“When you can direct a movie in someone’s head while they are consuming their food,” says Chef Sean Brock of Husk in Charleston, SC, “it’s going to taste better. This creates an emotional connection, and this gets people excited.”
Many chefs appreciate the stories behind their food, and for this reason are excited to explore heirloom varieties in their cooking. Heritage grains, for example, many of which are at risk of disappearing, are rich with ancient stories. Hand harvested wild rice is a perfect example of a heritage grain with a long history, and the ancient harvest technique, still in use today, is part of its story.
Grown naturally in the Upper Great Lakes Region of the U.S., wild rice is still hand harvested by Native Americans who navigate through the lakes in canoes, knocking the ripened kernels into the bottom of boat. [See video here.] The rice is only ripe enough for harvest for three weeks every year. The grains on each plant ripen at different rates so that only the ripe ones fall when the plant is hit. Most fall into the boat for collection, the green kernels stay attached to the plant to be harvested in one of the next rounds once they ripen, and the remainder fall to the bottom of the lake, reseeding the crop for next year.
Once the canoes come in with the harvest, which, at this stage looks like large green grass seeds, the grains are then “parched” to remove the husk. This process involves roasting the grains over high heat and it gives the rice its unique smoky, nutty flavor and its light grey green color. While all hand harvested wild rice is produced from the same seed, it is the variations in the parching process that result in differences in the taste of rice from each producer.
The first use of wild rice by human dates back over 2000 years ago. Oral history from the Ojibwe people says that before setting off on a westward migration, a prophet told them to walk until they reached the place “where the food grows on water.” Since then, the Ojibwe and others have been hand harvesting wild rice that grows mostly in the lakes of Wisconsin, Minnesota, and Canada.
Confusion exists today regarding a product commonly found in supermarkets that claims to be “wild rice,” but is actually cultivated just like other rice, in patties. In fact, this “wild rice” is tough, takes a long time to cook, and is a central reason why many people believe they do not like wild rice. Hand harvested wild rice, however, is unique, delicious and brimming with ancient tradition. In addition, the nutritional content of true wild rice has remained the same since it has not been hybridized like modern wild rice varieties.
Like many other grains, wild rice is versatile. Among other things it can be used in pilafs, stuffings, soups, and salads. At North Pond Restaurant in Chicago Chef Bruce Sherman is serving hand harvested wild rice with butternut squash and romanesco cauliflower, pumpkin seed mole, grilled fish, and toasted pumpkin seeds. He notes that the grain goes well with mild as well as gamey flavors. “Think about the things it grows around: duck, waterfowl, pheasant,” he says, “It goes really well with pheasant.”
Sherman spoke about the “wonderful, earthy, nutty nature” of hand harvested wild rice, its shorter cook time, and the importance of preserving its long history and ancient harvest technique. “It costs more,” he says, “but it’s definitely worth it considering what it is and where it has come from.”
Wild rice requires very specific growing condition and these are currently threatened by climate change and other environmental factors that could affect the health of the rivers and lakes where it grows. According to the Save our Rice Alliance, “Wild rice plays a variety of important roles within the Upper Great Lakes Region. Whether valued for its cultural significance to the Ojibwe; its status as a locally gathered food source; its taste and nutrition as a whole grain; its contribution to wildlife habitat; or as genetic stock for an expanding agricultural crop; all depend upon the continued existence of wild rice within the natural landscape.”
Hand harvested wild rice is just one example of many heritage grains that are rich with history and facing threats to their continued existence. A lot is at stake if it is lost. While the unmatched taste and texture of hand harvested wild rice should be enough to persuade chefs to cook with it, we must also keep in mind our responsibility as chefs and eaters to learn the stories of heritage grain and share them on the plate.