For all the evidence that remains to tell future generations about Lowcountry rice, the story of this crop remains obscured. Lowcountry rice, a crop that built beautiful and wealthy existences for some while causing suffering and death for many more, remains a mystery to most visitors and residents of the South Carolina Lowcountry. Even the untrained eye can spot the long-abandoned banks and canals that dot the landscape. But, do we really know the story of Lowcountry rice?
The authors do not think so. Speaking of other scholarly research on slave society and economy and the plantation economy of the south: "Most of these works, however, contain only brief sections on market preparation of Carolina rice, and those discussions rely on earlier historians whose accounts were often erroneous and inadequate, or at best superficial and lacking detail." (Porcher & Judd, 2014, p. xxi). If the story of rice has been told from other angles, why is this approach so important? Again, the authors: "One cannot fully understand the role Carolina rice played in the South and the Lowcountry without knowing how it was prepared for market." (Porcher & Judd, xxi).
Much separates this volume from previous attempts to tell the story of rice in the Carolina Lowcountry, but two areas are crucial. First, Porcher, through his years of field work in biology, has access to sites, tools, and machines that simply do not exist any more. Drawing on his personal photo archive, Porcher has access to images of places long since developed and buildings long since destroyed. Second, William Robert Judd's illustrations are exquisite. Bringing an artist's hand and an engineer's mind, Judd's contribution to this work is, in some ways, the most important part of the book. Without the images, many created from vague descriptions and incomplete recollection, this book would be a exhausting exploration of rice culture that only the most creative and mechanically inclined readers could decipher.
The authors approach Lowcountry Rice systematically, beginning with a history of rice as a crop (there are two strains), moving to the need to find a commercially successful crop in the colonies and then exploring the biological record of the rices that came to the Lowcountry. Of greatest interest to those living in the South Carolina Lowcountry may be the third chapter, where the authors explore the story of the rice fields. The chapter includes a history of two approaches to rice culture and then delves into the work of creating and maintaining the fields. For those who find themselves surrounded by the physical memories of Lowcountry rice, this chapter will increase your appreciation for the hard and deadly work that created the vistas and views you now enjoy.
The book follows the path of rice: preparing fields, harvesting, threshing, and milling. Much attention is paid to milling operations. In fact, nearly half the book is dedicated to exploring the milling operations that turned rice into a marketable and profitable crop. This section of the book also contains a plethora of drawings of each machine and a detailed explanation of their operation. However, for the average reader, the detail is overwhelming. While incremental improvement from one machine to the other was vital to squeezing out every bit of profit from this crop, it is difficult to follow at times.
In fact, if there is one universal critique for this work it is this: There is more detail here than is possible to process at once. Porcher and Judd, through their hard work, their personal connections, and private access to archives, have enough information for a series on Lowcountry Rice, not simply a single book. But, the historian must start somewhere. It is for later authors to further explore, to find other hidden gems of the history of Lowcountry rice, to tell another story of the grain that shaped the South and the nation.