Valerie Erwin has been in the rice game for her whole life, and it's about time she got recognized.

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Valerie Erwin
Credit: Rebecca McAlpin

America is going through a full-on rice renaissance. Companies and organizations like Anson Mills and the Carolina Gold Rice Foundation are rediscovering and planting heirloom grains at scale. Chefs, including BJ Dennis, JJ Johnson, Edouardo Jordan, and others are getting deep into the stewardship and celebration of heritage varieties. A full episode of Netflix's Waffles + Mochi (featuring Michael Twitty, author of the new F&W favorite, Rice: A Savor the South Cookbook) celebrated rice in its many splendored forms. But there's a voice that's been left out of the recent conversation.

Valerie Erwin closed her Philadelphia restaurant, Geechee Girl Rice Cafe, in January 2015, capping off a 12-year run as a neighborhood restaurant-turned-destination for lovers of Lowcountry cuisine, as well as foods from the Southern diaspora. Rice was right there in the name, front and center in the dishes that Erwin and her sisters had learned to love growing up. Through her respectful and inventive cooking, Erwin sparked countless dialogues about the rich variety of grains and techniques—a harbinger of what was to come just a few years later. At the 2020 Philly Chef Conference, Erwin remarked that perhaps she'd been ahead of her time. The truth is, that time might not have arrived without her.

This conversation has been edited and condensed for clarity.

Food & Wine: The last time I saw you was right before lockdown, and you said something that stuck with me—that maybe you were ahead of your time with your rice cafe. How are you feeling now that rice is just spilling out everywhere?

Valerie Erwin: I just think it's ironic that rice in general, and rice in the African American food space is having its moment now. And it's like, "What?"

When I think of you, I think of you as the first person I really seriously heard talking about rice, and it was in the name of your cafe. What is it that drew you to rice and made you a rice evangelist?

I have to give credit to my sister Alethia (Leigh) for the concept, because I got a chance to buy the equipment in an already fit-out space in Germantown, but it was very small. We were trying to think of a limited concept to go into that space. I was talking to another friend who's in the industry and she traveled for work. She was talking about places that were just simple concepts, like Pizzeria Bianco, or one that was just noodles. She said, "I think anything would work in Germantown, because there's just so little here." 

Leigh said, "Well, we can always call it Geechee Girl and do rice," and I was like, "That is a great idea." Rice was a really integral part of our food growing up.

I take it rice was fundamental to those dishes?

We always had rice, and if we went to my grandmother's house, there was always rice, but in other people's houses, not so much. I honestly don't know if I just always knew or somehow I figured out that it was because my parents' families both came from the Lowcountry where they eat rice. It drifted into my consciousness that other people didn't eat rice because they weren't from Savannah and Charleston, but we ate rice because that's where our family was from.

When you were a kid, did you go from Philadelphia to the Lowcountry to visit family? 

We never went to visit anybody. We didn't really have family left. My father had one sister who still lived in Savannah, although she was not one of the cooking Erwins. The cooking Erwins all lived in Miami, so we went there sometimes. 

My mother was born in Philadelphia, but her parents were from Charleston. When they moved to Philadelphia, it was my grandmother, my grandfather, my great grandmother, and my great aunt. I found out much, much, much later that my great-grandfather was alive until the seventies or eighties, when I thought my great-grandmother was widowed. Instead, she just left his sorry ass. It was really us keeping that culture alive in our kitchens and in our home.

Who did the cooking in your home?

Both of my parents shared it, because my father was a really good cook and had worked in restaurants. When we were growing up, he made his living working for the Navy Yard, but he often had restaurant jobs, and he had concessions at a local bar where he would do food on the weekends. He usually cooked for holidays and on Sundays, because my mother played the piano at church. Day-to-day cooking was usually my mother until when I was about 11 or 12. My mother went back to work and then Leigh and I cooked during the week. 

For most things that I learned to cook, if somebody showed me how, it was my father. He was much more of a teacher, and my mother was in the "I can do it myself. I can do it faster myself." category.

We had a lot of time to watch what was happening, but one big thing in our family: my father did not cook rice. He only cooked rice if it was some kind of emergency, like he was making dinner and my mother hadn't gotten home yet. Whenever made it, he would say, "I really can't cook rice." It was never the perfect pot of rice. All of the rice dishes, red rice or hoppin' john—my father never made those. 

Did this division of labor just come naturally?

I don't know. But when I read Judith Carney's book Black Rice and she talked about the division of rice labor in West Africa, and how women were really the people who farmed rice, I thought, "Oh my God, we had a division of rice labor right in my house."

Until I read that book, I always just thought it was an idiosyncrasy of our family. But after I read that book, I thought, "Oh, well maybe there's more cultural significance to this." And we just thought of it as my father just says, "I really can't cook rice," and that was the end of it. And that's OK. I wish I'd had an opportunity to ask that, but I didn't.

