LINDA WERTHEIMER, HOST:
It's harvest season. In the country's northern lakes, though, it's not just the last tomatoes and the first pumpkins. Through the end of this month, canoes will glide into lakes and rivers for the annual gathering of wild rice. WEEKEND EDITION food commentator Bonny Wolf has more.
BONNY WOLF, BYLINE: According to legend, the Ojibway Indians followed a prophecy to find the place where the food grows on the water, which was around Lake Superior - particularly in Minnesota. So, wild rice, an aquatic grass that bears edible grain, has been the center of the Ojibway diet and culture - a gift from the Creator. To protect the rice fields, Minnesota restricts the harvesting season and regulates boats and tools. Tribal harvesters manage themselves and reservation waters are off-limits to other ricers. For centuries, the Ojibway have gathered wild rice by hand. Ricers went out two to a canoe, one with a forked push pole, and the other a pair of wooden flails used to knock the rice into the boat.
I grew up in 1950s Minnesota eating this nutty, earthy grain. I didn't realize that in other places it was a rare treat. In the 1960s, scientists and businessmen tamed the wild rice, grew it in paddies and harvested by machine. Thirty years later, less than 10 percent of the world's wild rice was gathered by hand. Unlike the irregular, light brown lake rice, cultivated rice is almost black and uniform in size and shape. Cultivated is a swear word on the reservation. Wild rice is a source of income for the Ojibway. The cheaper paddy rice dropped the price.
There are other concerns - mining, dams, and weather. This year, severe flooding drowned much of the crop. Processing - or finishing - lake rice is hugely labor intensive. First, it's parched, or roasted, over a fire. Then it's hulled and winnowed. This can involve dancing the rice in a pit wearing special knee-high moccasins. But there have been a few mechanical advancements. Bruce Savage has been finishing rice since he was 16. He's now 50 and is called the young guy because rice finishing is a dying art. He finished 15,000 pounds last year at his home on the edge of the reservation. Rule of thumb? 100 pounds per person. His friend Rick Smith, who works with Indian youth at the University of Minnesota, said rice is very spiritual for us. That's why we came here.
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WERTHEIMER: Bonny Wolf is a contributing editor of NPR's Kitchen Window. You can follow her on Twitter. She's @BonnyWolf.
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