A Gourmet Harvest: Foraging for Wild Rice

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"DUCKBILL": OPEN AND CLOSED. Hinged wings on the push-pole provide for easy passage and leave the stalks undamaged.
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Lil mans the sticks while I push-pole.
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Wooden sticks are used to knock the harvest loose.
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Map of chief wild rice areas.

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.

MY HEART KNOWS WHERE THE WILD RICE GROWS

Veteran ricers tend to be as closemouthed about their
“private” patches as prospectors are about beds of
gold-bearing gravel … and for good reason. What with the
high prices commanded by this uncultivated delicacy,
commercial operators have been known to move in on a find
and harvest the major part of the stand in a matter of days
. . . or hours!

During the final days of August and into early September,
when the nights are cool and the days growing short, wild
rice begins to ripen rapidly. An entire patch of grain
isn’t likely to reach maturation all at once, however, so a
harvesting team can go over the same area at intervals a
few days apart and expect to gather a good supply on each
trip.

And just how does one find a stand of wild rice?
Well, some experienced ricers just seem to “know in their
hearts” where to look for the delectable treat . . . but,
for the rest of us, the best way to locate a patch is to
search out the golden stalks before the grain begins to
ripen. In most states within the tasty grass’s range, the
department of agriculture will provide reasonably accurate
— although admittedly general — information
about ricing areas . . . but the whereabouts of the best
stands in any particular year probably won’t be
part of the package. Lil and I get occasional tips from
conservation officers and fisherfolk, too, but our most
rewarding method (in more ways than one!) of “prospecting”
is simply to spot and make note of the rice while enjoying
August canoe excursions.

Throughout the month before the harvest begins, you see,
the stalks protrude well above the surface of the water in
likely ponds .. . in the shallow, mud-bottomed bays of the
larger lakes . . . along meandering creeks . . . and in the
mucky estuaries where streams empty into larger bodies of
water.

The root systems are anchored in mud, which will be
anywhere from a few inches to as much as two feet beneath
the water’s surface, and the stalks rise from two to five
feet in height. The grain is clustered at the top of the
main stem. When completely filled out and ripe, the seeds
range from a half-inch to more than an inch in length,
varying in color from light green to brown.

Over the years we’ve cataloged some two dozen good
harvesting grounds, ranging from relatively small stands of
approximately five acres, to giant granaries of more than a
hundred.

Since the yield and quality of an area’s crop may vary
sharply from year to year, we simply canoe past a number of
our favorite patches, mentally marking out those we think
will produce the best and most abundant harvest.

FORAGING FOR WILD RICE: RULES AND PREPARATIONS

Naturally, you must be sure you understand any pertinent
state laws before going ricing, both for your own
protection and for the long-term preservation of the crop.
In Minnesota, for example, the Department of Natural
Resources shares custody of the state’s wild rice stands
with the Indian Rice Committees. Of course, the native
American organizations have jurisdiction over the beds
located within reservation boundaries . . . which are some
of the most productive in the state. However, there are
thousands of fertile locations outside those
preserves that are available, on an equal basis, to Indian
and non-Indian alike.

The ricing season usually opens during the latter part of
August, with gathering hours set between 9:00 a.m. and 3:00
p.m. (because the grain is easiest to remove from the stalk
during the warmest part of the day). A rice harvesting
license in our state costs $4.00, and is obtainable at most
of the places that sell fishing permits.

Under Minnesota law, a canoe used when collecting the grain
can be no more than 18 feet in length and 36 inches wide.
And while it’s all right to paddle the double-ender to the
harvesting ground, it must be propelled through
the stand with a push-pole . . . in order to avoid damaging
the stalks.

Yet another rule requires that the pole be fitted with a
forked lower end . . . which — in most cases —
is actually a pair of hinged wings that fold against each
other when the pole is pulled forward through the water,
but fan out when forced against the mucky bottom, providing
additional purchase. A lot of ricers buy commercially
produced aluminum units called “duckbills”, which are
widely available in canoe shops.

Even the generally crude sticks used to knock rice off the
stalks must meet certain legal requirements, being
restricted to a length of not more than 30 inches and a
weight of no more than a pound. This regulation serves to
prevent ambitious commercial ricers from smashing their way
through a patch with a pair of baseball bats . . .
something that a few would surely do, were it not
for the law. Most harvesters prefer to carve their own
sticks, developing a design that performs well and fits
their hands comfortably.

Just before the harvesting season actually begins, Lil and
I check over our gear and give the interior of our canoe a
good scrubbing with a bristle brush (after all, our harvest
of grain will be collected on that floor). Then we
remove the craft’s center thwart and carrying yoke to
provide a larger unobstructed area for the rice to fall
into. The bow and stern thwarts are left in place, however,
to maintain the boat’s structural strength.

“STALKING” YOUR PREY

As is the case with most jobs in life, there’s definitely a
preferred technique for efficient rice harvesting. Lil and
I like to hit our first patch of the day just as the 9:00
a.m. opening hour strikes. As we drift down on the bed, I
stand up — feet braced — in the space between
the bow seat and the stem, facing the stern. My wife kneels
on a boat cushion just behind the bow seat, also facing
rearward.

Now with all of the passenger weight forward of the center
point, and the poleman standing, you might think that our
craft would be quite unstable . . . but after only a little
practice we learned to maintain an easy balance while
poling stern-first into the rice. In fact, in 16 years of
harvesting, we haven’t (knock on wood) dumped yet!

