How I Got Over Myself and Learned to Make Rice
When I think back to my earliest childhood memories, three things stand out: Anita Baker, "The Electric Slide," and rice. So much rice. As the halfro-Panamanian son of a Panamanian immigrant and grandson of the Janet Jackson of rice, it's long been understood that aside from acquiring at least one gold tooth, being able to produce a respectable pot of rice is part of my destiny. But it took me a minute to embrace it.
In the time before, my rice typically came out in mushy soul-deflating clumps that I would suffer through in private, but would never serve loved ones. Sure, rice sounds easy enough in theory: grains, water, heat, love. Knowing how much of each is the work. Making wretched rice for a rice-based meal? The horror.
The International Grandma Treaty of 1943 prohibits her from preparing or serving small portions, so as in many Latinx and Caribbean homes and across the diaspora, meals at my grandma's often consisted of mounds of rice and various meats, along with plantains. Rice wasting was outlawed in Grandmaland, so leaving the table before making our grown-up sized rice heaps disappear was not an option. No rice left behind.
My grandma's beef/chicken/shrimp fried rice and empanadas have been the stars of countless Panamanian-Caribbean fiestas, wedding receptions, Electric Slide conventions, and gold tooth reveal extravaganzas across the Hampton Roads area of Virginia since her arrival Stateside with my mom and my four uncles in the early '70s. People have made four-hour trips from Baltimore to buy her empanadas by the hundreds. Sometimes, people ask me about her legendary hot pepper sauce (and if I have a bottle) before asking how I'm doing. I think about all of that every time I make rice. Each pot feels like an audition.
Growing up, I didn't pay attention to how the magic happened. Grandma famously hates people in her kitchen while she's working, and being able to chop, stir, or wash anything therein is a privilege. Now that memory-robbing rat bastard dementia has joined the party, I feel added pressure to get my rice situation together and carry the torch.
I handled most of Thanksgiving and Christmas dinner for the first time last year with mom's guidance. But though I'm proud to be trusted enough to handle holiday meals for the familia, a pot of rice is still infinitely more stressful. A good gravy can hide only so much strife.
Rice-making should be soothing, but the quest to avoid the scorn of my foremothers made it a stressful endeavor. Last summer, after one shitshow too many, I decided to ditch my scarlet letter and begin my journey towards becoming a legendary rice-ist, as my ancestors intended. I wanted to make a pot of rice my grandmother, who until recently rarely ate other people's cooking, would enjoy and not because she's being nice to me.
"You rinsing your rice?" Mom asked when I declared my intentions.
"I mean, sure, yeah."
"You gotta reeeally rinse it. You can't rush through it."
So I rinsed the hell out of my rice, submerging, swishing, draining and repeating until the water was bien claro. This helps the rice grains shed their starchy shackles and shine on their own, unclumped and free.
She told me to use less water (closer to a 1.5:1 than a 2:1 water to rice ratio) and saute the rice beforehand like Grandma does. And once I cover it to simmer, leave it the hell alone.
I usually uncovered and fluffed the rice too early. One cannot un-mangle rice, so it took practice to not touch the simmering pot and allow it to rest once removed from heat. Every grain is already born great, but here are a few things I do while the rice completes its journey towards maximum deliciousness:
I season meats and such.
I wash and put away dishes.
I wonder if Janet Jackson has had dinner yet.
I let our dog Papi out into the backyard to do his business and keep a watchful eye so he doesn't squeeze through a hole in the fence and wander into a neighbor's yard which means we'd have to go around the block searching for him.
I chop onions because you can never have enough.
I pace to and fro and watch the pot for signs of distress.
I wonder if I've added enough salt.
I think about what I would serve Janet Jackson with this rice.
I convince myself that, yes, I have added enough salt, but most importantly, I do not uncover the rice.
The ancestors tell me when it is ready. It is not easy. I'm not prepared to cater the next Gold Teeth Festival just yet, but the dread is gone. I no longer feel like a legacy-tarnishing swamp donkey. And my rice: Yes.
Each time my mom doesn't ask, "...did you add salt?" after tasting, I feel more powerful, like a better offspring. I don't expect to be voted off the island or banned from the house that rice built any time soon.
I still I'm still working my way up to the fried rice though. Baby steps.