by Ari Weinzweig
It’s probably been seventeen 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, mainly because it will be a featured dish at our Best of America Special Dinner next Wednesday. We’ve invited Gabrielle Langholtz as a guest to the dinner, and will be featuring her beautiful masterpiece, America: The Cookbook. You’ll find a write-up I did about really wild wild rice in the cookbook.
But in the moment I’ll share a couple or six key points about what makes this totally traditional aquatic grass (yes, wild rice is not a rice; you can chalk the name up to more confusion from the early European settlers here—they thought it looked like rice so that’s the name it got.) so good.
Confusion remains the norm even now, hundreds of years later. The problem today is that hardly any of what’s sold as “wild rice” in this country is actually wild any more. Sad but true, something like 90 percent of the product sold from supermarket shelves and cooked in restaurant kitchens is actually an odd cultivated (that’s right, not wild) cousin. While the latter probably isn’t genetically modified, it easily could be. 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 and half a name. It’s some sort of agro-culinary silliness without the soul. 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. But those who grow it, have, I think ended up in a situation that is akin to marketing goldfish (crackers) as wild salmon. The shape and color are kind of the similar and the word “fish” is 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—telling you about how great the real stuff really is—Jim Northrup, author of Rez Road has sworn off even using the name wild rice. He says it’s been so degraded as to be basically banned from his conversation and his regular newspaper column. Instead he’ll only use the Ojibwe word for it, Manoonmin. He also told me that on the reservation in Minnesota, the cultivated paddy grown stuff from California is known as “driveway rice”—you can use it, he says, like rock salt on the road when it gets slippery.
By contrast is honestly 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. I just merely want to continue to convey how special really wild wild rice is. It’s an ancient grain, highly cherished by the Ojibwe people who lived in the Midwest for centuries before any European set foot around the Great Lakes. Nutritionally, it was a staple that kept people fed much of the year. In the summer, it was cooked into soups and stews with fish and game; in winter, it was often the only food available. Up until the first half of the 19th century, wild rice was used by the Native Americans in the area as a medium of exchange in the place of coins. It was one of the only nonperishable staple foods for European settlers in the Midwest that wouldn’t have required weeks of transit to ship in from the Atlantic coast.
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. It used to grow, wildly and abundantly, in lakes and rivers all across the Midwest, including much of what shows up on the American map as Michigan. 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. It grows (this is the real stuff, not the substitute) on the lakes and rivers and is harvested every year in late summer or early autumn depending on the sun and other good stuff like that.
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 fly fisherfolk do. The “green” rice is gathered, parched, husked, winnowed and dried for storage. Unlike the pseudo stuff (which takes upwards of an hour to cook and still isn’t really done—see the Jim Northrup quote in the Guide to Good Eating) the real thing is actually incredibly convenient. It’s an enormous amount of work to gather and get ready to eat, but once we buy it, it’s actually naturally fast once you get it into the kitchen. Just put it in boiling water and simmer with some salt for about 15-20 minutes (times vary depending on the lake and the vintage), drain and eat.
Honestly I kind of like to eat it just like that. Simple. Delicious. It’s nutty, its nice. It’s subtly earthy. Beautifully in balance and extremely clean, 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 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. At the Roadhouse, we love to serve it with our Great Lakes whitefish, and also as a vegetarian dish cooked up with roasted squash, dried cherries, pecans, and fresh mint.
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 in one amazing, native American (or Native American depending on how you want to hear the word) food. I just ate a little bowlful for my midday snack and I’m totally satiated. I hope increased awareness will help protect this natural culinary treasure.