BY KURT MICHAEL FRIESE
The rules involved in marketing and labeling food in this country can often be confusing or downright misleading. Case in point: the last time you had “wild rice,” were you aware that it wasn’t rice and it is exceedingly unlikely that it was wild? Here’s the story.
Though the English term for what the native people of Minnesota call “Manoomin” is wild rice, it is actually not rice (Oryza sativa) but rather the seed of an aquatic grass (Zizania palustris) and is related to corn. It has far more protein than rice, which is why it sustains health so well.
Until the 1960s, the Anishinaabeg, or Ojibwe Indians, had a virtual monopoly on wild rice production, but that changed when the University of Minnesota figured out a way to cultivate it. Like so many other industrial agricultural products though, it is harvested by machine. To do so they must harvest it early, before the heads are ripe, so that they don’t shatter in the combines. The subsequent rock hard grains take a very long time to cook and have fewer nutrients.
In 1977 the Law of Unintended Consequences kicked in when the state legislature declared wild rice the “Official State Grain,” a kind gesture that caused massive amounts of research dollars to pour in. The ironically named “cultivated wild rice,” or paddy rice, became big industry in one of the United States’ biggest grain economies. Prices plummeted, and the Natives on the White Earth Reservation and throughout the region could fetch no more than 25 cents per pound. For a product that takes days and days of hard physical labor to harvest and parch, such a price was completely debilitating.
Today the White Earth Land Recovery Project, headed by activist and former Green Party Vice Presidential candidate Winona LaDuke, helps native Manoomin harvesters by paying upwards of $1.25 per pound for their hand-harvested rice. They parch it in large batches with that of other tribal members and create markets where it can fetch a fair price. In 2000, LaDuke and WELRP were honored with the Slow Food Award for Biodiversity. LaDuke says it expanded their thinking. “We didn’t know we were Slow Food people,” she said. So many are and don’t know it.
The real Manoomin, which can be ordered through the WELRP website at www.welrp.org, is a bit more expensive that the industrialized “paddy rice” coming out of California, but it is worth every penny. The flavor is far richer, far more intense, and the nutritional value is far higher. Add to this the spiritual benefit of knowing you’re helping someone who needs the help, and it becomes a downright rewarding.
One other advantage to using Manoomin over paddy rice is the cooking time. Manoomin cooks much faster. In fact, Winona told me that the common joke on the White Earth land reservation goes something like this: “How to cook paddy rice: put the rice in a large pot with a stone and plenty of water. When the stone is soft, the rice is almost done.”
At my house, it isn’t Christmas unless my mother’s wild rice dressing is on the table. I never thought it could be improved upon until I discovered the magnificent flavors of real Manoomin, hand harvested and hand parched on the lakes near Ponsford, Minnesota. Try it out!
Chef Kurt’s Mom’s Wild Rice Dressing
1 pound Manoomin wild rice, washed three times in cold water
4 cups chicken broth
1 pound pork sausage (I use homemade but any high-quality breakfast sausage will do)
1/4 pound butter
2 portobello or about 10 crimini mushrooms, diced
1/2 onion, minced
1 tablespoon parsley, chopped
1 stalk celery, diced
1 pinch fresh thyme
Boil rice in broth for 20 minutes.
Brown sausage in butter until fully cooked. Add remaining ingredients. Simmer 10 minutes, then mix in rice and remaining broth. Bake covered at 350 degrees for 20 minutes, then uncovered to desired consistency.
Serve immediately or store. This dish freezes well.
Kurt Michael Friese is co-owner of the Iowa City restaurant Devotay and Editor-in-Chief of the magazine Edible Iowa River Valley. He lives with his wife Kim in rural Johnson County. Comments may be directed to Kurt@EdibleIowaRiverValley.com.