“Uncle Ben”

5: The story of rice begins in China about 10,000 years ago, plus or minus a couple thousand years. It was there that wild rice was first domesticated as a reliable crop. From there, the story moves to the processing stage: What do we do with this rice? If we remove the outer husks of the seed (chaff), we get what we call brown rice.

The problem is that brown rice contains an oil, and over time, oil goes rancid. That makes brown rice more difficult to store or transport. One way of making rice last longer is to mill away not just the chaff but the bran as well, because most of the volatile oil is in the bran part. That produces what we call white rice.

Either way, brown or white, another problem with rice is that when we strip away the outer husk, we also lose some important nutrients. One way to limit the loss is to parboil it before husking. Then the steam or boiling water drives the nutrients from the husk deeper into the grain itself. White rice is also very sticky. Parboiling makes it less apt to stick to the pan.

Enter a German-born English immigrant, Erich Huzenlaub (1888-1964). Huzenlaub was aware of the nutrient loss in rice milling, and wanted to improve the parboiling process. He developed techniques known as the “Huzenlaub Process.”

Erich Huzenlaub Passport Photo

Erich Huzenlaub, c.1954

This process produced what we call “converted” rice. In addition to preserving 80% or more of the nutrients, it also made rice faster to cook and much more resistant in storage to damage from weevils.

Enter M&Ms. Well, not literally. Forrest Mars, Sr. (1904-1999), a Yale-trained industrial engineer, was the son of Frank Mars, founder of the candy company. Forrest wanted the company to expand overseas, but Frank didn’t want to. A disgruntled Forrest took a buyout, and went to England to pursue his own food agenda. That brought him into contact with Huzenlaub. Mars came to recognize the potential of Huzenlaub’s rice milling technology, and in 1941, a few months before Pearl Harbor, Mars bought half the patent rights from Huzenlaub.

Meanwhile, a food broker in Houston, Gordon Harwell, aware of the nutrient-loss problem, was doing his own experiments on rice with his home pressure cooker. He found out about Huzenlaub’s work, and started pestering him to come to America, something which Mars had also been urging. Finally, Huzenlaub agreed, and in 1942, he and Harwell started the Converted Rice, Inc., which sold rice exclusively to the U.S. and British armed forces. A couple of years later, with a big investment from Mars, the business was expanded.

After the war, in adapting to the civilian market, Harwell came up with the name Uncle Ben’s Plantation Rice, supposedly after a prize-winning Houston-area rice farmer. It’s not clear that there was such a person, but the origin of the “Uncle” part was clear enough. In Jim Crow days, southern whites refused to call African Americans by the usual courtesy titles like Mr. or Mrs., but to avoid being disrespectful to the elderly, they would call older black folks “Uncle” or “Aunt” (as in another well-known product, Aunt Jemima).

There is one rice kernel of truth here: The connection between black Americans and rice goes back to colonial days. In the 1700s, South Carolina planters in the Low Country knew the region would be good for growing rice, but they had no idea how to grow it, and rice cultivation was a very labor-intensive business. So they paid premium prices for “rice coast” slaves, from Senegal to Liberia, who were skilled in rice cultivation.


Of course, life for the enslaved on the rice plantations was horrible. Food rations were meager, “housing” was as good as non-existent, and diseases were rampant, from malaria to diseases associated with forcing people into crowded, unsanitary conditions, such as cholera. At the Gowrie Plantation, along the Savannah River, for example, it has been calculated that 90% of the children died before reaching age 16.

It appears that on most rice plantations, the enslaved worked on a task, or quota, system, meaning that once the day’s tasks were done, the rest of the day was considered free time. That was essential, because it appears that on the rice plantations, meat was rarely ever part of the food rations, and the enslaved had to rely on their own skills, such as fishing, to make up for the missing protein. It appears that food rations generally supplied less than half the daily calories a field slave would have required.


The large number of slaves required for rice cultivation had political dimensions as well. By 1720, blacks outnumbered whites in South Carolina by about 2:1. By the outbreak of the Civil War, the ratio was still about 6:4. The disparity led to white fears that the slaves would rebel. In 1739, the “Stono Rebellion” led to the repressive “Negro Act,” which took away even the modest rights that still belonged to the enslaved. In June 2015, in the wake of the murder of nine African Americans by a white domestic terrorist, the media recalled the 1822 revolt led by Denmark Vessey, one of the founders of the “Mother Emanuel” church.

Out of this combination of heavy profits (for the rice plantations, reliant on free labor, were very profitable indeed) and fear, it’s not surprising that South Carolina led the rebellion against the United States, and started the Civil War in 1861 by firing on Fort Sumter, in the Charleston harbor. In fact, it wasn’t until 2015 that the Confederate battle flag, the symbol of white supremacy and rebellion, was finally removed from the state capitol.


But back to Uncle Ben: Harwell soon put a face to his product. It was said to be Frank Brown, a Chicago hotel maître-d’. But with his little bow tie, he looked more like a railroad porter than a gentleman farmer:


There’s no sense of the skilled farmer “Uncle Ben,” who had supposedly set the standard for quality rice. What we see is an African American in a subservient position. There’s no asterisk explaining that in the days of Jim Crow, whether under the de jure segregation of the south or the de facto segregation of the north, it was difficult for African Americans to move very far up the ladder, past the servant world of railroad porters and maids. There’s also no asterisk explaining that merely trying to move up might literally cost you your life, for being an “uppity n—-r.”

By 2007, the social climate had evolved enough that Uncle Ben’s had to evolve as well. The Ben character was named the “Chairman,” shown in his office in a thoughtful pose. The French cuffs and cufflinks remind us that he’s the Boss, and not the Boss’s valet:


It’s quite an upgrade. But the bottom line is that “Uncle Ben” still has no last name, and that undermines whatever good has been accomplished here. Employees at Amazon might call their boss “Uncle Jeff” behind his back, but to his face, you can bet it’s either “Mr. Bezos” or find a new job.

So maybe someday, Uncle Ben will at least get a last name. Uncle Ben’s is still owned by the Mars company. Maybe Ben could follow the old tradition from slavery days, adopt the surname of his “owner,” and become Benjamin Mars, CEO. Then the “Uncle” part might even make sense: Just good old-fashioned nepotism at work, right?

Author: Dan Anderson

I'm an Iowa boy by choice. I love cooking and I love history, so I thought I'd put the two together.

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