The great rice debate of North High School in Torrance began innocently enough last month when economics teacher Bill Haase groused to his class about Japanese trade restraints hampering the sale of American rice overseas.
It is not right, he told his students, that the Japanese expect unrestricted access to our markets but balk at letting us compete in their own.
A Japanese student raised his hand.
"He said it was simple--the Japanese don't buy American rice because Japanese rice tastes better," Haase said.
Then two girls, one from Korea and the other from Thailand, raised their hands.
"They said their rice was better than Japanese rice," he said. Soon, students of a dozen nationalities were singing the praises of their native rice.
"There is this one kid who's (Muslim) and he said Iranian rice is the best. I didn't even know they had rice."
The rice debate quickly boiled over from a question of marketability to one of palatability. Haase, hoping to prove that all rice is essentially the same, decided to resolve the issue once and for all.
He recruited home economics teacher Jane McGinty and, on Thursday, 60 students and a handful of teachers gathered to roll the grains of nine types of rice over their discriminating taste buds.
Before the tasters arrived, a dozen student rice chefs kept up a spirited commentary on the odors and appearance of the grains they were boiling as they argued over how much water to use and how long to cook each.
"Smell the jasmine smell?" asked Sally Srichandra, 18, who moved to Torrance from Thailand three years ago. "Thai rice tastes a little bit sweet, very special."
Corey Kong, 17, walked indifferently around the room, ignoring the various pots of boiling grain.
"I'm Oriental, but I don't like rice," he said, adding that he prefers the pasta traditions of his Italian mother.
At last, the hungry tasters arrived.
There was not a salt shaker, pat of butter or bottle of soy sauce to be found.
"What, just plain old rice?" one student asked as he stared distastefully at the nine clumps of pasty, pale grains identified only by letters on his plate.
The handful of teachers who joined the crowd quickly got into the spirit of things.
Judi Hying, a resource specialist at the school, poked and prodded at the clumps, complimenting the long grain of Rice B and the sticky consistency of Rice A.
She exulted, however, over the quality of Rice G, the darkest grains on the plate. On her scoring sheet--which asked tasters to rate the rices with a score of 1 through 5 for the categories of taste, texture and appearance--Hying gave Rice G a perfect 15.
"It's got a lot of body and color," she said, polishing off the mound. "It reminds me of rice pilaf before they do all the additions to it."
The kids surrounding her, however, turned up their noses at Rice G.
Sixteen-year-old Keri Turner squealed, groaned and quickly grabbed for a drink of water after her first taste.
"Yuck," she pronounced.
After entries on all the scoring sheets were added up, top honors went to American medium-grain rice--one of three American rices used in the competition.
Hying's favored Rice G, later identified as American brown rice, came in ninth--dead last. The third American entry, California long-grain, placed eighth.
Japanese rice came in fourth, behind the native grains of Thailand and the Philippines.
Haase, seeing the death of his theory that all rice is the same, said the key lesson he hoped the children learned was that free trade, like their free speech about the various rices, should not be restricted.