Beware the Wild Rice Imposters

As I said above, really wild wild rice is not actually rice—it's an aquatic grass that's native to much of the northern part of North America. Here in Michigan we live in the total heartland of its origins; it used to grow, wildly and abundantly, on lakes and rivers all across the upper Midwest. Having had its habitat encroached upon by the sprawl of modern cities and pollution problems, it's now mostly found in Minnesota (some still here in Michigan, the Aanii State) and then a good bit up in Canada. Harvested every year in late summer or early autumn depending on the sun and other good stuff like that.

Ricers have their secret spots in the same way that fly fishermen do. It takes hours in the canoe in the hot late-summer Minnesota sun and humidity to gather a not very huge amount of rice.

Really wild wild rice is still totally hand gathered—two humans, a canoe, one long pole to push, two sticks to "knock" the rice into the front of the canoe, one Creator (to use the Ojibwe term), a little luck, and a good bit of skill. Ricers have their secret spots in the same way that fly fishermen do. It takes hours in the canoe in the hot late-summer Minnesota sun and humidity to gather a not very huge amount of rice. (I've tried to block out my memories of the mosquitoes, but I've failed—they were massive.) The "green," just-gathered rice is parched, husked, winnowed, and finally dried for storage. Unlike the pseudo stuff (which takes upwards of an hour to cook and still isn't really done even then—see the Jim Northrup quote from Rez Road Follies about rocks in the Guide to Good Eating) really wild wild rice is actually incredibly convenient. It's an enormous amount of work to gather and get ready to eat, but it's actually naturally fast food once you get it into the kitchen. Just drop it into lightly salted boiling water, and simmer for about 15 to 20 minutes (times vary depending the lake and the vintage), drain and eat.

Honestly I kind of like to eat it just like that. Simple. Delicious. Maybe a touch of salt. It's nutty, it's nice. It's subtly earthy. Beautifully in balance. Extremely clean but with a lovely long finish. So yeah . . . I really kind of just like it the way it is, either as a main course, or on the side with most anything else. But I wouldn't be a good Ojibwe-phile if I didn't like to dress it too with either a bit of hot bacon fat, or, alternatively, some maple sugar (or syrup, which is, of course, just maple sugar with more liquid left in). In fact, it's actually good with a bit of both; I guess it's an Ojibwe alternative to a bacon and pancake breakfast.

On top of all that really wild wild rice is a very healthy food. Look it up online—I'll spare you the nutritional details here since space is short. It's also an enormously important element in Ojibwe history, culture, religion, and economics, all packed into in one amazing, native American (or Native American depending on how you want to hear the word) food. I ate a little bowlful for my midday snack while I was writing this and I'm . . . totally satiated. I feel good. It was nutty. Nice. Great finish.

As I write, I've been eating the stuff we have at the Roadhouse, which is literally part of Jim Northrup's personal stash from this past summer's "ricing" on Perch Lake. I can't really tell you that a great writer's rice is necessarily going to be better than any other ricers', but Jim's been doing this for over five decades now, and I think it's pretty good. It's hand parched (stirred with canoe paddles in iron or copper kettles—the same ones used for making sugar and syrup in the spring) over open wood fires, which give it a slight smokiness. At the Deli we've got really wild wild rice from Leech Lake; a bit fuller of flavor and earthier (if something that comes out of a lake can be earthy). Of late I've been loving it in a quick "soup" that I start by buying some pot likker from the Roadhouse, adding really wild wild rice and a nice piece of fish (your call as to what you like, but lake fish would be more . . . Michigan, for obvious reasons). Starting with pot likker (you can buy it too if we have it on hand, as we often do) makes it easy because there's so much flavor in the bacon-infused collard green broth. But still, it's a delicious dish. Great food for the fall, or really any time!

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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.
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