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Culinary Curiosities Explains Wild Rice

I’m a big fan of wild rice, but I wasn’t always. The Uncle Ben’s boxed version my mom cooked seemed mushy and bland, but when I finally tasted hand-harvested wild rice, I didn’t quite know what to make of the chewy, nutty-tasting stuff. It didn’t seem like rice at all, which is no surprise since it isn’t rice, but the seed of an aquatic grass. I now love it and am proud to cook and share it. And for Native peoples of the Upper Midwest, it is a cherished part of their history and culture.

Wild rice has sustained humans for thousands of years in the Upper Great Lakes region. For the Anishinaabe, it is part of their sacred migration story. As their ancestors traveled from the East, they were told to head West until they reached a land where “food grows on the water.” The grain, which they called manoomin, roughly translated as “good berry,” was the food given by the Great Spirit to sustain them. Anishinaabe storytellers also recount how the spirit Nanaboozhoo was nourished by wild rice. As he returned from an unsuccessful hunt, he found a duck perched on the edge of his cooking pot. When the bird flew away, it left a few grains in the boiling water, making a nourishing soup. Nanaboozhoo then knew that even when game was scarce, he need never go hungry again.

For a long time, there was only “wild,” “natural,” or  “lake” wild rice. But in the 1950s, James and Gerald Godward started experimenting with cultivated wild rice paddies near Crosslake, Minnesota.  Commercially grown wild rice is widely available, but Minnesota and Wisconsin have a strong tradition of hand harvesting, which is regulated by federal, state, local and tribal laws. 

Those who wish to try their hand at ricing during late August and September when the grain is ripe need to buy a license or have a valid tribal ID. The DNR website provides information on when and where rice is ready to be harvested. Traditionally, a team of two will ride in a canoe, one person steering the boat slowly with a paddle or push pole while the other uses two thin flails or “knockers” to gently bend the plants over and brush the ripe grain into the boat. Any grain that falls into the water provides seed for future crops. And because the wild rice ripens at various times, the harvest continues for days.

Today many harvesters collect their rice from the bottom of the boat and take it to a processor. However, many tribal groups will dry and process their haul by hand, setting up rice camps near the waterways. The first step is parching the grain, often done by slowly stirring the rice in a kettle over a fire. Once dried, the rice is threshed by placing it in a bag over wooden slats in a shallow hole. A tribal member dances or stomps on the bag to crack the hulls. Finally, the rice is winnowed by tossing it up into the air from a birch bark tray, allowing the wind to separate the chaff from the grain.

Hand-harvested wild rice is expensive, but this nutrient-dense wonder is worth it, providing twice as much protein and antioxidants as white rice. A half cup of wild rice contains 30 grams of whole grains, more than half of the daily recommended 48 grams. A serving also has significant amounts of magnesium, phosphorus, zinc, and B vitamins.  

Local tribes are looking to take wild rice to the global market. A Star Tribune article in March reported that the Leech Lake Band of Ojibwe hired a lobbyist and a marketing specialist, and is using a $250,000 USDA grant to develop domestic and international markets, with a first stop in Japan. In April another Star Tribune article said the White Earth Reservation sent a few thousand pounds of wild rice to a culinary festival in Tours, France, hoping to cultivate international ties and interest in traditionally harvested wild rice.

To keep our legacy of wild rice, threats to the plant, which is sensitive to environmental changes, must be addressed. Careful water management and shoreline development will ensure future crops. 

I know I’m not the only one who delights in the variety of ways wild rice is used (stuffing, porridge, soup, hot dishes, beer brewing, etc.) and looks forward to what the future may hold for this very good “good berry.” 

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