A rice that has been a staple of South Carolina’s low country for hundreds of years defies the stereotype that rice can’t be a ticket to a long life and a healthier diet.
NBC’s Cynthia McFadden traveled to the region to meet with Rollen Chalmers, a lifelong low country farmer who harvests rice known as Carolina Gold that has been produced in the area for centuries.
“My ancestors, it was all harvest by hand,” Chalmers said on TODAY Wednesday. “It will get you a little emotional when you get to thinking about what was going on in these fields in them days.”
The rice is a staple of the Gullah Geechee, descendants of enslaved people who were taken from the rice-growing region of West Africa.
“They didn’t have anything but what they knew about growing rice, and they really understood how to grow in these fields,” Chalmers said.
National Geographic Explorer and best-selling author Dan Buettner highlights the rice in his new book, “The Blue Zones Challenge: A 4-Week Plan for a Longer, Better Life,” in which he explores the “Blue Zones” around the world where people live a full decade longer and healthier than the rest of us.
Buettner and McFadden visited a former plantation outside Savannah, Georgia, where Carolina Gold is still grown.
“Carolina Gold rice is an African strain of rice that pretty much disappeared until about 20 years ago,” Buettner said on TODAY. “It’s a uniquely American crop because that strain has gone away. You can’t go back to Africa and get that strain. You’ve got to go to the Carolinas.”
Chef Roosevelt Brownlee, 74, is a proud keeper of the Gullah Geechee tradition of making the rice, which he has cooked for luminaries like Muddy Waters, Dizzy Gillespie and Nina Simone over the years.
“He’s arguably the best in the world when it comes to the Gullah Geechee,” Buettner said. “Yet nobody ever called him a chef. They called him a cook.”
Brownlee whipped up a sumptuous dish of Hoppin’ John with Carolina Gold rice, a traditional Southern dish mixing the nutty flavor of the rice with Sea Island red peas.
“Hands down my favorite dish,” Brownlee said.
The dish is traditionally eaten on New Year’s Eve and New Year’s Day to bring good luck for the new year. TODAY’s Craig Melvin, a South Carolina native, knows all about it.
“I grew up on Hoppin’ John,” he told McFadden. “Don’t come back next time without samples.”
Carolina Gold defies the common aversion to too much rice in a diet because of all the carbohydrates.
“If you’re eating a bowl of white rice, it’s probably not the best idea,” Buettner said. “Carolina Gold rice, it’s different. It’s a different species from the Asian rice. It’s got a little gold hue to it. It’s got a nuttier flavor. And it usually has some germ left in it, and that’s where a lot of the nutrients are.”
The special rice fits into Buettner’s findings from the “Blue Zones” of what has helped people live longer and healthier.
“They don’t have any superfoods,” he said. “There’s not any magical pill or supplement you’re going to take. They were essentially eating whole food, plant-based. The key to a healthy America is giving them delicious, plant-based recipes that they can cook and they can afford.”
Chalmers has been preaching the gospel of Carolina Gold for years.
“I love to share this stuff, and share the knowledge,” he said. “You can still live good and live healthy.”
Scott Stump is a New Jersey-based freelancer who has been a regular contributor for TODAY.com since 2011, producing news stories and features across the trending, pop culture, sports, parents, pets, health, style, food and TMRW verticals. He has tackled every assignment from interviewing astronauts on the International Space Station to prison inmates training service dogs for military veterans.
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