So what is this perfect pot of rice?

My mother could make a perfect pot of rice, and she never measured it. My father's rice was less than perfect and he measured it all the time. I'm more about the measuring part because the other part was more intuitive. I could probably do it now, but usually I do measure my rice. At my restaurant, I cooked rice in a rice cooker, and I didn't measure the water. I just look at the amount of water over the rice in the rice cooker, and know it would be the right amount of water, so I think that's what my mother did. And no, I didn't absorb that at all.

The other kinds of rice that she made, I never made them. I mean, I saw a little bit of the beginning, and I saw the finished product, but I don't know that I ever paid any attention to the middle. So, I didn't know how to make hoppin' john, and my mother only made that for New Year's Day. She would cook the black-eyed peas with the hog jowl with the teeth, and then she would put the rice in it and cook it all together. When it was done, it was perfectly fluffy with this frightening piece of seasoning meat in it.

I wasn't that crazy about black eyed peas as a kid, so I had to try to recreate it. I don't know if I asked my mother. I just worked on it when I opened the restaurant, but there was a lot of trial and error—emphasis on error.

Rice is a really emotional thing for so many people. Why do you think that is?

Certainly in my house growing up, it didn't matter how great the rest of the meal was. If you ruined the rice, it was a ruined meal. We're speaking of a household where there wasn't often ruined rice, but if it burned, we'd have to throw that away and start all over, and delay dinner for 30 minutes. It wasn't an acceptable thing to do. I carry some of that. 

Maybe if I make American food and the rice is terrible, I could cook a potato or some bread, but if you make gumbo, and your rice is ruined, well, what are you going to eat it with? It's the backbone of a meal. In years gone by, that was the big relatively inexpensive thing that filled up a meal. If you ruined the rice, it was more than inconvenient; it was almost tragic. 

When did you become a maker of rice and at what point did you feel confident serving it to somebody else?

Young. It wasn't ever as perfect as my mother's, but it would be considered a very good pot of rice, but also very plain. I could probably make a pot of rice when I was eight or nine. 

My mother used to make red rice. When I opened the restaurant, I wanted to make it so I asked her how and she said, "Oh goodness, I don't remember." I had one of my sisters ask one of the Erwin Aunts how to make it, and I got not exactly a recipe, but instructions, a technique. That was good enough for me.

It seems like that is a dish that is emblematic of Gullah and Geechee cuisine. Actually, would you mind explaining the difference?

The difference has gotten elided more and more over the years. When I first opened the restaurant in 2003, there seemed to be a big gulf between Gullah and Geechee. But people in the Lowcountry these days usually identify themselves with Geechee-Gullah. I don't know that they think of it as such a big difference, but I know from my grandmother, the Gullah people were the people who actually lived on the islands out in the water and also from South Carolina. I never heard anybody called Gullah who lived in Georgia. So I think of Geechee as being a more general term and Gullah being a more specific kind of ethnic group. I don't know that there's so many differences in their lifestyle or food or even language. (I wouldn't know if there's a difference in the language.) I think that geography has a lot to do with it. 

My short, rehearsed answer is, Geechees are the descendants of enslaved Africans that lived on the coast and islands of South Carolina and Georgia. My mother's parents were from South Carolina. My father's parents were from Georgia. And I always tell people we didn't get bucolic summers, all we got was the food.

So when you talk about rice specifically from that culture, what is the physical rice? 

When I was growing up, I don't know that we used any rice that was particularly special. It was just  long-grain white rice in five and 10 pound bags. My Asian friends bought it in 25 pound bags, but people, not rice-eating people, bought a one-pound box of rice, so that would be like, "Well, what are you going to eat tomorrow?"

What I discovered over years long before I opened the Geechee Girl is I would buy rice and it had no flavor.  I used to think that maybe my tastes have changed and I just didn't like rice anymore. But now, I think that the rice had just gotten worse. For whatever reasons, growing different strains, I don't really know—I've never researched what happened to plain white rice between say the '60s and the '80s—that was my feeling. So I started buying jasmine rice because it tasted the most like what I remember rice tasting like when I was a kid. It was a little bit soft and it was kind of fragrant. I read things about how people in the Lowcountry like perfectly separate rice, but our rice was never like that. Our rice was a little bit firmer and a little bit more stuck together so that you could pour gravy over it, and then it would fall apart. Jasmine rice gave me the thing that was closest to that for a really reasonable price. So that's at home and at the restaurant, that was our go-to rice.

When did you start becoming more of a rice nerd?

A lot of that was Anson Mills. I had read about Carolina Gold rice before the restaurant opened and Anson Mills' name came up. I emailed, as it turns out, Catherine Schopfer [partner and chef liaison for the company] and started a beautiful friendship. I asked her about the rice and she said that was the test crop. They didn't really have rice to sell. She gave me the name of someone else, a man named Mike Booth, who was growing Carolina Gold rice. His job was something completely different, like an electrical engineer, it was really like a side gig, and I bought rice from him. 

