Bruce Savage stokes the wood fire under a large, rotating steel drum. From inside comes a soft swishing sound, almost like a rain stick. With updated equipment, he is doing what his ancestors have done for centuries – “finishing” the wild rice gathered on lakes and rivers in northern Minnesota. It’s his contribution to keeping a dying tradition alive.
Wild rice has strong cultural as well as culinary significance. “No other native Minnesota plant approaches the level of cultural, ecological and economic values embodied by this species,” reads literature from the state Department of Natural Resources.
The legend is that the Ojibway Indians followed a prophecy to go to a place where the food grows on the water. This took them, in the late 17th century, to Lake Superior and the lakes and rivers of Canada and what are now Wisconsin, Michigan and especially Minnesota.
So, the Ojibway consider the rice a gift from the Creator. They learned to process the rice so it could be stored through the long northern winters when other food was scarce. Even today, families like to have 100 pounds per person when the harvest ends. Not a bad food to have on hand: Wild rice is low in fat and high in protein, vitamins, minerals and fiber. It’s even gluten free.
It’s actually not rice, but an aquatic grass that bears an edible grain, the only cereal grain native to North America.
After 17 years in Minneapolis working as an auto mechanic, Savage moved back to 80 acres of land on the edge of the Fond du Lac reservation, not far from Duluth. He is a big man, with a little pigtail of hair. Like his forebears, he hunts or grows most of the food for himself, his wife and four children. “I have raised my kids this way,” he said. “They’re young adults now and can’t stand to go to McDonald’s anymore. They eat fresh food.”
It started with the wild rice. “My family had me hustling rice at 9 in Duluth to teachers and neighbors,” said Savage. Although he grew up in Duluth, he went to the reservation every fall to rice with family members.
When he moved back from Minneapolis, he started doing a little rice finishing because there were so few finishers. Savage has been processing – or finishing – rice since he was 16. Now 50, he says he’s called “the young guy” because finishing has become a dying art. When he was a kid, his reservation had half a dozen men who finished rice, he said. By 2000, there were none. His business and reputation grew, and last year he finished 15,000 pounds of rice.
Savage, whose day job is in construction on the reservation, comes across as a bit of an iconoclast. “A lot of people get real weird when it comes to religion,” he said, referring to the spiritual qualities attributed to wild rice. “This is a food source we relied on to live, so of course you’re going to respect it and it is going to be sacred to you.”
He not only respects the rice, though, but those to whom the rice is “holy water.” Not so much as a cigarette butt is allowed in the fires used to parch the rice. “It may not be my belief,” he said, “but [I do it] out of respect for people whose rice you’re handling.”
Wild rice is not just food and culture to the Ojibway, however. In a largely impoverished community, it also has been a source of income since the natives used it to barter with fur traders for whom wild rice also became a diet staple.
It still provided at least supplemental income until the late 1960s, when scientists and entrepreneurs tamed the wild rice. They developed a grain that could be grown in controlled paddies, and harvested and processed by machine. The price plummeted. Savage said when he was 12, he was paid $1.35 a pound for unprocessed rice. Today, he said the going rate is $1.50. Hand-harvested rice sells for $10-$15 a pound while cultivated rice is about half that.
Until the 1960s, half the world’s wild rice – most of it hand harvested – came from Minnesota waters. By 1990, less than 10 percent of the world’s wild rice supply was harvested by hand. California now produces most of the world’s cultivated wild rice. By Minnesota law, wild rice cultivated in the state must be identified as such. Savage says “cultivated” is a swear word on the reservation.
Ricers who go out on Minnesota lakes for the natural stuff do it the same way the Ojibway have for centuries. They go out two to a canoe, one with a forked push pole and the other with a pair of lightweight wooden flails used to “knock” the rice into the boat. Mechanical devices are prohibited in the wild.
To protect the wild beds, state laws restrict the season and regulate the boats and tools. The rules do not apply to natives on reservation lands who manage themselves, and reservation waters are off limits to other ricers.
