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Plan a trip to Southwest Louisiana, where life is rice and easy.
Rice reigns supreme in Southwest Louisiana, where the city of Crowley is deep in harvest season and preparing for its annual Rice Festival.
Story by Erin Z. Bass
“Have a rice day” is the greeting you’ll get in Crowley, Louisiana.
Rice has reigned in this self-proclaimed “rice capital” of the Cajun prairie since the late 1800s. Crowley’s rice history goes back to the completion of the railroad, which led to the sale of abundant prairie land rich for growing the crop. Several advances in equipment, technology and plant varieties all led to the grain prospering in this region of Southwest Louisiana. Rice fields still dot the landscape today.
As the town of 13,000 people prepares for its annual Rice Festival the third weekend in October—John F. Kennedy attended the 23rd annual rice festival!—companies like Supreme Rice Mill are working seven days a week to dry, mill, package and ship rice around the world. With an 80-year history in the area, Supreme is the largest rice milling operation around. Its tall rows of grain elevators dot the skyline, and this time of year there’s no shortage of 18-wheelers pulling in to unload their crop.
Rice coming from surrounding fields is dried and stored in bins before traveling across an overhead conveyor belt to the mill. Supreme takes in roughly five hundred 100-pound bags in an hour and processes more than one billion pounds of rice each year. Once inside the mill, the husk covering the grain is removed to reveal either a white or brown kernel. Broken and discolored pieces of rice are removed, with various quality control checks along the way so that each grain that lands on your plate is as close to perfect as possible.
With four varieties of rice on shelves at grocery stores in nine states—long grain white, long grain brown, medium grain white, and aromatic white Jasmin—Supreme is packing for domestic and export customers. Some Louisiana-grown rice travels as far as Africa, Iraq and Costa Rica.
Much of Supreme’s rice is gobbled up in homes that are the company’s neighbors, where it’s cooked for Cajun staples like gumbo, jambalaya and red beans and rice. Most home chefs in southwest Louisiana use a special rice cooker or steamer to prepare rice; many Cajun cooks have some version of the Hitachi rice cooker, which steams the local product to perfection in about 20 minutes.
At the International Rice Festival, the annual Chef de Riz Rice Creole and Cookery Contest has categories for kids as young as eight and requires that at least one cup of cooked rice be included in each dish; wild rice does not count.
Supreme sponsors the Rice Sound Stage located in front of the city courthouse, where local bands play throughout the weekend. A “Mill Worker of the Year” award will be given out and the International Rice Festival Queen crowned on Saturday.
Throughout the year, rice is on display in Crowley. The Historic Rice Theatre downtown offers tours of its Art Deco building by appointment as well as on monthly gospel, Cajun and country music nights. Heading back toward the interstate on North Parkerson Avenue, there are more rice-themed businesses like Rice City Kitchen known for its hot tamales and chicken salad; Boudin King, where rice is the star in its gumbo and meat and rice stuffed boudin; and Rice Palace Restaurant, which has a section of rice dishes on its menu including pork jambalaya, gumbo and crawfish etouffee.
Inside the restored Crowley Motor Company Building, now City Hall, you can learn about the history of rice production at the Rice Interpretive Center. Tours are free and also include J.D. Miller Music Recording Studio and Ford Automotive Museums. Farming tours and equipment are on display at Kelly’s Landing in the German settlement of Robert’s Cove, just outside Crowley; rice field and crawfish pond tours are also available by appointment.
Purchase a souvenir to take home at Wortman Pottery, located on a working rice farm, in the neighboring rural town of Duson. The 15-minute drive will provide plenty of field views before the final rice harvest and flooding of the fields that signals crawfish season is just around the corner.
Enjoy a taste of Cajun Country with this recipe:
Shrimp and Okra Gumbo
1/4 cup canola oil
2 cups diced yellow onions
2 cups diced green bell pepper
2 cups diced celery
2 Tbsp. minced garlic
1/2 cup chopped flat-leaf parsley
1 cup chopped tasso or smoked ham
2 Tbsp. tomato paste
12 cups shrimp stock or seafood stock, plus water if needed
1 cup dried shrimp
2 cups sliced okra
1 1/2 cups dark roux (recipe below)
1 Tbsp. cayenne pepper
Kosher salt and freshly ground black pepper
3 pounds fresh large Louisiana shrimp
Dash of hot sauce
8 cups cooked Louisiana long-grain white rice, for serving
1 cup diced green onion tops
In a large cast-iron pot over medium heat, add 1/4 cup of canola oil. Once sizzling hot, add the onions, bell peppers and celery. Sauté until the onions turn translucent. Add the garlic, parsley and tasso, and sauté until combined. Add the tomato paste and stir to combine. Add the shrimp stock along with the dried shrimp. Add the sliced okra. Bring to a boil and add the roux. Lower the heat to a simmer and season with cayenne pepper. Cover the pot and let cook for 1 hour.
After 1 hour, lift the lid and skim the surface of any excess oil. Taste the gumbo. If you prefer your gumbo thinner, add more stock or water. Add salt and pepper to taste. Add the shrimp, cover the pot and simmer for 20 minutes more. Turn off the heat. Uncover the pot and skim the surface of any excess oil. Sample the finished gumbo and season with hot sauce to taste. Ladle the gumbo into large bowls over a mound of rice and garnish with diced green onion tops. Have filé powder and hot sauce on the table for adding. Serves 6-8.
To make a roux: Heat 1 1/2 cups vegetable oil in a large skillet over medium heat (cast iron skillets work best). Add 1 1/2 cups white flour gradually, stirring constantly. You will need to stand over the stove stirring this the whole time. The roux is ready when it is a chocolate-to-coffee shade of brown, depending on your preference. The length of time will vary depending on the type of pot you are using and the level of the heat under your pot. It is important to know that in a heavy skillet, the roux will continue to darken once you have removed it from the flame. Allow the roux to cool almost to room temperature. You can put the cool roux in a jar and keep it in the refrigerator.