The latest victim of the cancel culture is the iconic figure of Uncle Ben that we are used to seeing on boxes of rice at the grocery store. If you are not familiar with the icon, it is a box of rice, red in color with a image of a well dressed black man smiling. The icon suggests that the maker of this rice is a affable gentile southern black man, that you could walk into his neighborhood kitchen one day and eat the same type of rice. This was a popular form of advertising during the 40s and 50s. Despite some very serious systemic racism in the country, and especially the south, there are a few things about the people of the south that you could not hide. This included most people from the south, but especially the black population. The music was awesome and so was the food. So naturally, marketers of that day in age definitely wanted to associate themselves with that culture and in the case of Gordon Harwell, who would create the Converted Rice company in 1942, in Houston Texas.
Now there is a really interesting history here. I think rather than cancelling this major American Icon, perhaps we should take a pause and really look at the circumstances that led to that black man’s face becoming a cultural icon. Was it racism? Perhaps. Maybe Mr. Harwell bought into the concept of using the deceptive lie that all was well in black America at the time for his profit. However, I think we also have to consider that actually was going on at the time. As usual, the truth is much more complicated and fascinating than the first glance. So here is a brief recap.
Mr. Harwell was a successful food distributor in the U.S. and he had one major client. The U.S. Armed Services. In a twisted sense of irony a British and German group of scientists developed a new method for preparing rice for human consumption, called parboiling. This was developed by scientist Erich Huzenlaub (German) and the British chemist Francis Rodgers. I will not get into the invention, but the result was that you had a fast cooking rice that maintained the nutritional content and was resistant to insects. This made it perfect for dropping bags of rice as food to soldiers in the field. Forrest Mars learned about this process and when he started expanding his company, Mars Inc. He was eager to go after the U.S. market and that is how he met Gordon Harwell. They created the version of this company in the United States and started distributing rice to literally feed the war effort.
After the war, Mr. Harwell was naturally considering how to make his company more successful beyond his one client. For obvious reasons, his contract with the military was reducing significantly. He was working on branding, packaging and marketing this rice to the public as a whole. I think he was influenced by the successful use of brands like, Aunt Jemima. He became close with a maitre d’ at a popular restaurant in Chicago named Frank Brown. Mr. Harwell frequented this restaurant, and when it came time to pick the icon that would become, Uncle Ben, he used the image of Frank Brown. Now that alone is an interesting story, but where did he come up with the name Uncle Ben?
Well, Uncle Ben is actually a real person, at least most people believe. He was a famous rice farmer in Texas that undoubtedly Mr. Harwell knew the folklore just as well as anyone else from Houston at the time. You see this is the real root of the Uncle Ben name and it goes back to slavery. There was a major rice crop trade in Sierra Leone, Africa. It was probably the #1 export of Africa for a long time. When the slave trade became a major method of supplying low cost workers to the colonies, inevitably many of the workers of these rice fields were taken in as well. Consequently there is no doubt that the real Uncle Ben was a direct descendant of a slave that knew and passed down the art of rice growing to his grand children. This is interesting, the infusion of culture that was occurring in the south and especially in Louisiana was exemplified by the food.
In my family we eat Creole cuisine quite frequently, my wife’s mother’s family is from Louisiana and take great pride in their ability to prepare the absolute best Gumbo and Jambalaya. Interesting to think that it was probably the slave trade that imported these rice farmers from Sierra Leonne which is how we ended up with a Creole blend of roux and rice together in several amazing dishes. So getting good rice is and still is a major part of southern cooking. Consequently the fame of Uncle Ben the rice farmer was a significant mythology in the South, as well as many other personalities famous for some element of the cuisine. So Mr. Harwell named his special rice formula after Uncle Ben and used the image of his friend at his favorite restaurant, Frank Brown.
From that was born one of the most iconic brands that have lasted for 70+ years. Mars Inc. has decided to drop the name and drop the image of Frank Brown. It will now be called Ben’s Original. At least Ben gets to still receive a bit of his just due! No one will remember Mr. Harwell, but many of us have become household companions with the face of Frank Brown. This remains the most popular selling rice brand today. Not sure what possessed me to research this and read about it, I think I find the truth far more fascinating than the concocted reality someone is trying to get me to believe. I think it is fascinating how a blend of cultures produces the results that it does, even if it was forced like in the case of slavery.
I think I will try my hand at some interesting rice dish tonight in honor of Uncle Ben!