How did rice find its way to the American South?

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In the American South, rice turns a collection of dishes into a meal.  Michael Twitty is an African American Jewish writer, culinary historian, and educator.  His personal journey of self discovery resulted in the ground breaking work “The Cooking Gene.” In his latest book, he turns his attention to rice. Tomatoes, peppers, and onions are the trinity behind his favorite red rice dish made by his Alabaman grandmother, a dish he describes as the closest thing of his which may have roots. 

Red Rice
Makes 4–6 servings

This recipe for the Low Country classic was inspired by the erudite Damon Lee Fowler, culinary historian and cookbook author from Savannah and a keeper of old southern culinary traditions. This tomato pilau is one of the greatest dishes ever to emerge from the Low Country and can be adjusted depending on your tastes. This recipe was published in Fowler’s The Savannah Cookbook, published in 2008 by Gibbs Smith, and is included here by permission.


  • 1/4 pound thick-cut bacon or salt pork, diced small
  • 1 medium onion, trimmed, split lengthwise, peeled, and chopped
  • 1 medium green bell pepper, stemmed, seeded, and chopped 1 cup long-grain rice, washed and drained
  • 2 cups Italian canned plum tomatoes, with their juice, chopped
  • 1 cup beef or chicken stock, homemade or store-bought, or water
  • 1 tablespoon Worcestershire sauce
  • Salt, ground cayenne pepper, and whole black pepper in a peppermill or Kitchen Pepper (see recipe below)


-Put the bacon or salt pork in a Dutch oven and turn the heat to medium. Fry, uncovered, until the fat is rendered and the bacon is crisp. Spoon off all but 2 tablespoons of fat.
-Add the onion and bell pepper and sauté until translucent, about 5 minutes.
-Add the rice and stir until it’s well coated and warmed, about 3 or 4 minutes. Add the tomatoes with their juice, stock, Worcestershire sauce, salt, cayenne, and a liberal grinding of pepper to taste. Bring to a boil and stir, scraping any loose grains that are sticking to the pan.
-Loosely cover, reduce the heat as low as possible, and let simmer for 25 minutes.
-Remove it from the heat and allow to steam for 15 minutes before serving.

Kitchen Pepper
Kitchen pepper is an old-school spice mixture that was very popular in early American cooking, especially in the coastal South. While it takes its main cues from quatre épices, a spice mix of pepper, cloves, nutmeg, and ground ginger common in French cooking, it also helped to preserve both medieval and Silk Road flavors in southern foodways, as well as the flavors of West Africa, where indigenous and Middle Eastern spices had long influenced the cuisine. This is my take on this classic. It has the complexity of garam masala without quite the punch and heat.


  • Makes about 1⁄2 Cup
  • 2 tablespoons coarsely ground black pepper 1 tablespoon freshly grated nutmeg
  • 1 tablespoon ground allspice
  • 1 tablespoon ground cinnamon


-Combine the ingredients in a small bowl.
-Store in an airtight container in a cool, dry place for up to six months.

Michael Twitty’s book, “Rice,” is part of the Savor the South series. Photo courtesy of University of North Carolina Press.



Evan Kleiman