Food by VICE

My Shameful but Passionate Love Affair with Boil-in-Bag Rice

My Latin grandma would roll over in her grave if she knew that I was sneaking around with instant Uncle Ben's.

by Ian Burke
Aug 10 2018, 2:00pm

Photo by Ian Burke

Mom, I hope you’re not reading this.

I grew up on rice. Hearty, delicious white rice: the kind that makes your whole house smell good; the kind that, I’m sure, made my mom’s apartment in Bogota, Colombia smell good when she was born there in 1967. So when my mother and her family left Colombia’s capital and legally immigrated to the states in 1969, when she was two years old, it was only natural that along with fierce Latin pride and an incredibly strong work ethic, they brought my grandmother’s famous rice recipe.

Unfortunately, my grandmother died in 2014, but before she did, she passed down her rice recipe to her five children. There are no measurements, no specific heat settings, and no particulars of any kind; just a list of ingredients and a general idea of how long to cook it for. The quality of the rice is dependent on how long you’ve been around it; —you have to just know when it’s ready, a sixth sense that only develops if you grew up with the stuff. Which thankfully, my mother did.

Like many Latin cooks, she prides herself on her rice. Growing up, there was rarely a meal that didn’t have Scarface-esque mountains of rice casting a literal shadow over the rest of the plate—and for good reason. This rice is, and was, the shit. And god have mercy on your soul if you fucked it up. (Even now, I can see the disdain in my mother’s eyes when my paternal grandfather smiles, plops a giant scoop onto his plate, and slathers it with ketchup—as he’s done every time he’s eaten my mother’s rice since I can remember.)

Before I moved out of my parents’ house, my mother taught me how to cook the stuff, since according to her, my grandmother’s recipe was the single most important thing I could possibly bring to college, despite my dorm room’s lack of kitchen. Eventually, though, I moved into an apartment with a small but usable cooking space. It was the first time I was truly on my own; off campus, no dorm rules, no meal plan. And for a new “adult” (as I liked to fancy myself at the time) it was the latter that I found to be the most challenging. Thankfully, though, I knew how to make rice, and a [simple chicken stir-fry]. The only problem: My stir fry was done in 10 minutes; my grandmother’s rice takes almost an hour.

But you know what doesn’t take an hour to cook? Boil-In-Bag rice.

I thought to myself, if I’m not buying it, I’m not really using. But, as time went on and my culinary repertoire expanded, I found myself needing more and more bags just to get by, eventually making the degrading, rock-bottom trip into the rice aisle. I was helpless—a sub to my gastronomic dom, Uncle Ben.

My tryst with bagged rice began in October of 2017, when my then-neighbor, now-roommate Jake (unrelated, but he steals meatballs) first introduced me to my future lover: Uncle Ben's Boil-In-Bag Enriched Long Grain Rice.

If you’ve never cooked Boil-In-Bag, don’t start. Once you experience the thrill—no, the rush—of a large serving of rice perfectly cooked in ten minutes, you’ll be hooked. At least, I know I was. After watching Jake cook a packet of Uncle Ben’s, I took one home, prepared it, and never looked back.

In the beginning, I felt too ashamed—too guilty—to buy it at the store. I’d just go over to Jake’s house and bum a few bags of the stuff here and there. I thought to myself, if I’m not buying it, I’m not really using. But, as time went on and my culinary repertoire expanded, I found myself needing more and more bags just to get by, eventually making the degrading, rock-bottom trip into the rice aisle. I was helpless—a sub to my gastronomic dom, Uncle Ben.

And if you’re wondering why I’d choose to cook mass-produced, flavorless rice instead of a delicious family recipe, I don’t blame you. Honestly, I don’t have a great answer. I want to tell you that as a busy college student, I just didn’t have enough time to slave over a pot of rice for an hour. It’s just so easy: plopping the bag in, waiting 10 minutes, cutting the finished bag open with kitchen scissors and then slyly putting them back into the junk drawer without washing them (sorry, roommates), all the while knowing my mother and her mother before her would disapprove. Fucking magic.

So can you blame me? To compare, here’s my grandma’s rice:

Leonor’s Rice

  • 1 eyeballed cup of Canilla rice (has to be this rice, no substitute)
  • Almost 2 cups water
  • Garlic powder
  • Onion powder
  • Salt
  • Olive Oil
  1. Put ingredients into pot. Turn on stove.
  2. Stir once before water boils. Do not stir again unless you want mush.
  3. Once water boils, turn down to a simmer. Cover pot.
  4. Cook until ready. (20-30 minutes, usually.)
  5. Resist temptation to stir.
  6. Serve.

And here’s how to make Boil-In-Bag rice:

Uncle Ben’s Boil-In-Bag Rice

  • 1 bag Boil-In-Bag rice
  • Water
  1. Bring water to boil, then place bag in boiling water.
  2. Cook for ten minutes. Cut open bag and serve.

See what I mean?

For a long time, I’d report to my mother how well I was eating. I’d send her pictures of my latest culinary creation, assuring her that the only reason there was no rice on my plate was that it was still in the pot (which technically wasn’t a lie, now that I think about it, since the rice was, in fact, in a pot, albeit sealed in a plastic bag). But after a while, the lies became too complex and hard to keep track of, and I started to slip up. Like on spring break, when I dug into my first home-cooked meal in months, and said how much I missed the taste of grandma’s rice, forgetting that my mother was under the impression that I ate it all the time. Or when I was asked to “start the rice” during a family gathering and forgot to add onion powder. “That was a test ma… and, uh, you passed!” (Slick, right?)

Eventually, though, after hundreds of disapproving glances from the giant bag of Canilla gathering dust in the back of my kitchen cabinet, I had enough—I was done living a lie. (The impending publication of this article was also a factor.) I broke the news to my mother, who, surprisingly, took it very well. Sitting across from her at the kitchen island of my childhood home, I told her everything. The lies, the deceit, the year-long sullying of my starch game—everything. And as we sat there silently for a few moments, I braced myself to be disowned, or at least kicked out of the house.

“Gross,” she said. “Can you switch the laundry from the washer to the dryer?”