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The Garden Gate: Wild about rice? You’re not alone

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By Ellen Probert Williamson

With its distinctive appearance and flavor, wild rice is one of the more popular gourmét foods.

We must give full credit for this delectable treat to the Indians, especially the Chippewa and the Ojibway.

These Midwestern tribes who used wild rice as a staple food.

They valued it so highly that they waged tribal wars for control of Minnesota’s lakes in which the wild rice grew.

The Chippewa name for wild rice is manonim, which means good berry.

In late summer, the Chippewa would go in their canoes and tie the stalks into bunches, then cover them with bark shields to keep away hungry birds until the rice was ripe.

Then they would go again in their canoes and harvest it by knocking the bunches against the sides of the canoe so the grain would fall into a container in the canoe.

Among the earliest Europeans to encounter wild rice were the French voyageurs, who called it folle avoine or fool oats.

“When it is cleaned fit for use, they boil it and eat it with bear's grease and honey,” wrote a trader who spent considerable time among the Indians.

Actually they may have employed wild rice in their cooking much as we do today, using it to stuff turkeys and to complement roast venison.

A missionary’s wife, Mrs. Boutwell from Minnesota, was perhaps the first white woman to serve wild rice to her guests. The guests were at first doubtful, but they soon pronounced it to be very good.

In modern times, wild rice has steadily grown in popularity. Today, the supply has a hard time keeping up with demand.

The harvesting of wild rice is an Indian-owned business. You will notice this clearly marked on packages of wild rice in the supermarket.

Notwithstanding its name, wild rice is actually an aquatic grass that grows best in lake water, usually where it is less than 3 feet deep.

It occurs in its largest concentrations in Minnesota, Wisconsin, Michigan, Manitoba and Ontario in Canada, along the borders of the Great Lakes and in some smaller lakes in these areas.

About 60 percent of the wild rice now sold comes from Minnesota.

The plants begin to sprout in the spring. By the beginning of August, the stalks stand 3-5 feet above the water.

The rice heads ripen from the top downward.

Many more grains drop off and fall into the water than get harvested. But these serve a useful purpose — as food for waterfowl and as the seeds from which next year's crop will grow.

Because the grains do not ripen all at once, each plant must be harvested several times. It is an ongoing process lasting for several weeks.

Basically, harvesting is still carried on much as it has always been done. In fact, in Minnesota, the law requires that in public waters it must be gathered by hand from a canoe or skiff.

The harvester uses a wooden flail to knock the loose grains into the
boat.

At the end of the day, he bags them and immediately sells them to the buyer.

Harvested rice is extremely perishable and must be processed right away.

To do this, the Indians used to heat it on a scaffold built over a fire. They then poured it into a hollow dug in the ground, covered it with a deerskin and then jumped and stamped on it to remove the hulls.

Today, the rice is spread on cement slabs in the sun and turned frequently to dry it. Then it is poured into heated revolving drums for parching and hulling.

The rice grains turn dark as they roast and then must be polished to remove some of the dark coating.

The cost of harvesting and processing keeps the price of wild rice rather high and makes it a fairly expensive commodity.

Numerous attempts have been made to grow and harvest wild rice by more modern methods.

For example, some Minnesota farmers have cleared patches of land and built 8-foot-high dikes around them, tilled the soil, and flooded the enclosed areas and seeded them with wild rice.

Just before the grain starts to ripen, the farmers drain off all the water. Later, they go into the dried-up place with mechanical harvesters.

Rice grown in this way produces a higher yield, although it still “shatters.” This means that it drops grains because of the progressive ripening of the heads, although less of the grain is lost this way.

Extensive research — by Indian-owned companies, for the most part — to develop a non-shattering strain of rice gives promise that wild rice will always be a delicacy.

Its nutty taste will remain a natural complement to wild game and many other Indian-originated foods, such as squashes, corn, wild berries of many kinds and mushrooms.

Wild rice represents a visible link of historical worth between the American Indian past and present-day America.

It links cultures and the romance of the past to the practicality of the present.

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Ellen Probert Williamson lives in Kingston. Her column appears regularly in the Roane County News.