“He had a Colorado look, like a younger version of an extra on ‘Mountain Men.’ You can see him running the trap, man!”
That was Tommy Wheeler’s first impression of Justin Domsch, executive chef of the Denver Broncos, at the National Restaurant Association Show in Chicago in May. Wheeler was there to get people interested in Carolina Gold, an heirloom rice product from his North Carolina-based Tidewater Grain Company.
Wheeler didn’t know who Domsch was, but he knew he was important. “Even though it was my first time at the show, I quickly learned that the ‘pros’ are the buyers who have their badges flipped over so that you can’t see who they’re with,” Wheeler said. “They’ll talk to you when they want to.”
Domsch struck up a conversation about rice. He told Wheeler that the NFL teams that have been studying nutrition fully believe that a player’s career longevity and health depend on it. Domsch went on, “I would like to buy some rice for my team. We believe in your message and what the product represents. Carolina Gold is the only heirloom rice in the Americas.”
Wheeler, apparently, didn’t need to pitch his product; it was speaking for itself.
Domsch then gave Wheeler his business card with the Broncos’ iconic horse head logo. Wheeler immediately sensed a tremendous opportunity and thought, “Uh, oh. We’re in deep water now!”
Domsch’s curiosity drew him to the trade show since he’s “always looking for something new and exciting that would be a great fit” for the Broncos. In 2014, the Florida native joined the team’s nutrition staff after several years as a private chef in California. That year, the Broncos decided to keep the entire nutrition program in-house rather than outsourcing it to a caterer or food service company.
“I love rice,” said Domsch. “When I was a kid, my mom frequently made that yellow saffron rice — I think it was the Vigo brand — with peas and chicken. I always used to love that. Rice is so diverse because it’s a staple in so many countries.”
When he saw the words “Carolina Gold Rice” in Wheeler’s display, he thought, “Awesome!” He had some knowledge of the product already.
Domsch travels quite a bit, and it was on a trip to Charleston, S.C. where he first learned about Carolina Gold and the efforts to revive its farming. This comeback story speaks to the deep history of rice in North America. Indigenous people harvested wild rice in parts of the Americas for eons before European contact.
Of the hundreds of thousands of enslaved West Africans brought to British North America to cultivate indigo and tobacco, some came from a region in West Africa where they grew a native species of rice. Some slave ships were provisioned with this reddish-hued rice to feed the enslaved during the harrowing, weeks-long journey across the Atlantic Ocean, known as “The Middle Passage.”
If the conditions were right, enslaved people bound to plantations cultivated West African rice to get a taste of home and supplement the meager rations provided by slaveholders.
The marked success of the enslaved rice farmers motivated many slaveholders to cultivate rice on a large scale. By the late 1600s, rice varieties from Asia and West Africa were farmed along the coastal regions of Virginia, the Carolinas and Georgia.
How did Carolina Gold become the preferred rice variety? Legend has it that in the late 1600s, a ship from Madagascar bound for a Caribbean destination was diverted to Charleston because of a storm. While waiting for repairs, the ship’s captain gave rice samples to some of the locals that they were encouraged to plant.
This rice became known as Carolina Gold, and it did so well in South Carolina’s coastal regions — thanks mainly to African American rice farming expertise — that it soon became a major cash crop. The rice earned its nickname because of its golden color (when not hulled) and its economic value.
The Carolina Gold rice rush ended in the late 1800s when post-Civil War economic forces and a series of storms ravaged the industry.
Because so many enslaved West Africans were responsible for Carolina Gold’s success, there’s a widespread (and mistaken) belief that it is native to West Africa. Judith Carney, an emeritus professor of geography at the University of California at Los Angeles and author of “Black Rice: The African Origins of Rice Cultivation in the Americas,” clarifies. “Carolina Gold is an Asian sativa rice — imported after the rice economy had taken off for its higher productivity and suitability to tidewater growing conditions.”
“When enslaved rice growers began cultivating it as a subsistence preference, plantation owners became aware of the grain’s suitability for cultivation,” Carney added.
