In spring 2015, Upper Elementary students planted Carolina Gold Rice in their permaculture garden. That fall, they threshed and winnowed the harvest as they discussed its history and origins in West Africa. They used a mortar and pestle like West African women did to hull the rice. Our students read about how these women, like those fed by the rice they prepared, were slaves bound for the Americas. They commented on how difficult it was to hull even a quarter cup (in an hour!) and imagined what months of such labor might feel like.
In the year since we first planted and harvested Carolina Gold Rice with Upper Elementary students, I have read and researched more and more about its history. I recently came across a piece written by culinary historian, and grower of African and African-American heirloom crops, Michael Twitty. Twitty, whose work has been internationally recognized for years as a prominent voice in food justice, gives us a true and untold timeline of Carolina Gold (Oryza glaberrima), which dates from 3,500 B.C.E. along the West African Niger and Casamance rivers. I encourage you to read the full article and timeline here, but if you don’t, marinate on this excerpt from his opening paragraph:
“…I am fascinated by the history and heritage of the foods that were introduced to the American diet through the slave trade. The fact that many of these foods–foods that enslaved peoples once cultivated sustainably and consumed out of necessity–have become popularized without context is a culinary injustice. Culinary injustice is what happens when descendants of historically oppressed people have no sovereignty over their culinary traditions, when they are robbed of their proprietorship of their own ancestral traditions. I believe that telling the true story of traditions that were part of the experiences of the oppressed is about reconciliation, not blame; hope, not guilt.”
We decided to grow Carolina Gold Rice at The Greensboro Montessori School again this year. Why? To continue to shed light on the significance of this plant and use it to engage conversations of hope here in Guilford County.
Today, Lower Elementary children threshed, winnowed, and planted Carolina Gold in seed starting trays together. We discussed the history of this rice: not all rice, but this rice. We discussed what it meant for us to be growing it in our gardens. They commented on how hard it was to hull even a quarter cup (in an hour!) and imagined what months of such labor might feel like. People on the planet still hull rice this way, they learned.
Then we tasted the rice that our friends in Upper Elementary prepared last year, with love and curiosity. It had been waiting to be cooked and appreciated on a cold, blustery spring day like today. We boiled the water, added a little butter and salt, and let the rice cook until it was steaming and fresh. As we inhaled all together, we searched for a scent reminiscent of “green tea and almonds” and the “superior texture” touted by the seed packet, to no avail. It was decidedly “buttery and nutty,” we all said, instead.
As we lined up to leave, we closed our eyes and sent a thought of gratitude and acknowledgement to all those whose lives this plant has touched. Has it touched yours? Please let us know how!