Artist Jonathan Green stirs up new look at Lowcountry's rice past

dlauderdale@islandpacket.comSeptember 12, 2013 

Jonathan Green's "Morning Winnowing."

COURTESY OF JONATHAN GREEN STUDI — null

  • IF YOU GO

    "Unenslaved: Rice Culture Paintings by Jonathan Green" will remain on view in the Cox Gallery through Dec. 15 at the College of Charleston's Avery Research Center for African American History and Culture, 125 Bull St.

    The Lowcountry Rice Culture Project: www.lowcountryriceculture.org

Artist Jonathan Green -- the pride of Gardens Corner -- has turned his wild palette to something so common in the Lowcountry, its significance has all but disappeared.

Green is splashing his colorful imagination on white rice.

His new series of 25 works of acrylic on paper is called "Unenslaved: Rice Culture Paintings by Jonathan Green." It will show through Dec. 15 at the College of Charleston's Avery Research Center for African American History.

Green also is pulling his world of followers into the Lowcountry Rice Culture Project. It is hosting the Lowcountry Rice Culture Forum this weekend in Charleston.

"The Lowcountry Rice Culture Project proposes to discover and revive the significance of rice cultivation and its legacies," its website says, "and to use this history as a launching off point for broad discussions of race, class, art, trade, history and economics -- in short, the various aspects of culture in the Southeast."

Food writer Vertamae Grosvenor was tickled to hear about it.

She was born in Hampton County but has lived in Paris and around the globe, writing about food and cooking as an expression of culture.

She was among the first to show the world there is an ingredient called pride in Lowcountry cuisine in her 1970 book, "Vibration Cooking: The Travel Notes of a Geechee Girl." She has written a number of cookbooks, and hosted public radio and public television shows. Now she's back among the "rice-eaters" of home.

Rice-eaters were made fun of during the migration of blacks to Northern cities, she said. For her, it was in Philadelphia that schoolchildren made fun of the warm rice she brought for lunch while they all had sandwiches.

In the Lowcountry, if rice wasn't on the table for every meal, you were talked about. Grosvenor told how the questioning would go after you got back from dinner:

" 'How was it,' they would ask, and you'd answer, 'Ooh, it was terrible. The food tasted good, but honey, there wasn't a grain of rice on that table.' And they'd say, 'You're kidding! You're lying!' "

When little Vertamae was about 8 years old, her grandmother traveled from the Lowcountry to Philadelphia for a visit.

She recalls: "We were having dinner -- I'm talking about probably 1 or 2 o'clock in the afternoon, but you know they called everything 'dinner' -- and my grandmother said, 'Oh, give me some more rice. This rice is so good. Who cooked this rice?' And I'll never forget it. My mother pointed to me. She said, 'What? That gal cooked this rice? It's perfect. Every grain to itself.'

"I remember throwing my little shoulders back. That was an Academy Award."

Today, she's working on a memoir called "Ricely Yours," borrowing a line from Louis Armstrong.

"This is good about Jonathan's rice thing," Grosvenor said. "That's very important. And you know what? I'd like to see people go back to understanding about goobers, too."

Follow columnist David Lauderdale at twitter.com/ThatsLauderdale.

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