskie Island, S.C. It was the first time rice had been grown there in over 100 years. One of Rollen’s contributions to spreading the knowledge to others is his creation of a Carolina Gold Rice field at the University of Georgia Center for Research and Education at Wormsole in Savannah, GA. under the leadership of Sarah Ross. Simply amazing work.

Rollen and his wife, Frances, opened the physical location of Rollen’s RAW Grain in April 2023 in the Levy community of Hardeeville, SC. 


How to Get Your Own

If you are looking to try for yourself, this is indeed a specialty item. I have had issue finding it in the groceries here, and I am in the thick of Carolina Gold Country. But, don’t fret! Rollen’s happily ships through their online store. They can also be found at just about any local Farmer’s Market in the area and they are incredibly nice folks to talk to. In addition, Rollen’s has a brick and mortar store in Hardeeville, just a stone’s throw from Bluffton and Hilton Head, if you want to go straight to the source.


Rollen’s Raw Grains – Store Location

3333 Okatie Highway

Hardeeville, SC 29927

843-784-3888

Visit Online Store to Purchase

Hours of Operation:

Tuesday-Saturday 10AM-6PM
Closed Sundays and Mondays

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Carolina Gold Recipes from Tasting Table (Savory and Sweet)