Both my parents were children of rural tobacco-growing people in the Carolinas, and our Christmas meals, like meals year ’round, centered upon that staple of Southern cuisine—rice. Steeped in the romance of Lowcountry plantations, its floral motif was carved into four-poster rice beds, and long silver spoons were made for the express purpose of serving rice. Rice was tied to the tragic mystique of slaves who brought its cultivation know-how and the recipes, later adapted to the kitchens of their masters. Today the finest menus in Charleston, Savannah and New Orleans include rice ‘perlos’ like Hoppin’ John, a traditional New Year’s Day dish guaranteed to ensure prosperity in the coming year.
But at our house, rice was a world apart from the cultural sophistication of nearby Charleston. There was always rice in the refrigerator, stored in a metal pot for a quick re-heat on the stove. Rice was served alone, sticky and starchy, as a companion to the gravy, butter beans, field peas or black-eyed peas that we might spoon onto it, never complicated by exotic spices like thyme or oregano or bay leaf. We didn’t have them in our kitchen or know how to use them. Garlic didn’t cross the threshold of our door, nor did converted rice like Uncle Ben’s. Some distant relatives preserved mild green peppers in glass decanters filled with vinegar and kept next to the salt and peppershakers as a condiment for the rice and whatever legumes were served that day.
At Christmas rice was festive, although not in the style of those “damned Bohemians,” Daddy’s reference to the old blue blood families of the Charleston peninsula. Mammy, my frail Caucasian grandmother, made “greasy rice” at Christmas, flavored with chicken fat and chopped livers. Raised by Civil War-era grandparents and shaped by the poverty of the Great Depression, this was for Mammy a rich and extravagant rice dish. Even in the prosperous sixties, when we ate turkey, cornbread dressing and all the trimmings at Christmas, the meal was not complete without the pure white rice of our heritage.
The tradition evolves. In my first marriage the Hoppin’ John was flavored with spices of Provence, reflecting the French culinary sensibilities of my in-laws. Now, my pantry holds brown rice, a healthy Pacific Northwest adaptation shared with my English ex-pat husband. At seventy-three, Daddy cooks a mess of wild holiday “red rice” with sausage or ham, and he goes crazy adding tomato juice and bell peppers. Still, I believe our most enduring memories of family and home, especially during the holidays, stem from sharing simple things. As a child in South Carolina I ate my rice plain, untouched by the surrounding foods on my plate—comfort food at its best. My memories of Christmas at Mammy’s have not dimmed, and I can still see the ordinary metal pot she placed on the table, as if even a decorative serving bowl might dilute the simple pleasure of rice.
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