Harvest (Harper Perennial, 2012) tells the story of novelist and nature writer Richard Horan as he embarks on a transcontinental adventure across America visiting organic family farms and working the harvests of more than a dozen essential and unusual food crops—from Kansas wheat and Michigan wild rice to Maine Potatoes and California walnuts. What he discovers are strong connections among the farmers, the soil and the seasons that ultimately support the lifeblood of America. Discover how the Chippewa Nation has been sustainably processing wild rice in this excerpt taken from chapter 6, “Wild Rice (Manoomin).”
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Sixty-five miles northwest of Green Bay, Wisconsin, U.S. Highway 45 turns north at Wittenberg and travels through the heart of Wisconsin’s Northwoods, straight on through to the Upper Peninsula of Michigan, where it comes to a dead end at Lake Superior (Gichigami), in Ontonagon. On either side of the highway, north of Antigo, Wisconsin, the land is pockmarked with thousands of kettle lakes—the highest concentration of these lakes in the world—and populated by wolves, moose, and even cougar. This is the central homeland of the Chippewa Nation. It is where the water drum of the ancient Midewiwin Lodge was first heard calling its people to council. Where the earth, Aki, and its four sacred directions—North, South, East, and West—are believed to possess physical and spiritual powers. Where the creator of all things, Gichi-Manidoo, took the four powers and made human beings called Anishinaabe. And where the wild rice, manoomin, still grows wild.
In more traditional times, the rice was dried on birch bark or blankets spread on the ground and continuously aerated and sun-dried for two days. About the only nontraditional element to the entire rice harvest was the two plastic tarps they were using to dry the rice on.
Ever since the arrival of the white man, the cast-iron kettle and later the wash bucket was used to parch the rice instead of the two-day drying method. Like all new inventions, it’s faster and easier, with more consistent and predictable outcomes. Roger then demonstrated the process by filling the bottom of the bucket with the rice, about an inch thick. He then placed the bucket at an angle over the fire and began swishing the hulled rice around and around with an old canoe paddle. Laborious work. He said the rice is properly dried when the kernels snap in half between your fingers. Old hands can simply tell when it’s ready by the rich, nutty aroma. He had my father-in-law do the swishing, then my mother-in-law, and then the rest of us. It took about twenty minutes for that aroma to get just the way he wanted it.
After parching, the rice is removed from the hull by dancing on it in soft moccasins. Behind us, outside the tent, was a circular hole dug in the ground, about a foot and a half in diameter, with a leather cloth covering its uneven contours. For balance and to help the dancer control the amount of weight applied to the rice, Roger had two poles placed alongside the pit in a V-shape, like stair rails, set up on either side to hold on to. This was the rice-dancing platform, and with his white moccasins on, Roger demonstrated the dancing technique. As a teacher, Roger likes using analogies. Before he began to dance, he asked us who invented the Twist, and we all shouted “Chubby Checker!” Sure enough, that’s what he did, swiveling his hips and shaking his butt, twisting and turning back and forth. We all got to laughing. He didn’t mind. Chubby Checker is a funny name.
The final step is winnowing, or tossing the rice in the air to separate the kernels from the chaff. Roger placed two handfuls of the dehulled rice into a nooshkaachinaagan, or birch winnowing tray, and with a downward shaking movement, the lighter chaff would blow away, leaving the rice kernels ready for cooking or long-term storage. It took about three minutes of constant shaking per basketful.
And as if on cue, Roger’s brother Paul arrived atop his noisy and smoky ATV. I’ll give you one guess, my gifted reader, who Roger’s brother Paul looked like. You got it—Chubby Checker. Amazing! Roger introduced Paul to everyone, and with all seriousness told us that Paul was the Tweezer Meister. And so Paul, armed with tweezers and magnifying glass and thick reading glasses, sat down and proceeded to meticulously remove tiny bits of chaff from the protein-rice grain, making it ready for sale in the marketplace.
All told, from parching to tweezering, it took about an hour per pound of product, which doesn’t include the time and danger of harvest.
To participate in a harvest ritual like this, which dates back a thousand years or more, is to experience firsthand the purest harmony with nature. Wild rice requires no maintenance, no machinery, no artificial fertilizers. You do not even need to plant the product; it plants itself and is ready to be harvested, pure and natural, year in and year out. In California, the world’s largest producer of wild rice with some twenty thousand acres and fifteen million pounds produced each year, the harvest process is completely mechanized. As a result, the cost is half what you’d pay in the traditional growing regions of the upper Great Lakes. But here’s where the consumer becomes the cultural steward and environmental champion. To buy this product at its natural price, where it was harvested, supports in every way indigenous culture and families; it supports sustainable agriculture and sportfishing; it supports the Great Lakes region and its communities; and it supports ninoododadiwin (harmony), agoozo (balance), and manajiwin (respect). Buying non-wild wild rice is a lame, limp-wristed slap in the face to traditional manoomin harvests and harvesters.
This excerpt has been reprinted with permission from Harvest: An Adventure into the Heart of America’s Family Farms, published by Harper Perennial, an imprint of HarperCollins Publishers, 2012. You can buy this book from our store: Harvest: An Adventure into the Heart of America’s Family Farms.
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