In southwest Louisiana, among the crawfish ponds and Gulf Coast shrimp trawlers, rice is a staple in every Cajun and Creole kitchen.
Whether it's eaten in boudin for breakfast, served with seafood gumbo for lunch, or prepared as a side dish with fried okra and barbecued pork chops, the versatility of the world's most popular grain is undeniable.
"If we fix fried chicken and make gravy, we are going to serve that gravy over rice, not potatoes," says Mike Davis, 62, owner of Conrad Rice Mill, the nation's oldest operating rice mill, in New Iberia, La.
Davis, who bought the historic mill in 1975, says rice is as much a part of Louisiana cuisine as are seafood and spices. "If you are going to be a Cajun cook, you've got to have the seasonings and you've got to have the rice," he says.
Rice has been grown in Louisiana since early Acadian settlers tossed seeds into sloughs and wetlands and harvested the volunteer crop, which they dubbed providence rice. In 2007, Louisiana farmers grew 1 million metric tons of rice, or nearly 12 percent of the nation's supply.
Built in 1912, Conrad Rice Mill processes locally grown rice and, in terms of volume, may be the nation's smallest rice mill. The mill processes about 2 million pounds of rice each year using some of the plant's original machinery and markets its products under the Konriko, R.M. Quiggs, HolGrain and Conrad-Davis brands.
During milling, machinery removes hulls from the rice kernels. What remains is brown rice, with a layer of bran surrounding the kernels. When the bran is removed, it becomes white rice.
Most Louisiana cooks serve shrimp Creole and crawfish étouffée on a bed of long- or medium-grain white rice. In fact, most of the white rice milled at Conrad Rice Mill is sold at supermarkets in southwest Louisiana and east Texas, the heart of Cajun country.
One of Konriko's signature products is Wild Pecan Rice, which interestingly is neither wild nor contains pecans. The aromatic rice was developed in the 1940s by an agricultural researcher in Crowley, La., who crossed Asian and domestic strains and came up with the nutty-flavored variety. Today, Davis contracts a farmer in Egan, La., to grow 100 acres of the rice each year.
Wild Pecan Rices unique flavor is produced by cutting small grooves into the bran. The grooves allow moisture to penetrate the kernel, reducing cooking time to 20 to 25 minutes, while the rice retains the bran's nutty flavor. "It tastes really good and it smells great," Davis says.
Rice consumption is increasing in the United States, with the average American eating about 24 pounds a year. Davis expects that trend to continue with the influx of people from Asia, Latin America and the Caribbean, and the continuing popularity of Louisiana cuisine.
Davis concedes that white rice by itself is bland, but it carries the flavors of other foods very well. "It will pick up on the red pepper and the black pepper and the holy trinity of Cajun cooking: bell pepper, onion and celery," he says. "It's all about the flavors."