Traditional wild rice harvesting still goes on every autumn in small lakes from Ontario to Minnesota. Two people in a canoe go out among the rice plants, one poling, the other using a double pole arrangement called “knockers” to bend the rice stalks over the canoe and then to slap the ripe rice off the stalks into the canoe. The work is hard and slow but still, on a good day two people can fill a canoe, bringing in about three hundred pounds of wild rice. The rice must then be dried so that it will keep. After a preliminary drying in the sun or over a slow fire, it is parched in a metal tub over a fire, to help loosen the husks. After an hour’s parching and stirring, the husks have loosened. The parched rice is then milled by light pounding in a large barrel-shaped wooden mortar, and the husks are winnowed away.
In native tradition, wild rice—manohmin—and the wild rice harvest have great significance, not just as food but as an expression of the connection between the people and the land. On her wild rice home page on the Internet, Paula Giese talks of the importance of eating “first rice, ” the first wild rice harvested each year, with cooked wild fowl, offering and eating the rice with “peace and gratitude.”
Traditionally harvested wild rice is very long (up to four inches) and a mix of colors, from blond to black. It cooks fairly quickly, with a smoky taste from the parching. Commercially grown and harvested “wild” rice has shorter grains, usually more broken grains, and a fairly uniform brown to black color. It lacks the smoky taste of the traditional rice and takes a little longer to cook. It is also less expensive than traditional wild rice. Commercial wild rice is often available in supermarkets.
Traditional wild rice can be mail-ordered (see Mail-Order Sources) or occasionally found in specialty stores. If you feel strongly, as we do, that wild rice traditions should be preserved and encouraged, take the trouble to find traditionally harvested wild rice and pay the extra. It’s well worth it.
Since the wild rices you can buy differ greatly, we give the following recipe as a guideline, to be used together with the cooking instructions given by the grower on the package.