The American writer and social activist Jack London was one of the first American authors who was able to parlay his writing ability into a substantial personal fortune. He did this in part by going to places and doing things other writers were unwilling to risk, including repeated forays into remote Alaskan gold fields. He took part in the Klondike Gold Rush and wrote about it, and his health suffered from the privations he endured there. His inability to get access to shelter, food, and medicine was reflected in his fiction, including the short story To Build A Fire. He lost his upper four front teeth as a result of scurvy and a bad diet while in Alaska.
Less well known than his ability to “rough it” in Alaska and write about it, and other frontier outposts of the late 19th and early 20th century, is his very particular palate when it came to how his rice was prepared. A staple of the goldfields, because it can be packed in bags and will stay fresh for months, Jack London was very familiar with rice and had very special requirements when it came to cooking it.
The San Francisco socialite Sarah M. Williamson, who helped popularize canning and food preservation in the early years of the 20th century, reported in a newspaper article in 1916 that she had obtained Jack London’s personal recipe for the preparation of rice from London’s long-suffering second wife, Charmian Kittredge London.
Here is how Sarah Williamson relates her discovery of Jack London’s rice recipe:
“Rice, cooked as American housewives never cook it and can never learn to cook it, appeared on Martin’s table at least once a day.” Thus Jack London says in the forceful novel that is almost autobiographical. And this is the way Jack London cooks his rice — I have the recipe by favor of Mrs. London, above her husband’s signature,” wrote Williamson.
“Rice Properly Cooked — First, the rice must be washed thoroughly, which will obviate all stickiness of the kernels when boiled. The proportion of rice should be one to two of cold water. The proper Chinese chef will allow this to stand several hours before setting on the stove. When the saucepan is finally placed on the stove, fire must be hot and the rice kept boiling until the rice has absorbed all the water and no water remains on the surface. Then remove where the stove is not so hot and let simmer slightly. The cooking of a pot of rice should require from fifty minutes to an hour for a moderate measure. Just before serving, stir softly and carefully with a fork, which loosens the mass into a light and flaky appearance. The kernels should be light, soft, and separate.”
Williamson asserted that rice was so difficult to cook because it came in so many different grains and sub-species. “The trouble is not so much with the cook as with the rice itself,” she wrote. “There are about 49 varieties and no two cook the same way. Some come out best by parboiling and then draining and starting again in cold water. To get the same kind of rice every time would mean one reliable recipe. As there is Chinese rice, Japanese rice, Indian, Georgia, South Carolina, and now California rice, and a few dozen more, rice cooking is likely to be a never-solved problem.”
She also shared another of London’s favorite recipes for a rice dish, this one with onions and green peppers.
“In a steel frying pan melt enough lard to fry to a seal brown color one teacupful of rice. The rice must be cleaned with a napkin and not washed. Constant stirring is necessary to prevent the rice from burning. Remove the rice and set to drain. Into the lard put one or two large peppers which have been seeded and chopped fine, and the juice of one medium sized onion (grated). One pinch of salt, pepper to taste. Two heaping teaspoonfuls of the chili powder, which has been mixed with three cupfuls of tomatoes that have been mashed fine. In a granite saucepan have a cup of boiling water. Pour the sauce from the frying pan into the saucepan, then pour in the rice. Boil slowly until the rice is cooked, place in oven and bake. If this dish is well cooked, each grain is separate and dry.”
Jack London died in November 1916, only a few months after Williamson published his rice recipes, still a relatively young man of just 40 years of age. Despite his very particular requirements for cooking rice to suit his palate, there is no doubt that the privations of the Arctic and of the severe conditions he endured in order to pursue his writing contributed to the loss of health that led to his premature death.