In the 1960s, before the advent of large-scale wild rice cultivation, as many as 16,000 licenses were sold a year. In recent years, annual sales have averaged fewer than 1,500. Minnesota’s Department of Natural Resources estimates that more than 3,000 tribal members participate in wild rice harvesting, providing a statewide total of up to 5,000 ricers a year.
“During the last three decades,” writes Thomas Vennum Jr in Wild Rice and the Ojibway People, “like tobacco, soybeans, corn and other ‘Indian gifts,’ wild rice has become almost exclusively a non-Indian product, with minimal involvement of the Ojibway or financial rewards for them.” Wild rice, Vennum writes, had become part of “modern American agronomy.”
Still, many Ojibway go out the same way they have for centuries. It is a fall ritual – a way for families and communities to get together. And it remains a staple of the Ojibway diet.
Cultivated rice is not the only perceived threat. Ricers fear the effects of new mining proposed in wild-rice territory, and the issue has gone to the state Legislature. Ricers worry that sulfate discharged from copper-nickel mines could kill wild lake-rice beds. There is a law limiting the sulfate – a natural salt – that can go into wild rice waters, but it was rarely enforced until recently. A proposed new law would stop any enforcement until new studies are done. Opponents want the existing standard to be upheld until science proves the need for a new one.
There are natural threats as well, the most devastating of which is weather. This year, severe flooding drowned much of the crop. A massive windstorm in July did further damage. Many ricers went outside their normal fields to find rice for their families and community.
Shortly after the season opened in mid-August, Savage, got a call from a young man from 30 miles west who had some rice to process. Michaa Aubid, 25, is from east central Minnesota, where this year’s harvest was flooded out. “We’re the [Ojibway] wild rice band up there,” he said. He and another man were sent out as scouts to find rice outside their normal fields. They found a source and harvested nearly 200 pounds of rice they brought in for Savage to finish.
Gathering and processing wild lake rice is wildly labor intensive – hence the high price. And a ricer is lucky to get 40 percent of the take, losing the rest to hulls and moisture.
First the rice is parched – toasted – in a container over a wood fire. This kills the germ so the kernel won’t sprout and loosens the hull that will be discarded. Savage judges by sound and smell how the parching is proceeding. When the vapors coming out of the parcher turn to a dust, he knows the rice is ready.
The traditional Ojibway method of hulling the parched rice was to “dance” it in a pit, wearing special knee-high moccasins. Savage and other finishers use hulling machines that cut down on this part of the process.
Finally, the hulled rice is winnowed to remove the chaff, or grain covering. This originally was done by tossing batches into the air and back into a birch bark tray. This, too, can now be done by machine.
Ricers like to process their harvest within a day or two of getting it off the water. Commercial processors let the rice sit in piles for weeks or months, and it ferments and turns black, Savage said. “That’s what people think it’s supposed to look like and taste like,” he said. Part of his mission is to remind people how real wild rice should taste. Traditionally processed wild lake rice is irregular in shape and a much lighter brown than the commercially prepared product. People ask Savage how to know if rice is good. “I always tell them to smell it, because if it smells good, it’s probably going to taste good,” he said.
Wild rice recipes:
I asked Michaa Aubid, a 25-year-old Minnesota Ojibway, what he does with wild rice. “What don’t you do with it?” he said. “Boil, pop, bake, mix with eggs, use in soup.” Wild rice is steamed or baked, cooked with meat and vegetables and made into wild rice pudding. You even can pop wild rice, although only if it’s hand-harvested lake rice. The cultivated rice doesn’t pop.
These are just the kind of muffins I like – firm and not sweet. The wild rice gives them an earthy taste and crunchy texture that’s unexpected. Hand-harvested wild rice is green or brown in color and takes less time and liquid to cook than the nearly black paddy cultivated rice. This recipe is adapted from the University of Minnesota Agricultural Extension Service. Hand-harvested wild rice is available at some specialty stores and online. Here's a list of some sources from the Native Wild Rice Coalition .
