Way back in 2015 I made a late nineteenth century recipe for Peach Snowballs from Mina Lawson’s The Antipodean Cookery Book. Even though the peaches tasted great, the rice didn’t form a homogeneous layer the way that it is supposed to (for good examples see Savoring the Past and World Turn’d Upside Down).
These snowballs are sometimes called Carolina Snowballs, because they were made with Carolina gold rice, grown in Carolina and Georgia. This kind of rice is no longer widely available, but in recent years has been resurrected by the Carolina Gold Rice Foundation (and sold by Anson Mills) so I’ve been meaning to try this recipe again using the proper type of rice.
The story of Carolina Gold is well beyond the scope of this blog post (a good place to start is Karen Hess’ The Carolina Rice Kitchen: The African Connection) but it is impossible to write about this rice without acknowledging its deep entanglements with slavery (for which see Michael Twitty’s The Cooking Gene).
By at least 1690, rice was being raised in South Carolina and plantation owners made their fortunes by exploiting the experience that enslaved West African workers had of growing rice.[i] West African men brought expertise in constructing complex irrigation systems to control the level of water in the rice fields. The knowledge of how to grow the rice, as well as how to make and use the equipment necessary for processing came from the women who had traditionally cultivated and prepared the rice in West Africa.
Wet rice cultivation, as practiced in South Carolina and Georgia, was extremely profitable at the expense of enslaved workers’ health. Conducted knee-deep in murky water under an unrelenting sun, the work itself was exhausting, dangerous and never-ending. The water harbored a host of threats including snakes, alligators, parasites and biting insects which spread diseases like malaria.[ii] As Jennifer Morgan points out “Rice is among the most onerous and labor intensive food crops, and the duration of the growing season and the dangerous and repellent nature of the work placed it at the extreme end of any continuum of forced agricultural labor in the early Atlantic world.”[iii]
As in Western Africa, rice came to play a central role in the diet of the South, from the homes of the labourers themselves to the wealthiest tables where it was cooked, of course, by enslaved African cooks and African American domestic servants. The complex cuisine that resulted was a combination of West African and European traditions, creating a distinct style of rice cookery. As historian Michael Twitty enumerates, this includes:
“chicken pilau, breads, puddings, rice cakes, crab fried rice—rice as the necessary accompaniment to barbecue hash, okra soup, crawfish étoufée, and red beans, as they had in Saint-Domingue/Haiti—and sugar and rice for a quick breakfast; all come down to us through the centuries as legacies of this heritage. So also have soups made with peanuts or peanuts and oysters, benne (sesame seed) and hot-pepper sauces, crab gumbos, and a battery of food with which the only acceptable accompaniment is rice cooked perfectly, with every grain steamed, separate and distinct.”[iv]
One of the maybe surprising results of this cuisine in the Carolina snowball. Possibly descended from the French bourdelot , an apple wrapped in pastry and boiled or baked, the snowball is an apple (or more rarely another type of fruit) wrapped in rice and boiled in a pudding cloth.[v]
What is really surprising is the longevity of this recipe; Hess quotes a recipe from The Lucayos Cook Book which might date back to as early as 1690, although the provenance of this manuscript isn’t great and it is unclear where the original is.[vi] At the very least, a recipe for Carolina Snow Balls in the eighth edition of Hannah Glasse’s The Art of Cookery published in 1763, and similar recipes continued to be published well into the 1920s.[vii]
Probably the reason for this extraordinary perseverance is that this recipe is about as cheap and easy a dessert as you can make. While rice was an expensive and exotic product in the medieval period, it became considerably more available in the Early Modern period – exports from South Carolina alone increased from 10,407 pounds in 1698 to more than 72 million pounds in 1774.[viii]
As the price of rice dropped, this kind of dessert became much more achievable for middle class consumers (such as Glasse’s readers). The short list of ingredients, the simplicity of the method, limited equipment required, and the hot, filling result would all have appealed to housewives and cooks needing a sweet dish.
[i] Henry C. Dethloff, “The Colonial Rice Trade,” Agricultural History 56, no. 1 (1982): 232.
[ii] Michael W. Twitty, The Cooking Gene: A Journey Through African American Culinary History in the Old South (New York, NY: Amistad, 2017), 240.
[iii] Laboring Women: Reproduction and Gender in New World Slavery (Philadelphia: University of Philadelphia Press, 2004), 162.
[iv] Twitty, The Cooking Gene, 262.
[v] Karen Hess, The Carolina Rice Kitchen: The African Connection (Columbia, S.C.: University of South Carolina Press, 1998), 146.
[vi] Hess, 144–45.
[vii] Hannah Glasse, The Art of Cookery, Made Plain and Easy; Which Far Exceeds Any Thing of the Kind yet Published … To Which Are Added, by Way of Appendix, One Hundred and Fifty New and Useful Receipts, and a Copious Index, 8th ed. (London: Printed for A. Millar [and others], 1763), http://archive.org/details/b30502500.
[viii] Dethloff, “The Colonial Rice Trade,” 234.
The version I’m following is from The Housekeeper and Gardener (1858) by Rebecca Upton. This is one recipe were it does really make a difference to have the right type of rice. On his blog, Kevin Carter suggests that medium grain rice is best but the Carolina Gold, which is a long grain rice, worked well for me (but other long grain rice did not). Make sure, if buying Carolina Gold that you buy the variety called Carolina Gold and not the brand Carolina Rice produced by Riviana Foods.
The recipe calls for two spoonfuls of rice, but how much is that? Two tbsp didn’t feel like enough to me, but I think that the 100 g I put in was maybe a little too much (James Townsend suggests ½ cup or about 115 g). The trickier bit is getting the rice evenly distributed, and smaller apples might help here.
1 large apple
Orange and lemon (approx. ¼ peel of 1 orange and 1 lemon) finely chopped peel, or grated zest
80-100 g Carolina gold rice
For Sauce (for 1-2 apples)
55 g butter
30 ml white wine
1 ½ tbsp sugar
Pinch of ground cinnamon
Pinch of ground nutmeg
- Core the apple(s). Place a clean pudding cloth in a bowl, with the cloth hanging over the edges of the bowl.Put a spoonful of the rice in the bottom of the cloth, then place the apple on top. Put the citrus peel inside the hole left by coring the apple(s). 2. Add the rest of the rice around the apple, then gather the corners of the cloth and tie the pudding up. Leave a little room for the rice to expand, but not too much so it doesn’t get soggy. The actual knot should be tight. Massage the rice around the apple so that it is spread evenly.
- Place the pudding in a saucepan of cold water and bring to the boil. Simmer for 1 hour.
- Meanwhile, make the sauce by melting the butter in a small saucepan. Add the remaining ingredients and heat until the sugar is dissolved.
- When the pudding is done, carefully remove it from the saucepan and dip it in cold water for a few seconds. Place the pudding in a bowl, cut off the string and carefully unwrap it. It may help to place another bowl on top and flip it, since the base normally looks better than the tied end. Serve with warm sauce.