By Cynthia LeJeune Nobles
Sometimes a rice field is more than just a place to grow a crop.
I had been living in the hectic cities of Baton Rouge and New Orleans over 40 years, when my husband passed away suddenly. In the upturned months following, one of the first decisions this city gal made was to move back to my family’s rice farm in the rural town of Iota.
It was a year ago in late spring that, with a moving van chugging behind, I nervously turned my overstuffed car off I-10 and drove north onto the McCain Highway. Immediately, I found my eye drawn to the swaying green fields lining the road. For the first time in weeks, I felt myself relax.
For years I had been a food history writer, first for the Newcomb College Culinary Writers Group, and then for The Baton Rouge/New Orleans Advocate newspaper. Eventually I authored several cookbooks, and I am now the cookbook editor at LSU Press. As fulfilling as my career has been, right then I needed consolation and serenity. And I was finding it in those rippling, open fields.
If you grew up in Iberia or Pointe Coupee I suppose you have fond memories of tall sugarcane. Plaquemines Parish has its expansive citrus orchards. Tensas is known for its snow-like fields of cotton, and Nachitoches for herds of cattle. And if your mama and daddy raised you in Colfax, you might get nostalgic about pecan trees.
But here in Acadia Parish, rice is king. This region, of course, produces other important commercial commodities, such as soybeans and crawfish. But I’m old enough to remember when few farmers knew what a soybean was, and when crawfishing was something rice farmers did to make pocket money.
And that takes me to the point of this column. Louisiana has a rich history of agriculture, aquaculture, and ranching, with close to 28,000 farms that produce commodities on more than 8 million acres of land.
I’m going to explore how our state’s crop, livestock, and seafood industries were established, how what we produce impacts our culture, and how it shapes our future. Aside from learning a little history and trivia, I’ll also write stories about farmers, ranchers, purveyors, and cooks. Each article will end with a recipe or two.
After a while you might start looking at our farm crops beyond the surface. I know that every time my mind gets lost in the solitude of a rice field, I remind myself that what lies before me is more than a modern farmer’s livelihood.
I’m also witnessing a result of the first rice domesticated thousands of years ago in China. Rice reached Louisiana in the early 1700s, when barrels of seed came with the slave trade to New Orleans. Surprisingly, until the 1840s, Louisiana only grew rice for home consumption, the so-called “providence rice” that depended on whatever rain fell for irrigation. New Orleans’s highly profitable “Rice Row” was our state’s first hub for milling, and by the early 1900s southwest Louisiana was robustly constructing their own mills.
Depending on who you ask, there are as many as 40,000 different cultivated varieties of this grass. (That’s what rice is technically, an annual grass.) Academicians and food writers have published volumes on the history of its commercial growth. And outstanding discoveries have been made by local breeders, such as the researchers at LSU’s H. Rouse Caffey Rice Research Station. But we’ll save those conversations for another day.
Right now, I think I’ll walk to my back yard and see how the fields are doing. Directly behind me sits several long-drained acres that my brother-in-law Jimmy uses for a crawfish pond. Jimmy plans to plant Cheniere seed for “green rice,” or “crawfish rice” that will feed the invertebrate next season’s crawfish will eat.
Beyond this pond lies a patchwork of rice crops belonging to my brother Michael. These expansive fields are in various stages of maturity. While most remind me of emerald-colored carpets, to the east, one parcel is already turning into a sea of calming gold.
I’m truly home.
Do you have a Louisiana agriculture story or recipe you’d like to share? If so, contact me at firstname.lastname@example.org
Cynthia Nobles is the cookbook editor for LSU Press and the author/co-author of several historical cookbooks, including A Confederacy of Dunces Cookbook, The Delta Queen Cookbook, and The Fonville Winans Cookbook.
Jalapeno Rice with Chicken
Makes 8 servings
Before tossing in the jalapenos, test them for heat. Many grocery store peppers are mild, so you might need to add more than ¼ cup, or maybe even a dash of cayenne pepper.
1½ cups diced cooked chicken (rotisserie chicken or leftovers are fine)
1 teaspoon chili powder
2 tablespoons olive oil
1½ cups sliced mushrooms
1 cup chopped onion
¼ cup minced fresh jalapeno pepper (leave seeds and veins in if you want more heat)
2 cloves garlic, minced
3 cups chicken broth
2 cups raw long-grain rice
1 teaspoon salt
½ teaspoon ground black pepper
1 cup chopped green onion
1. Preheat oven to 350°F. Toss chicken with chili powder and set aside.
2. Over medium-high heat, add olive oil to a large, oven-proof pot and sauté mushrooms and onion until mushrooms stop releasing their liquid, about 5 minutes. Add chicken, jalapenos, and garlic and stir 30 seconds. Stir in broth, rice, salt, and black pepper. Bring to a boil, then remove pot from heat.
3. Cover pot tightly and bake until liquid has been absorbed and rice is tender, about 25-30 minutes. Remove from oven and let sit, covered, 10 minutes. Gently stir in green onion. Serve warm.
Calas (Fried Rice Fritters)
Makes 2 dozen
Until the early 1900s, these fried balls of dough were commonly sold from street carts in New Orleans. They were popular for breakfast until World War II, when there was an explosion of easily prepared processed foods and cereals. Once you take a bite of these sweet, pillowy treats you’ll wonder why they ever went out of style.
¾ cup all-purpose flour
1 tablespoon baking powder
½ teaspoon salt
½ teaspoon cinnamon
3 large eggs
¼ cup sugar
1 teaspoon vanilla extract
2 cups cooked medium-grain rice, cooled
Vegetable oil for frying
For serving: Confectioners’ sugar and Louisiana Cane Syrup or your favorite local honey
1. In a medium bowl, stir together the flour, baking powder, salt, and cinnamon. Whisk in the eggs, sugar, and vanilla. Stir in the rice and refrigerate the batter while the oil heats.
2. In a deep fryer or large, heavy pot, heat 1½ inches oil to 365°F. When oil is ready, use a rounded tablespoon to drop in the batter. Fry fritters on both sides until golden, about 2-3 minutes total.
3. Drain cooked calas on paper towels. While still hot, dust liberally with confectioners’ sugar and serve with syrup or honey for dipping.