Carolina Gold rice is the granddaddy of long-grain rice culture in the United States. It was once the most popular rice grown in America — until it virtually disappeared.
This subtropical Japonica rice first appeared in South Carolina in 1786, after the American Revolution had disrupted seed production for a variety called Madagascar White in the 1680s. By 1820, 100,000 acres of it were growing across the Lowcountry around Charleston, South Carolina. It was the first commercial rice to be produced, and fed European and Asian appetites for high-quality rice. Between 1840 and the start of the American Civil War in 1861, it fetched the highest price of any long-grain rice in the world market of Paris.
Legend has it that the rice — known as “Gold Seed” for its beautiful yellow hulls — first arrived in Charleston in 1685, when a merchant ship’s captain paid for repairs using some rice seed from Madagascar. Not long after, a fellow named Dr. Henry Woodward planted some on his marshland, giving rise to South Carolina’s 200-year reign as the leading rice producer in the U.S.
Alas, the truth is not so simple as legend.
Dr. David Shields, Carolina Distinguished Professor at the University of South Carolina and chairman of the Carolina Gold Rice Foundation, writes that Colonel Hezekiah Mayham of Pineville, South Carolina was the first to grow Carolina Gold in the Pee Dee region of South Carolina, in the northeastern part of the state. Where he got the seed remains a mystery.
Mayhem’s rice strains eventually became the founding seed from which Joshua John Ward, the South’s so-called “King of the Rice Planters,” developed his world-famous long-grain version of Carolina Gold. He once owned as many as six plantations, and was one of the largest American slaveholders of the time. Ward grew nearly four million pounds of rice each year, relying on the hard labor of more than 1,100 enslaved people from the “Rice Coast,” a rice-growing region of West Africa, stretching from Senegal to Liberia.
Its lustrous mouthfeel and sweet, nutty flavor reminiscent of hazelnuts made it distinct and highly in demand for dishes like Hoppin’ John, chicken bog and pilau. When polished, the pearly, translucent grains looked elegant. Milled into flour, Carolina Gold made beautiful crème de riz, a base for sauces.
It was the shortest of rices marketed as long grain, but in 1840, at Ward’s Brookgreen Plantation in the Pee Dee region, growers discovered a mutation that produced a longer grain. From this mutation, Ward developed “Long Gold.” It earned international fame, winning gold medals at expositions in London and Paris in the 1850s.
Alas, the Civil War disrupted Long Gold’s seed production, and only Gold Seed and its white-hulled relation, Carolina White, survived after the war. Rice plantations continued to grow the varieties until hurricanes disrupted operations of the last commercial plantations in the 1910s. During its last years of commercial cultivation, from 1900 to 1918, it began to be called Carolina Gold. The variety was grown sporadically in Texas, Louisiana, and Hawaii, but by the 1930s it ceased to be a commodity, supplanted by cheaper varieties. The USDA kept it as a breeding-stock rice throughout the 20th century, and its genetics contributed to a number of long-grain white rices.
In 1986, Dr. Richard Schulze Sr. of Turnbridge Plantation in South Carolina secured rice from USDA scientist Robert Bollock, and a crop was grown for the first time in 50 years. In response to pleas from Lowcountry chefs, Glenn Roberts of Anson Mills and Dr. Merle Shepard of Clemson University’s Coastal Research and Education Center revived the rice as a commodity and formed the Carolina Gold Rice Foundation to restore this legendary variety. Dr. Anna McClung of the USDA did the genetics work to create a stable form of the landrace, Carolina Gold Select. Our Carolina Gold rice is provided by the foundation.
Northern gardeners take note: Carolina Gold is a long-season, true paddy rice requiring flooding for good cultivation, and support for the plants as they reach maturity. However, the Carolina Gold Rice Foundation sells packages of the rice, which Lowcountry chef Sean Brock calls “the most flavorful rice I’ve ever tasted.”
Find Carolina Gold rice seeds here.