Beware the Wild Rice Imposters


Wikimedia Commons

It's probably been 10 years now since I wrote the chapter on really wild wild rice in Zingerman's Guide to Good Eating. But this all-American food has been on my mind and my table a lot again of late, in part because I've been dialoguing regularly about all things Ojibwe with Meg Noori, a poet and one of the leaders in transcribing, teaching, and making alive the language of the Ojibwe Native Americans. Meg teaches it at the U and you can check out more on the language work at (email me and I'll fill you in on my covert campaign to make Michigan the "Aanii State"). It's also on my mind because of Jim Northrup's appearance at the annual Native American foodways dinner at the Roadhouse last month. I quoted him extensively in the Guide to Good Eating, and having heard him speak last month, I'd encourage everyone to get hold of his book Rez Road Follies. Understanding the role that really wild wild rice plays in the traditional Ojibwe world is, I think, a pretty important part of appreciating it to its fullest.

Those who grow "wild rice" have, I think, ended up in a situation that is akin to marketing goldfish crackers as a smaller, longer-shelf-life substitute for wild salmon.

Really wild wild rice in its complete context is compelling to me at most every level. There's so much to say about it, I feel like I could write a whole book chapter on it. Oh yeah, I did. Given the shorter spaces I've supplied myself (I could go longer but this is already probably too long) I'll share a couple key points about what makes this totally traditional food of our region so special. To just to begin the process of increasing clarity right from the start, take note, if you didn't already know it, that really wild wild rice is actually an aquatic grass, not rice. You can chalk the English name up to confusion from the early European settlers here—they thought it looked like rice so that's the name it got. Confusion remains the norm even now, hundreds of years later.

The problem today is exacerbated because hardly any of what's sold as "wild rice" in this country is actually wild anymore. Sad but true—something like 90 percent of the product sold from supermarket shelves and cooked in restaurant kitchens is actually not the real thing. The sad truth is that's what's sold in the mass market is basically an odd, cultivated cousin of the real thing. The total truth is that the real thing—really wild wild rice—and what amounts to a commercial counterfeit have almost nothing in common other than a modestly shared appearance, some segment of a gene pool, and half a name on box labels. The cultivated stuff isn't just slightly off; the more I think about it, the more I realize that it's some sort of industrial-agro-culinary silliness without the soul.

This is, of course, merely my opinion. I'm sure that the folks who grow it mean well. But from having cooked and eaten and studied both a fair bit over the years, my sense of it is that the commercial bastardization of the authentic article is basically baseless. I'm sure at some out of touch (and out of tune) level, the people who did the work to make it happen were nice enough and might even have meant well. But those who grow it have, I think, ended up in a situation that is akin to marketing goldfish crackers as a smaller, longer-shelf-life substitute for wild salmon. The shape and color are kind of similar and the same key words ("fish" or "wild rice") are on the label of each, but beyond that ... you tell me?

Just to get the point across again before I move on to the more positive part of this piece (which is to tell you about how great the real stuff really is), I'll add in that Jim Northrup, who would never eat the cultivated stuff, now says he's sworn off even saying the words "wild rice." The name, he says, is so degraded as to be basically banned from his both casual conversation and his regular newspaper column. Instead he'll only use manoomin, the authentic Ojibwe word for it. He also told me that on the Rez in Minnesota the cultivated paddy grown stuff from California is known as "driveway rice"; you can use it, he reports, like rock salt on the road when it gets slippery. I haven't tried it but I'll take Jim's word for it.

By contrast the real thing is something akin to soul on rice or whatever substantive, spiritual, and culinarily compelling characterization you want to make. Honestly it's probably one of the world's most spiritually sound, culinarily compelling, historically interesting foods. There are, of course, many others, and I'm not trying to rank them. Merely to continue to convey how special really wild wild rice is even though hardly anyone here knows about it.

Let's see, do you want history first or flavor? I'll flip a mental coin ... and ... heads has me looking at history.

NEXT: The history of really wild wild rice, and how the product actually tastes

Presented by

Ari Weinzweig is co-founder of Zingerman's Community of Businesses, in Ann Arbor, Michigan. He is also the author of Zingerman's Guide to Good Eating. More

After graduating from University of Michigan with a degree in Russian history, Ari Weinzweig went to work washing dishes in a local restaurant and soon discovered that he loved the food business. Along with his partner Paul Saginaw, Ari started Zingerman's Delicatessen in 1982 with a $20,000 bank loan, a staff of two, a small selection of great-tasting specialty foods, and a relatively short sandwich menu. Today, Zingerman's is a community of businesses that employs over 500 people and includes a bakery, creamery, sit-down restaurant, training company, coffee roaster, and mail order service. Ari is the author of the best-selling Zingerman's Guide to Good Eating and the forthcoming Zingerman's Guide to Better Bacon.

Join the Discussion

After you comment, click Post. If you’re not already logged in you will be asked to log in or register with Disqus.

Please note that The Atlantic's account system is separate from our commenting system. To log in or register with The Atlantic, use the Sign In button at the top of every page.

blog comments powered by Disqus


Photos of New York City, in Motion

A filmmaker animated hundreds of still photographs to create this Big Apple flip book


The Absurd Psychology of Restaurant Menus

Would people eat healthier if celery was called "cool celery?"


This Japanese Inn Has Been Open For 1,300 Years

It's one of the oldest family businesses in the world.


What Happens Inside a Dying Mind?

Science cannot fully explain near-death experiences.

More in Health

From This Author

Just In