Babaamaajimowinan (Telling of news in different places)

Wild rice, from lake to table

Rice is a food staple for a significant segment of the world’s population, but relatively few people know the process rice goes through prior to arriving on the dinner table.

Bradley Sam is one of the few who do, especially where wild rice is concerned.

Sam is an interpreter at the Mille Lacs Indian Museum. On Sept. 21, Sam stoked a fire near the shore of Vineland Bay as he prepared a demonstration of traditional ricing techniques for a dozen visitors to the museum. Before the afternoon was over he would repeat the process four times.

“One of the most often asked questions I hear is, does wild rice grow in Mille Lacs Lake?” Sam said. “The answer is no. I’ve talked to some older folks who remember when it did. But since the Buck Moore Dam was put in, the water is too high for rice.”

There are still numerous smaller, shallower lakes in the area that support thriving rice beds. After a dismal 2012 ricing season that saw both floods and drought, Rice Lake and Lake Onamia are both thick with wild rice this year.

Sam first explained the difference between wild rice and “paddy rice.”

Paddy rice is grown in a controlled environment. A flooded field (or paddy) is seeded with rice and fertilized. When the rice is ripe, the water is removed from the paddy and the rice is harvested by machine, much like a field of wheat. “They basically pull the plug and let the water drain out,” Sam said. “Wild rice is wild. It re-seeds itself, and there’s no need for fertilizer or chemicals.”

Sam had the tools of the trade for traditional ricing on hand, and gave a brief dry-land demonstration of the gathering technique.

Most ricers use a push pole about 12-feet long to move their canoes through the stalks of rice. While the length isn’t regulated, the width of the fork on the end of the pole is.

“It can’t be wider than 12 inches,” Sam explained. “That’s to keep the rice stalks from being pulled up by their roots.”

The ricing sticks (called flails or knockers) must be smooth and round, can be no longer than 30 inches, and weigh no more than a pound. “The idea is to keep from breaking the stalks,” Sam explained.

“Why do they worry about breaking the stalks,” one elderly visitor inquired. “The stalks die in the winter time anyway, don’t they?”

“Yes they do, but they continue to grow and produce rice even after they’ve been harvested,” Sam said. “This way you’re saving some for the next guy, and it also helps reseeding the lake.”

After harvest, rice is left to dry on open tarps. “If you leave it in bags it will get moldy,” Sam said.

The rice is then parched in a large iron kettle over a fire. Sam used a long paddle (similar to a canoe paddle) to stir the rice as it heated up. “Some processors say you should wait until you hear the rice pop in the kettle to know when it’s properly parched,” Sam said. “I don’t wait quite that long.”

According to Sam, over-parched rice grains often crack in the husk. “That’s broken rice,” Sam said. “We try to keep the grains whole.”

After the rice is properly parched, it’s threshed. Traditionally, the threshing process calls for soft-soled leather moccasins and durable legs. “The objective is not to stomp on the rice, but to grind it beneath your feet,” Sam said stepping into a large pail of parched rice. “It’s a workout.”

Following the threshing, the rice was placed in a shallow, birchbark bowl from which it was tossed in the air. A gentle breeze from the west blew the chaff away in small clouds. The finished rice fell back in the bowl.

“That’s pretty much it,” Sam said as he passed the bowl around. “It’s ready to cook.”


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