“Cultivate a rice field rather than write poetry.”
Some memories are glutinous. I remember my dad leaning over the kitchen sink to wash rice: the cloudy water, the shiny rice grains, his hands. That finger trick to measure the right ratio of rice and water. The click of the rice cooker. The rising steam. The smell of cooked rice: grass, rain, and sunlight.
I ate white rice everyday growing up in Guam. My family bought huge bags of Diamond “G” Calrose Enriched Extra Fancy White Rice. Whenever I opened the pantry, that bright yellow bag and red diamond shined. It made me feel enriched and refined. It made me believe that the “G” stood for “Guam.”
My favorite element of the rice bag was the magical word: “California.” So full of legend, “California” must have been the most beautiful and abundant place in the world because it was where all our rice came from, and where so many Chamorro people migrated to.
I loved California because it fed us a bottomless supply of rice, the edible diamonds that staple heaven and earth.
I come from a rice culture. Fa’i, fama’ayan, timulo, tinitu, chaguan aga’ga, pugas, hineksa’. They say Chamorro people are the only Pacific Islanders who cultivated rice in ancient times. Rice was planted during the month of Fa’gualo (which translates as “to make a farm”), the October moon, and harvested the following year using tools with conch shell edge. The rice was husked by mortar and pestle (many of which still remain throughout the jungles of Guam). The rice was wrapped in banana leaves, placed in a bamboo tube filled with water, and set over a low fire. In other words, it to took work and time to put rice on the table.
Rice is money. If your village grew rice, you were wealthy. Rice was traded between villages and later, with Europeans. Rice is ceremony. It was served during special feasts and funerals, war and marriage rituals. They say a special drink made of rice and coconut milk was served to the skulls of ancestors after an abundant fishing trip.My ancestors used to pilgrimage to Fouha rock, our center of creation, and offer rice cakes to our Sister Creator, Fu’una. The blessed rice was taken back to the villages to cure the sick. Rice was a healthy valuable. It enriched our lives, bodies, and culture.
Globally, rice has fed peoples for millennia. It is the second most produced grain, behind corn. Rice is beautifully storied: a goddess brushed against rice seeds in heaven and they fell to earth; after a flood, an animal visits a starving village with rice seeds caught on its tail; an enslaved mother hides rice seeds in her children’s hair so that they will have something to eat wherever the slave ship takes them.
They say rice is an ideal grain for migrants; they say if you learn how to cultivate rice, you will no longer have to migrate. You will not go hungry. Plus, you’ll energy to do other things since rice is often associated with fertility—think throwing rice at a wedding.
The two main species of cultivated rice are Oryza sativa (“Asian rice”) and Oryza glaberrima (“African rice”). One story goes: rice spread from China and India to all parts of Asia. Rice was traded alongside silk and spices from Asia to Europe. Rice made its way to the Americas via European colonialism and the slave trade in the 16th century. Rice arrived in the American South at the end of the 17th century, and slaves from rice growing regions of Africa were forced to work in the many rice plantations in South Carolina and Georgia. The rice was known as “Carolina Gold.” Rice crept across the wetlands of Arkansas, Louisiana, and Texas in the 19th century. Rice made its way to California for the gold rush to feed thousands of new laborers from China. The first industrial crop was planted in California in 1912. Now, California is the second highest rice producing state, behind Arkansas.
When I as a kid, I always thought “Calrose” was the name of the family who owned and grew the rice. Little did I know that “rose” indicates a medium grain rice, and “Cal” indicates that the rice is a product of California.
Calrose was developed at the Rice Experiment Station in 1948. It became more and more popular over the decades. Calrose rice now accounts for nearly ninety percent of the state’s crop. Ninety percent of the rice consumed in Guam and Hawai’i is the California rose. Rice by any other varietal is not as sticky. Calrose by any other name is not as extra fancy.
American poet Gertrude Stein, who lived in California for part of her life, wrote the famous lines: “Rose is a rose is a rose is a rose,” in a poem titled “Sacred Emily,” published in 1913, one year after rice was industrially planted in California.
She has also written: “Indeed a rose is a rose makes a pretty plate” (from “Stanzas in Meditation”). Indeed, nothing makes a prettier plate than two scoops of rice!
If you call rice, “rose,” then is a rose still a “rose”? Or is a rose now rice? When I say, “rose,” am I referring to rice or the flower? What is a noun? What is description? What is food?
In her essay “Poetry and Grammar,” Stein writes: “When I said. A rose is a rose is a rose is a rose. And then later made that into a ring I made poetry and what did I do I caressed completely caressed and addressed a noun.”
In the essay “Chicano Poetry and the Bilingual Pun,” poet Javier Huerta (recommendation: read his collection of food poems, American Copia) writes: “One of the key moments in Chicano literature is when José Montoya rewrites Gertrude Stein’s famous line as ‘Arroz is Arroz is Arroz’…Explanation: ‘arroz’ sounds like ‘a rose’ but means ‘rice’; one can even go on to say that rice sounds like ‘rise, which is the present tense of ‘rose.’”
Diamonds, gold, roses. Food marketing as poetry. “Supermarket Pastoral.”
In another essay, Stein explained: “Now listen! I’m no fool. I know that in daily life we don’t go around saying ‘is a…is a…is a… Yes, I’m no fool; but I think in that line the rose is red for the first time in English poetry for a hundred years.”
Calrose is calrose is calrose is calrose.
Is this is a key moment in Pacific literature?
(to be continued)