Carolina Gold became a lucrative cash crop because it could be milled mechanically without shattering, unlike rice varieties that had to be milled by hand using a mortar and pestle.
So when Domsch saw Wheeler at the Illinois trade show, he was prepared. “I knew about it, I’ve done the history on the rice, and I wanted to play around with it. Carolina Gold is nutrient-dense, and that’s great for the players. There are a lot of nutrients and proteins in there and carbohydrates because it’s not as refined as other types of rice.” Though Carolina Gold is strongly associated with South Carolina, Wheeler is currently the only one growing it in North Carolina.
So, what’s the game plan when it comes to feeding a professional football team?
“My boss (Bryan Snyder), the head dietician, indicates what he’d like to see in the buffet, which is typically greens, a vegetable, a grain — he’s a big believer in rice — a pasta dish, a lean protein, and another protein. After we get the layout, I work with my team to source the best products that we can and just come up with different menus every day.”
Domsch has noticed a favorable reaction to the addition of Carolina Gold rice to the menu on its own, in a composed dish, or as leftovers. “They love it. They’ve been crushing it. Especially because they burn so many calories during practice. They’re just trying to get back some of those carbohydrates.”
Players are often intrigued when they see it on the menu display. When players ask “What’s Carolina Gold Rice?” Domsch takes the opportunity to talk about its nutritional punch and interesting history. “There are some guys who are definitely fascinated by where their food comes from, which is cool,” Domsch said. “A lot of the younger generation guys are starting to appreciate that more, and ask where we source our fish, chicken and eggs. It’s cool to the younger generation noticing that stuff.”
Domsch believes we’re witnessing a broader trend for vastly improved nutrition programs not only in college football programs but across all sports. This also makes sense to Wheeler because the stakes are so high. “It’s one thing to have a chef take a leap of faith and feed our product to their clients,” Wheeler emphasized. “When you have a chef feeding professional athletes, it takes on a whole level of trust. Their name is associated with us and the product. The athletes are also putting their trust in us.”
Sports fans often hear about teams “controlling their own destiny,” especially around playoff time. Yet, there may be a divine connection to putting a North Carolina-grown rice on the Broncos menu. “We’re not working with other teams yet,” Wheeler said. “It all rides on Russell Wilson. This is destiny. He started at North Carolina State. We don’t have enough money to pay him, but he should be our spokesman. After all, if it’s good enough for Russell Wilson, it should be for Aunt Sheryl or Karen from Durham (North Carolina).”
Wheeler certainly hopes that applies to everyone else in Broncos Country.
Caroline Gold Rice with Sauteed Garlic Broccoli Stems
6 cups water
½ tablespoon salt
1 cup Carolina Gold Rice
2 tablespoons unsalted butter
2 tablespoons chopped fresh herbs (parsley, rosemary, thyme)
1½ cups broccoli stems, diced small
1 tablespoon minced garlic
1 tablespoon olive oil
Salt and pepper to taste
For the rice:
In a large stockpot, bring 6 cups of water to a boil with the salt.
Preheat the oven to 350 and prepare a baking sheet lined with parchment paper.
Add 1 cup of Carolina Gold Rice to the water and stir. Bring the water back up to a boil, then reduce to a simmer. Cook 15 minutes, or until the rice is tender. Drain the rice through a fine-mesh sieve and rinse thoroughly with cold water.
Spread the rice onto the baking sheet. Bake for 5 minutes. Remove the pan from the oven and dot the rice with 2 tablespoons of unsalted butter. Bake for 5 more minutes.
For the broccoli stems:
Heat the olive oil in a sauté pan on medium-high heat. Sauté the broccoli stems until al dente, 2-3 minutes, being careful to not overcook. Add garlic in the last minute of cooking, being careful not to burn.
Remove from heat, season with salt and pepper, and set aside until rice is cooked.
Once the rice is finished, place in a mixing bowl and fold in the broccoli stems and fresh herbs.
Season with salt and pepper to taste if needed.
Adrian Miller is a James Beard Award-winning author and lifelong Denver Broncos fan.
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