- 1 cup cooked wild rice (1/3 cup uncooked rice)
- ¾ cup water
- Pinch of salt
- 3 tablespoons baking powder
- 1 cup milk
- 1 1/2 cups all-purpose flour
- ¼ teaspoon salt
- 2 large eggs
- 4 tablespoons melted butter
- 2 scant teaspoons sugar
Preheat oven to 400 F.
Place rice in fine mesh strainer and rinse. To cook rice, boil water, add rice and salt. Bring back to boil, cover and simmer until cooked, about 25 minutes or until rice is tender but not mushy.
Beat together, eggs, milk and butter. Mix in rice. Sift together dry ingredients and add to mixture, stirring just until combined with wet ingredients.
In greased muffin tins or using liners, bake for 25 minutes, or until lightly browned.
Bruce Savage, a rice finisher who lives on the Ojibway’s Fond du Lac reservation in Minnesota, says he can’t think of a better way to eat wild rice than with a plate of farm-fresh eggs or mixed into pancake batter. This recipe, which calls for cooked rice, is adapted from "Spirit of the Harvest, North American Indian Cooking" by Beverly Cox and Martin Jacobs (Stewart, Tabori & Chang 1991). Add a few sautéed morels if you’re lucky enough to have some. I always put milk in my eggs – just a few slugs – because that’s what my mother did. Certainly optional. -- Bonny Wolf
- 4 slices bacon, cut in thin strips
- 4 green onions, including a bit of green, thinly sliced
- 1 cup cooked wild rice (1/3 cup uncooked rice)
- 3/4 cup water
- Pinch of salt
- 6 large eggs
- 1/4 teaspoon salt
- 1/8 teaspoon ground black pepper
- A little milk
Place rice in fine mesh strainer and rinse. Boil water, add rice and salt. Bring back to boil, cover and simmer until cooked, about 25 minutes or until rice is tender but not mushy.
In an 8-inch heavy skillet over medium heat, sauté bacon until crisp. Drain off all but about 2 tablespoons of drippings. Add green onions and wild rice and sauté briefly.
In mixing bowl, lightly beat eggs with salt, pepper and milk, if using. Add eggs to skillet and stir with fork to scramble lightly. Turn heat to low and cook until eggs are set, with runny top.
Meanwhile, preheat broiler.
Place under broiler until lightly browned. Cut into wedges and serve. (Also good at room temperature.)
You call it a casserole, Minnesotans call it “hot dish.” I found more recipes for wild-rice hot dish than almost anything else using the grain. Many cooks use canned cream of mushroom or cream of chicken soup. This recipe offers an especially nice combination, adapted from a recipe from Voyageur wild rice. Feel free to make additions such as tomatoes, peas, green peppers or other vegetables. I use buffalo because it’s lean and seems appropriate with a grain intricately tied to Native Americans. Other meats would also work. Or leave out the meat altogether, substitute vegetable broth and it’s vegetarian. If you use cultivated wild rice, you’ll need to increase the liquid and cooking time. Follow package directions. -- Bonny Wolf
- 1½ pounds ground buffalo (or other meat)
- Canola oil
- 3 ribs celery, diced
- 1 large onion, chopped
- ½ pound mushrooms, sliced
- 1 ½ cups uncooked hand-harvested wild rice
- 4 cups chicken broth
- Salt to taste
Preheat oven to 350 F.
In a large skillet, crumble meat and sauté until it loses pink color. Drain off any fat. Transfer meat to 3-quart casserole that can be covered.
In the same skillet, adding as little oil as possible, sauté celery and onions just until vegetables soften, about 5 minutes. Add to meat in casserole. Add mushrooms to skillet and cook until browned. Add to casserole.
Add wild rice, broth and salt to taste to casserole and stir ingredients to mix.
Bake, covered, 1½ hours, stirring once or twice. Uncover for last 20 minutes of cooking to evaporate excess liquid and brown top of casserole.