Beware the Wild Rice Imposters


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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

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!