The History and Story of Wild Rice
By Janet Cass
“We’re not eating grass!” my kids protested when I informed them we’d be having “the grass that Native Americans ate” for dinner.
Wild rice is indeed a grass–and as my kids have learned, it’s a tasty one. Packed with fiber, carbohydrates and protein, it’s also high in B vitamins and potassium, with only 130 calories per cup of cooked rice. Although it takes about forty-five minutes to cook wild rice, it’s worth the investment of time. Once cooked, this grain freezes beautifully and thaws quickly, so it’s a boon for harried cooks. Cook extra for freezing, and you’ll always have a filling side dish or hot cereal substitute on hand.
Mahnomin or manoomin–Ojibwe for “good seed”–has long been an important dietary staple to Native peoples of the upper Great Lakes area. Ojibwe and neighboring Dakota natives once fought over access to marshy areas where this aquatic grass grows. Ojibwe consider wild rice a gift from the spirits and include it in nearly every ceremonial occasion.
There are many uses for this versatile grain. With its earthy aroma and firm texture, wild rice can stand unadorned as a distinctive side dish. Yet its taste blends so well with other flavors that you’ll want to try substituting wild rice in recipes calling for other grains. To wake up texture, toss a little cooked and frozen wild rice into the batter for muffins, pancakes, or waffles. For a sweet conclusion to your meal, puree wild rice with apricot preserves for a low-fat dessert topping whose play of sweetness against nuttiness works especially well with chocolate. My family enjoys this topping as a frosting alternative on chocolate cake and brownies.
Wild rice should be rinsed and drained before cooking, and it quadruples in volume once cooked. One cup of uncooked rice plus four cups water, simmered for forty-five minutes, produces four cups of cooked rice.
WILD RICE-BLUEBERRY MUFFINS
3/4 cup all-purpose flour
1/2 tablespoon baking powder
1/2 teaspoon nutmeg
1 egg white
1/4 cup maple syrup
1/4 cup skim milk
1/2 teaspoon grated lemon peel
1/4 cup cooked wild rice
1/4 cup fresh or frozen blueberries
Heat oven to 400º F. Line 6 muffin cups. In large bowl combine dry ingredients.
In another bowl mix egg white, syrup, milk, and lemon peel. Add these wet ingredients to dry without overmixing. Fold in rice and berries. Divide among muffin cups. Bake 25 minutes, until tops are brown.
THREE SISTERS SOUP
Serves 1 as an entrée or 2 as an appetizer Some Native Americans have traditionally called corn, beans, and squash “the three sisters.”
1/2 cup canned pumpkin
3 tablespoons jalapeno pepper jelly
1/2 cup vanilla soy drink
1/4 cup frozen corn kernels
1/4 cup frozen cooked wild rice
1/4 cup cannellini beans
Mix the pumpkin, pepper jelly, and soy drink in a small saucepan. Add the corn, rice, and beans and heat over medium heat 5 to 10 minutes, stirring occasionally. Break up the jelly; the heat will liquefy it.
WILD RICE-APRICOT DESSERT TOPPING
1/2 cup cooked wild rice
1/2 cup apricot jam
Puree together rice and jam. Use as frosting on chocolate cake and brownies, and as topping for frozen vanilla yogurt. Or mix an equal volume of this topping with plain, non-fat yogurt for a sweet, creamy dessert. Yields enough to frost a 71/4 inch square pan of brownies.
The Wild Rice Moon
As the Anishinaabeg Ojibwe tell the story, Nanaboozhoo, the cultural hero of the Anishinaabeg, was introduced to wild rice by fortune, and by a duck.
One evening Nanaboozhoo returned from hunting, but he had no game…As he came toward his fire, there was a duck sitting on the edge of his kettle of boiling water. After the duck flew away, Nanaboozhoo looked into the kettle and found wild rice floating upon the water, but he did not know what it was. He ate his supper from the kettle, and it was the best soup he had ever tasted. Later, he followed in the direction the duck had taken, and came to a lake full of manoomin: wild rice. He saw all kinds of ducks and geese and mud hens, and all the other water birds eating the grain. After that, when Nanaboozhoo did not kill a deer, he knew where to find food to eat….
Manoomin is a centerpiece of the nutrition and sustenance for our community, a gift given to the Anishinaabeg from the Creator. The word manoomin itself contains a reference to the Creator, who is referred to as Gitchi Manidoo. In the earliest of historic teachings of Anishinaabeg, there is a reference to wild rice as the food that grows upon the water, the food the ancestors were told to find so they would know when to end their migration to the West. This profound and historic relationship is remembered in the wild rice harvest on White Earth and other reservations. It is a food uniquely ours, a food used in our daily lives, our ceremonies, and in our thanksgiving feasts.