But Catherine said, "Well, we do have some other things."At the time, they had grits and cornmeal, which I started buying from them. After a couple of years, something happened with Mike's crop and he kind of got out of the side gig. It was like, "Okay, the crops are ruined. I'm not going to try again." 

By that time, Anson Mills had Carolina Gold rice to sell. I started buying that, and then buying other kinds of rice from them. Black rice was the one that I really, really loved. I got that for a few years and then that crop failed and they didn't have any, and Glenn Roberts [the founder of Anson Mills] was telling me about some seed rice that I don't even know, was some ridiculous amount of money, like $300 or $3000. But they were trying to bring this rice back. 

It was a great revelation, realizing that with every kind of grain, there was so much personality. And it just wasn't the generic sameness that I think that we have been taught by industrial producers to expect from our rice, from our flour, from our corn. 

So you got friends and rice!

Because of that early relationship, I've had an almost 20-year friendship with Glenn. I managed a not-for-profit restaurant in West Philadelphia where there was a lot of donated food. When I started working there, I brought on a chef who's a friend of mine and there were Quaker grits already there, we used them up. Then I wrote to Glenn and he just said, "OK, just tell us what you want, how much he wants. We'll send it to you." He did that for two years.

How did you educate your cafe diners about how special the rice was? 

When we got Carolina Gold rice, Mike told me in the heyday of Carolina rice, the planters shipped away all of the whole-grain rice and they kept for themselves the cracked rice, the broken rice. Every once in a while I might get whole-grain rice for something special, but for the most part that's what I would use, I put it in  a dish that was like a North African chicken that had citrus fruit in it and kind of a cumin rub. I made a warm salad that was like couscous that had currants in it. I would have people say, "I don't usually like couscous." I'd tell them it actually isn't couscous, it's rice, but it has a mouthfeel like couscous. And for the same reason, I would make risotto with that rice because it was high starch content. Because it was cracked, the starch would come out and you can make this really creamy, but not mushy rice. 

We would sometimes make a tabouli-like salad with brown rice. It just had a wonderful feeling in your mouth that reminded me of a bulgur. But if you couldn't eat wheat, you could still eat that. As far as I have been able to determine, nobody's allergic to rice. It's one of the least allergenic foodstuffs.

Did your customers notice this wasn't just any old rice?

I think people appreciated it and I think they really liked it. I don't know that so many people talked about it, except when people would say, "I can never cook rice. How do you cook rice?" I'd give them a short lesson or tell them to buy a rice cooker. That doesn't work that well for Carolina Gold rice, but it's good  for the jasmine rice.

When the restaurant closed, it was a big deal and people really wanted to commemorate the run of it..

There was  a party. I mean, I was just stunned. I announced it a few months in advance and New Year's Eve 2014 was our last service. Friends of mine had arranged the party. Other restaurant people came and Glenn sent a tape and Maureen Fitzgerald, who was the editor of the Inquirer sent a tape. It was really, really fun. I was a little shellshocked and if I hadn't been, I would have done more things. There are people I would have invited. The thing is we don't always have choices in these matters as much.

When you see some years down the line that there's this rice fervor, what do you make of this?

I think it's about time because it's a very narrow American or Northern European thing to think that rice is exotic. In fact it is the most widely-eaten staple of the world. A lot of times when I've met people whose families are from other places they were like, "Oh yeah, we make rice, we eat rice every day." That is a really common comment. In our logo are these black women winnowing white rice and people would come in and they could be from Sierra Leone or they could be from Barbados. They would come in and think that I was from there too, because that logo looks just like what somebody winnowing rice would be like in their home country.

And why was rice so exoticized in our culture when it's so common around the world? But of course, I feel a little bit of like, "What have I been telling you?" I was saying this 10 years ago, I was saying this 15 years ago. And honestly, I feel like I got a fair amount of press.for what we were, which was a very small neighborhood restaurant. Some of it was because of Glenn, some of it was just happenstance. I got a lot of attention from kind of the food cognoscenti, but I don't feel like it necessarily trickled down to the regular foodie people as much as it might have. 

We were a neighborhood restaurant, so maybe that wasn't everything, but I certainly would have appreciated—not even just from a business standpoint, but just from a standpoint of advocacy and expertise—some of the attention that's going to rice in African American foodways right now. I still fee; kind of regretful about it. I'm not mad, but I'm very regretful, and I feel like I still have this knowledge base, this experience but because I don't have the showcase of the restaurant anymore, I'm way farther off anybody's radar. It's hard to remember somebody that had a restaurant that closed six years ago. But as for rice? It's about time.