Worshipping rice the Charleston way getting trickier over time

dlauderdale@islandpacket.comJanuary 17, 2013 

COURTESY OF WEBRESTAURANTSTORE.COM

It's not easy being Lowcountry.

Never mind wheezing through the pollen of January, or dancing to the no-see-ums of March.

I'm talking about a proper serving of rice -- real rice, cooked in a Charleston rice steamer.

Google "rice steamer" and you'll get pages full of electric contraptions. That's not the Lowcountry way. That's like a 25-foot boat with twin 150s when you need a bateau.

A lot of people still sell stovetop rice steamers, but the steamers that most people in Charleston grew up with aren't made anymore. They were three-piece aluminum pots made by WearEver.

Charlestonians believe rice steamers are the ordained way to glory land -- where the grains turn out moist and tender, yet separate. The fluffy rice they call "Charleston Ice Cream" is served with a fork or a long rice spoon, not an ice cream scooper.

A few years back, Charleson Post and Courier food maven Teresa Taylor listed three places to get an old-fashioned rice steamer. It was part of her story about lovely Mary Geer DiRaddo, an Episcopal rector's wife who at age 80 self-published a booklet, "Steaming in Charleston: Cooking With a Charleston Rice Steamer, New Ideas for an Old Favorite."

Unfortunately, people gobbled up all her books, which told how she steamed anything from desserts to a whole chicken ( "Just jam it in," she told Taylor).

John Royall's Ace Hardware in Mount Pleasant was on the steamer list. He told me he does a brisk business with an imported steamer similar to the WearEver. The insert is exactly the same, he said, but it has a glass top.

He said to call Edwin Poulnot, whose family ran Kerrison Dry Goods downtown for three generations. The store has closed, but Poulnot has gone to great lengths to keep people supplied with Charleston rice steamers, still a popular wedding gift.

"When WearEver quit making them, I got curious about it and searched around," said Poulnot, now 87. "I happened to be in Brazil -- Rio -- for a couple of weeks way back yonder, and saw this thing in a department store that looked just like it."

Through someone in Charleston who could speak Portuguese, Poulnot made arrangements to have the steamers shipped to the Lowcountry. When he could no longer get them from Brazil, he went through an embassy to get them from Mexico. He said it's tricky because they don't answer the phone, and he doesn't speak Spanish. But what he gets sell for $40 at Burbage's Grocery and the Vegetable Bin.

Poulnot says it will cook up to three cups of rice, "enough for eight Charlestonians or 16 Yankees."

He said his grandmother had a steamer made of cast iron, which helped lay the groundwork for his old joke: "Charlestonians are like the Chinese: They eat rice, worship their ancestors and speak in a language that's hard to understand."

No, it's never been easy to be Lowcountry.

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