Friday, November 11, 2011

Friday Facts & Maps: Rice & Potatoes.

Growing up in the Midwest, I ate a lot of potatoes.  I love potatoes with a big fat potatoey passion.  Any time one of those questions comes up of “if you could only eat one thing for the rest of your life, what would it be?” my answer is potatoes, because they can be made so many different ways, and they taste SO FREAKIN GOOD in every way that they’re served.  Roasted, mashed, smashed, fried, french fried, home fried, pancaked, hash browned…dear sweet baby Jesus, I love you and potatoes.  And my husband, but that’s beside the point.

And then I moved to Louisiana, where the potato is NOT the staple starchy side dish of choice.  In Louisiana, everything comes with rice.  Jambalaya, etouffee, red beans & rice, white beans & rice, gumbo, rice & gravy… and it was all tasty, but just kept me wondering…where are the potatoes???

Sure, sweet potatoes are plentiful in many forms down south, and since I also have quite the sweet tooth, they make for a decent substitute (I mean, it’s hard to pass up a good crispy batch of sweet potato fries sprinkled with cinnamon):


…but as someone who grew up surrounded by potatoes & essentially NO exposure to rice (my mom occasionally made sweet rice with cinnamon, sugar, and milk, but I wasn’t a fan), it left me wanting, and wondering…

…why no potatoes?

Of course, with modern commerce, potatoes are available at every grocery store in Louisiana, and they’re not priced that much higher than they would be in Missouri or anywhere else.  But these people of Louisiana seem to just PREFER rice.  It blew my mind.  So I, being the nerd that I am, did some investigating, and it’s just all about the weather.

“Irish” potatoes just don’t LIKE Louisiana.  They don’t grow well there, because of the soils and the early warm weather.  Most seed producers release potato seeds for general purchase in February or March—but by that time, average temps in Louisiana are already in the 60-70’s (F).  Irish potatoes need cool weather to grow—you know, places that are a little more like IRELAND.

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Ireland……….…………………………….            vs. Louisana…………………

However, rice does VERY well in Louisiana.  Louisiana is the U.S.’s third largest commercial producer of rice, in fact, bringing in over $300 million in income to the state annually.  Rice cultivation began in Louisiana back in the 1700’s, although mass production on a commercial level didn’t take off until about 1900.  Rice first arrived in the States in the Carolinas; the Acadian settlers brought rice from the Carolinas with them during their relocation to Louisiana.  Louisiana rice was originally grown for home consumption by utilizing areas that couldn’t be plowed; farmers tossed rice seed into the wetlands near bayous or ponds. What grew from this casual method was termed “providence rice” by its thankful harvesters.

Today, the majority of commercially grown rice comes from the Southwestern portion of the state, and the town of Crowley, Louisiana (just west of Lafayette on I-10) holds the nickname of “Rice Capital of America”, as it was one time a major center of rice harvesting and milling for the area.  Crowley is also home to the annual International Rice Festival (GOOD food at this festival).

It’s also the rice fields that allow for cultivation of another one of Louisiana’s bumper crops: CRAWFISH.  The rice fields produce rice between March & July… farmers “seed” crawfish into the rice fields in June, harvest the rice in July/August, then reflood the field to use as a crawfish pond, harvesting the crawfish from November through July of the next year. Also, the fields hold water over the winter months, providing a quick resting spot/snack for migratory birds, along with supporting other wetland-dependent species.

And as much as I hate to admit it---rice is much better for you than potatoes.   It’s an enriched grain with loads of thiamine, niacin, & iron, it’s cholesterol- and sodium-free and has no trans or saturated fat. Rice is also gluten-free and is the least allergenic of all grains.

All that being said:  I still love me some potatoes.


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