A Gourmet Harvest: Foraging for Wild Rice

This Gopher State couple goes foraging for wild rice for free. Includes rules and preparations for harvesting wild rice, finding growing areas, and threshing your wild rice.

| September/October 1982

When nights turn chill, and days grow wee, this Gopher State couple gets gourmet food for free by foraging for wild rice. (See the wild rice foraging photos in the image gallery.)

A Gourmet Harvest: Foraging for Wild Rice

If you enjoy the nutty goodness and subtle flavor of wild rice (and most folks do!), you probably already know that the glamour grain is one of the most expensive foodstuffs around . . . often selling for as much as $12 per pound! However, top-quality wild rice can be yours for a tiny fraction of that amount. In fact, my wife Lil and I collect our own supply each fall . . . by prowling the lakes and waterways near our north woods home in search of the coveted wild edible.

Called manomin by our Chippewa Indian neighbors, and Zizania aquatica by botanists (who classify it as a grass, rather than a true rice), this highly nutritious cereal grain is still being harvested in essentially the same manner as it was by native Americans centuries ago . . . that is, by knocking it off the stalks and into a canoe, using a pair of wooden sticks. Indeed, many states have laws designed to see that rice gathering remains an unmechanized activity. And while it's true that the regulations contribute to the high price of the delicacy, it seems likely that without such restrictions commercial interests would soon over-harvest the grain . . . perhaps to the point of extinction.

This native of shallow, mud-bottomed water could once be found in an area ranging from the plains states to the Atlantic, and from southern Canada to the Gulf of Mexico. Today, however, although a few scattered stands have survived the ravages of drainage, dredging, and pollution along the Mississippi River and the Gulf and Atlantic shores, the main harvest occurs in the lake country of the "rice bowl" states of Michigan, Wisconsin, and Minnesota . . . and in the Canadian provinces from Saskatchewan eastward.

In our area — the heart of the Superior National Forest near Ely, Minnesota — there are more than 1,500 sizable rice beds and hundreds of smaller ones. But don't go into a gastronomic frenzy just yet. Simply knowing that this aquatic cereal exists in a given region won't guarantee that you'll be able to find and harvest the sought-after annual.


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