It’s best to enter each rice patch carefully, first noting
which way the stalks lean when blown by the wind. We’ve
found that we get the best results by poling the canoe
directly into the breeze on the first pass, then shifting
over a few feet and coming straight downwind on the next.
Any attempt to go crosswind through the bed of grain will
usually result in your double-ender’s being blown sideways
over the stalks, forcing them down and putting most of the
rice out of reach.

As the boat’s bow parts the tall grasses, Lil reaches out
over the starboard side of the canoe with one stick in her
right hand and draws a sheaf of stalks over the gunwale.
With the other stick, she knocks the kernels loose, hitting
downward in the direction that the stems are leaning and
almost sliding the top stick along the edge of the one
that’s holding the stalks down. Then my partner reverses
the operation, pulling stalks over the port side and
striking them with the right-hand stick. My job is to keep
our craft moving just fast enough to match the speed of her
side-to-side motion. Of course, a lot of the rice misses
the canoe and falls into the water . . . to serve as seed
for next year’s crop.

Wild rice kernels are tipped with beards — somewhat
similar to those found on oats — so they tend to land
in the boat heavy end down and fluff up . . . with the
accumulation in the craft’s bottom taking on the appearance
of a greenish brown deep-pile carpet. But this “rug” often
has an undercurrent of movement. There are usually ladybugs
parading up and down the plants, and sometimes the stalks
are infested with “rice worms” . . . the tiny white larvae
of a moth that deposits its eggs on the stems during the
summer. To any but the practiced eye, these minuscule
creatures are nearly invisible . . . under most
circumstances.

However, the first autumn that Lil and I riced together, we
were caught in a sudden afternoon downpour that soaked the
thick layer of grain in the bottom of our canoe. As I poled
toward the shelter of some shoreline pines, my wife
suddenly emitted a startled yelp and began shoving the
harvest away from her knees. The tiny worms, forced up
through the carpet of wild rice by the rising water in the
belly of the boat, had climbed until they surfaced . . .
turning the mat between Lil and the stern seat into a
wriggling mass of sinuate white forms. Obviously, ricing is
not for the overly squeamish.

“TAMING” YOUR HARVEST

When the legal gathering hours are over, we sweep the day’s
accumulation of grain out of the canoe and bag it. Closely
woven sacks are best for this part of the operation, and
we’ve found that old pillowcases work fine.. Once that’s
done, we head for home immediately, with the 50 to 80
pounds that constitutes our usual “take” packed securely
and kept in the shade. (If left in the bags too
long — several hours, say — green grain will
begin to generate warmth, then start to mold and
deteriorate.)

There are a number of ways to cure wild rice . . . but we
simply spread the grain in a six-inch layer on our basement
floor and turn it over twice a day until it’s dry and
ready. Other harvesters favor curing their share of
nature’s, bounty in the sun, while some ricers even claim
that exposure to a little rainfall during the drying
process improves the harvest’s flavor. Everyone seems
convinced that his or her method is the best . . . but
— as far as we can see — they all do
the job.

Like most grains, wild rice must be threshed before it can
be prepared and eaten. My Chippewa friends tell me that the
tribe formerly did this with their feet, donning moccasins
made just for the purpose and treading on the crop while it
lay in a shallow hole lined with moose hide. After the
hulls were stamped loose, the grain was winnowed . . . a
process which involved shaking it on a blanket or in a
shallow basket and allowing the wind to carry the chaff
away. A few folks still thresh their rice by hand, but most
of us simply take the cured crop to one of the many
commercial processors in the area. The pros will do the job
in minutes for about 30¢ a pound . . . and, besides
removing the hulls, many will clean and grade the harvest
by machine, returning it divided into three lots: large
grain, small grain, and broken pieces. (All are equally
good to eat, but the bigger kernels do have the best
appearance and are generally considered the choicest.)

Wild rice will often lose as much as 40% to 50% of its
weight during processing, mostly in the form of water
driven of by heat. Therefore, we usually wind up with about
half the number of pounds we brought ashore in our canoe .
. . though in good years, when the quality of the harvest
is high, we might get as much as a 60% return.

As far as Lil and I can tell, the shelf life of wild rice
is little short of unlimited . . . we actually know folks
who’ve kept the delicacy in containers for up to ten years
without deterioration or flavor loss. We don’t manage to
keep it that long, though! Out of our annual average of 100
pounds of finished grain, half goes into Christmas gift
packages and the rest into our pantry. By the following
fall the prior year’s harvest is usually only a
fond memory.


JUST A LITTLE WILD: Wild Rice Recipe

One of the many wonderful attributes of wild rice is the
fact that a little of it goes a long way: Three fourths of
a cup of dry grain will fill an entire casserole when
cooked. And while Lil has worked out a seemingly unlimited
number of recipes based on the popular comestible, most of
them begin with the same method of preparation.

To duplicate her process, use cold water to wash 3/4 cup of
rice, twice, in a large saucepan . . . then cover the grain
with about an inch of the liquid. If you intend to eat the
rice with fish or fowl, add four chicken bouillon cubes . .
. if you’re aiming to serve the dish along with red meat,
drop in four beef bouillon cubes instead. Next, bring the
water in the pot to a boil, then cut back the heat and
simmer the rice, covered. In about an hour the grain will
be puffed up and tender, and ready to dish out as is . . .
or to go into any of a variety of dishes such as muffins,
bread, stuffing, casseroles, salads, puddings, and more!

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