Minute Rice Isn't Having a Moment, It's Just Always Been There for You
Rice is one of those foods that is universally loved and celebrated in all its many forms, but I didn't get familiar with regular, long-grain rice until adulthood. Come to think of it, I don't believe I've ever seen anyone in my family prepare anything other than Minute Rice.
You know Minute Rice. At least if you're from the Midwest you do. It's the starchy, mostly flavorless, always kind of tough, uniformly-grained, done-in-five-minutes side dish of choice from my childhood. Like any mass-produced consumer staple, Minute Rice has a distinctive feel (stiff, each individual grain separate, with no stickiness in sight) and taste (starchy and mostly flavorless) that you come to expect with every box. Now as an adult, the thing I love most about rice is its versatility. I love selecting different varieties of rice depending on how stiff, mushy, sticky or dry I want the final product to be. But childhood me knew one thing and one thing only when it came to rice. And that red box with big white letters sprawling across the front will forever be stamped in my memory as my first touchpoint with rice.
My parents served it alongside, like, three out of six of our weekly meals. The seventh, most sacred day was reserved for Junk Food Friday, but that's another story for another time. My busy parents relied mostly on large, filling dishes that either simmered all day in a slow cooker or could be whipped up with a few jarred or canned ingredients at the end of a long workday. On a typical night in the Sprewer household you would find us sitting around the kitchen table, late, but together, dining on pot roast, whole roasted chicken (carcasses preserved for leftovers soup), chili, spaghetti, steak and gravy, or fried something or another. Always with a vegetable (often frozen) and a starch which was usually potatoes, cornbread, or—you guessed it—Minute Rice.
And honestly, after spending your evening roasting a chicken or nursing a sauce, what working parent has time for a 30-minute-long temperamental experiment in which the rice might turn out mushy or stiff while the rest of dinner is on the table waiting? So I totally get my parents' proclivity towards Minute RIce. I still consider myself a fan of the stuff. In fact. Like most of my favorite things in this world, we have a person of color to thank for the marvel of modern ingenuity that is Minute Rice.
OK, so get this, because the brand website is conveniently missing this very relevant and super important detail. Ataullah K. Ozai‐Durrani, a cousin to the King of Afghanistan, is the original inventor of Minute Rice! Durrani came to the U.S. in 1923 to study petro-chemistry. But after one fateful dinner party at which one of his guests remarked that his chicken-rice was so good, it ought to be served to the public, Durrani, being the noble genius, planter, and bio-chemist that he was, set out to do just that. He started researching rice, which at the time was notoriously hard to store and prepare, thus scarce in the American market.
After a lot of trial and error—18 years worth to be exact—Durrani perfected a method of parboiling, then dehydrating long-grain white rice so that a little more than a minute and some boiling water was all you needed to bring it back to life. In 1941, he brought his new rice product, a pot, and a portable stove to the General Foods Corporation in New York. After convincingly demonstrating his "minute rice," the rest is history. The executives at General Foods (now Kraft, which sold Minute Rice to Riviana Foods Inc. in 2006) were so impressed with the significant reduction in time that they immediately bought the recipe. After that, it was on. Minute Rice was introduced to the market that same year in 1941 and was requisitioned by the U.S. Army for use as a GI ration for WWII troops stationed overseas in Europe and the South Pacific. By 1949, Minute Rice had launched its first national ad campaign, securing the title of "the first precooked rice" in the minds of the American people.
Increased industrialization, a new fascination with technology, and that famed ad campaign helped Minute Rice's popularity soar among housewives and working mothers of the '50s and '60s. Much like my busy parents in the 90's, and parents everywhere now, these ladies were busy. Mothers who were working to provide for their households still took on the responsibility of getting everyone fed. It makes sense as to why its foothold in the Midwest was and is so strong, especially on Black families' pantry shelves. Almost everyone I know from cities like Milwaukee, Chicago, Flint, Cleveland, or Gary have roots in the factories that employed the majority of our grandparents back then. Convenience products were growing in popularity across the board precisely because of the need for quick, cheap, and easy food products. Coupled with access and food scarcity issues often prevalent in urban communities, processed convenience foods like Minute Rice, and frozen and canned meats and vegetables eventually gained permanent spots on our shelves and in our communities. Though people had, and continue to have, fewer options in terms of grocery stores and ingredients, Black folks have always carried our food traditions with us.
Regardless of where we've put down roots, Black people have never been strangers to rice. Rice is and has always been a staple crop of Black foodways. From Western Africa to the Carolina Lowcountry and the rest of the South you see rice being used as the centerpiece of dishes like jollof, jambalaya, red beans and rice, and hoppin' john. Even though the preparation and spot on the map may change, rice has always been on the menu.
Recently, more imports, the internet, and of course, immigrants have made different foods from different cultures more accessible to Americans than ever. But unsurprisingly, my dad still opts for instant rice on pretty much every occasion. His palate has grown exponentially from when I was a kid, but even when he has me prepare more adventurous meals for him like an asada for Father's Day or a Korean food spread with all his favorite banchan for his birthday, he's eating his bulgogi over Minute Rice. For the asada he might get funky and mix in some cilantro, but you get the idea. For him, the convenience factor simply can't be matched. I think after all these years, the idea of a pot of rice taking more than five minutes from start to finish would be offensive to him, or at the very least, just not at all worth the effort. And I guess I can't blame him.
As someone approaching the age my parents were when they were raising my sister and me, with significantly fewer responsibilities, 30 minutes for a whole pot of fresh grains is still a stretch most days. Especially when they've got stuff like microwavable cups of "ancient grain blends" and pouches of quinoa that are perfectly steamed in 30-seconds. On more occasions than I'd like to admit (especially since quarantine), I've turned to a fake-fancy, marketed-to-millennials instant grain product. It goes perfectly with roasted shrimp, veggies, yogurt and a squeeze of lemon, or the single braised chicken thigh and tiny herb salad I make most weeks. And it's just me at home, so the little pre-portioned containers are perfect for solo meals and midday lunches when I actually want to be productive after.
However, if you, like myself, are a Midwestern millennial who was never shown anything else other than Minute Rice. I want to take this opportunity to recommend jasmine rice and a good cheap rice maker as you begin your new journey with rice in all its many wonderful forms. And hey, if you like your Minute Rice just the way it is, that's fine too. If it's good enough for my daddy and the king of Afghanistan's cousin, it's perfectly acceptable for you too.