Manoominike: Making Wild Rice
It is the wild rice moon, Manoominigiizis, in the north country, and the lakes teem with a harvest. “Ever since I was bitty, I’ve been ricing,” reminisces Spud Fineday of Ice Cracking Lake. This year, Spud, with his wife, Tater (a.k.a. Vanessa Fineday), started ricing at Cabin Point and then moved to Big Flat Lake; both lakes are within the borders of the Tamarac National Wildlife Refuge. “Sometimes we can knock four to five hundred pounds a day,” he says, explaining that he alternates the jobs of “poling and knocking” with his wife.
The Finedays, like many other Anishinaabeg Ojibwe from White Earth (and other reservations in the region), continue to rice in order to feed their families, to buy school clothes and fix cars, and to get ready for the ever-returning winter. The wild rice harvest of the Anishinaabeg feeds the soul, continuing a tradition generations old.
Although new varieties of wild rice have been under study by the University of Minnesota since the 1950s, industrialized “wild” rice did not take off until the late 1960s and early 1970s. Minnesota’s paddy wild rice production became aggressive in 1968 (about 20 percent of the market). Minnesota’s 1973 yield was some four million pounds. The increase in production attracted large corporations, began to skew the perceptions of what was “wild” about “wild rice,” and altered the market by representing paddy wild rice as hand-harvested lake-grown.
By the early 1980s, cultivated “wild rice” outstripped indigenous varieties. Ironically, with an it-can-grow-anywhere variety now available, Minnesota lost its monopoly to California. By 1986, 95 percent of the “wild” rice harvested was paddy grown, most of it in northern California. Flooding the market drove down prices. Minnesotan lakeside prices crashed, devastating the Native wild rice economy. Wild rice had leapt from local to national to global economics, and to a concern for consumers who had no idea which wild rice still bore the taste of our lakes and muds.
As Long As There Is Wild Rice, There Will Be Ricers
A pickup pulls up at the rice mill, and Eugene Davis and Tony Warren bring in around 300 pounds of rice off South Chippewa Lake. They are tired, wet from the recurring rain of morning, but happy. “I like it when it rains out there,” nineteen year-old Eugene tells me. “It’s nice; you can’t hear anything but the rain.” It is that peace that brings the ricers back. It is also the memories. I ask Eugene what he thinks about the fact that probably five or ten generations of his family have been on that same lake. “It makes me feel good,” he responds, and smiles.
Receiving the rice are Ronnie Chilton, Pat Wichern, Pete Thompson, and a few other men who gather under some tarps at the offices of the White Earth Land Recovery Project on Round Lake. The sweet smell of parching rice wafts through the dusty air. Ancient machines shift and creak as the husks blow off, and the rice slowly moves through a long chain of events, at the end of which the shiny dark green, tan, and brown wild rice glimmers in the September sun. The equipment is virtually antique, and much of it handmade: a 1940s Red Clipper fanning mill, a handmade thrasher, a 1980s set of George Stinson’s parching drums (George is a Deer River celebrity), a 1950s-vintage gravity table. The men fiddle around with the machines, fine-tune the gravity table. The air is filled with dust from the rice. Ronnie, Pat, and Pete look a bit like Anishinaabeg chimney sweeps, covered in rice hulls, but smiling beneath all of it. They are local producers, and this is the quality perfection of the small batch, and the simple joy of this life. They are doing their job, and that rice, like that of their ancestors, is going to feed families, and feed spirits.
To Pat, Ronnie, Spud, Tater, and the rest of the ricers of White Earth, the Ojibwe Wild Ricing Moon is the season of a harvest, a ceremony, and a way of life. “I grew up doing that,” reflects Spud. “You get to visit people you haven’t seen for a whole year, because just about everyone goes ricing.” Far away, a combine is harvesting wild rice somewhere in California, and consumers are eating a very different rice. The Anishinaabeg would not trade for that rice, or for the combine. In the end, this rice right here tastes like a lake, and that taste cannot be replicated.
–Excerpted with permission from Whole Earth magazine, Winter 1999.
Winona LaDuke is Anishinabe from the Bear Clan of the Mississippi Band of the White Earth reservation in northern Minnesota. She is the author of All Our Relations: Native Struggles for Land and Life (South End Press, 1999).
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