Wednesday, October 16, 2013

Wild Rice- Cascadian Style

To most Pacific Northwesterners, the long black grains of Wild Rice (Zizania palustris) are known only from exotic rice blends or the specialty food section of grocery stores, not as a part of the local flora or cuisine. Here in the Salmon Nation (to borrow from Gary Paul Nabhan) we have a plethora of protein, but starch is scarce and grains are all but absent from the ethnographic record. Not so for other parts of the continent. In the Great Lakes region, Wild Rice is such an integral part of the Indigenous food system, that Nabhan calls the area the “Wild Rice Nation,” Winnona LaDuke successfully advocated for Wild Rice to be included in the Slow Food “Arc of Taste,” and ethnoecologists Nancy Turner and Ann Garibaldi would consider Wild Rice a “Cultural Keystone Species.”

I got my first glimpse of Wild Rice culture from Anishinabe elder Joe Rose while attending Northland College in Northern Wisconsin. Sitting in a wigwam at Waverly Beach on the south shore of Lake Superior, I listened to Joe’s deep soothing voice as he told the migration story of his people who journeyed from the east to a prophesized land “where food grows on water.” When his ancestors landed at Waverly Beach and saw the golden beds of Wild Rice in the Kakagon Slough, they knew they had arrived at their new homeland. The Anishinabe continue to harvest this sacred food called minoomin, as do a few more recent settlers.

I think it was Jim Meeker, my major professor, who gave me my first taste of the nutty brown rice. As a doctoral student Jim explored wild rice ecology and quickly developed a fondness for the grain. He has returned to the same beds for decades to harvest enough to eat and share with friends and students throughout the year. Wild Rice has also been a staple for my friend Sam Thayer, and I’ll never forget our first wild food thanksgiving we had together at his cabin in Bayfield County, or the first time he took me ricing and taught me how to “knock” rice and “pole” the canoe. It is in the spirit of these people that I recently began harvesting my own rice and though the geography is distant and history somewhat novel, the ecology and technique are similar.

Short History of Wild Rice in the Pacific Northwest
Nobody knows for sure when Wild Rice first arrived in the Pacific Northwest, but early plantings in eastern Washington and the northern Idaho date back to the early 1900s. A 1918 article in the Spokane Daily Chronicle proclaims “Plant wild rice and it will grow,” and relays the personal experience of C.B. Spraque who cultivated wild rice in Spokane County WA, just downstream of Lake Coeur d’Alene. Nearly a decade later, the first herbarium collection of Wild Rice west of the Rockies was made at the south end of Lake Coeur d’Alene. However, official sources in Idaho variously claim that Lake Coeur d’Alene rice was planted as early as the 1930s and as late as the 1960s (IDFG 1999).

Al Bruner probably knows more about rice in this region than anyone else. While working for the Idaho Department of Fish and Game, Bruner said, “The wild rice was originally planted along the Coeur d’Alene River in the 1930s and ‘40s by a local duck hunting club interested in improving waterfowl habitat.” The rice didn’t thrive until the state department tried a new seed strain they purchased from a Wisconsin Nursery. “We planted this strain in 1966 and ’67 and it’s thrived ever since,” Bruner told the Spokesman Review (9/22/1979). Bruner retired from the Idaho Department of Fish and Game and in 1982 helped start a business called the St. Maries Wild Rice Company that began commercially harvesting the rice with air boats and continues to do so today.

This patch has over 100 acres of rice

Katrina and I stumbled upon the expansive rice beds around Lake Coeur d’Alene last year and vowed to return to try and harvest some ourselves. With some time set aside this September for the trip, I began calling around to arrange logistics and secure equipment. The Idaho Department of Fish and Game assured me that no permit was needed for non-commercial harvest of the grain from lands that they manage. A friend let me borrow his canoe, my landlord loaned me a huge tarp, and a local feed store gave me some old grain sacks. I didn’t have a wooden pole to propel the canoe through the rice, so I modified a 14’ fiberglass pole-saw shaft. Lastly I carved two sets of rice knockers from clear vertical grain Western Red Cedar. The big risk was going to be the ripeness of the rice. Would we drive all the way to Idaho only discover that the rice wasn’t ready?

My Manoomin-knockers in three stages of completion

The end of our first successful evening ricing
The harvest
With the canoe loaded on the car we hit the road on September 13th. We only ate 25 pounds of Wild Rice last year, so we didn’t feel like we needed much to make it worth the trip but we packed light so that we would have ample room to bring home a bounty of rice- should the circumstances permit. At 4:00 PM we arrived and I went straight to the water to check the rice. It was fantastic! The plants were loaded: long plump black kernels fell easily with the slightest bump. I was so giddy with excitement that I carried my first handful of rice back to the car and carefully put it in a box. We quickly untied the canoe from the car, launched, and riced until darkness, hunger and the knowledge that we hadn’t even set up camp slowly overcame our enthusiasm. 

Knocking tall rice
Poling (Poppe photograph)
For the next two days we riced steadily yielding about a bushel every hour from plants that ranged from 4-8 feet tall. You had to stand to knock the rice and even then, bending the tops of the rice over the canoe took some work. With two people standing, there were some near upsets, but we quickly found our balance. The polling was easy with no obstructions beyond the occasional co-dominance of rice with Wapato (Sagittaria latifolia). The lake bottom was also firm enough to keep the pole from getting lodged too deeply in the muck. It was first time I’ve ever tired faster knocking rice than polling the canoe. The rice beds were long enough that we could go straight in one direction for an hour, and we usually traded positions at every turn. With 30 acres of rice all to ourselves, we knocked 447 pounds (including my first handful) in about 16 hours of ricing over the course of 3 days.

Wild Rice and Wapato growing together (Poppe photograph)

If left in a sack for a few days, Wild Rice will begin to mold and we didn’t want to rely on the cloud prone coastal climate to dry our rice, so we took advantage of every chance we weren’t on the water to dry the rice. Spread across giant tarps, the warm weather and low humidity quickly desiccated the grain. The rice was mostly dry enough after 1 day to safely pack up and take home, where we finished drying it over another two days of fabulous fall weather in Bellingham.

Even the late afternoon sun was enough to begin to dry the rice (Poppe Photograph)

More rice than we had bags for!

Parching rice
Properly dried rice will keep indefinitely, but in order to remove the coarse, inedible hulls that surround each grain, the rice must be parched. Most ricers in the Great Lakes region take their rice to a processing facility that parches, hulls, and winnows the rice for them, but there is no such facility near me, so I have to do it myself. The trick with parching is to apply enough heat to dry the hull to the point of brittleness without popping or burning the grain. I have been using a 15 quart stainless steel stock pot in which I can only parch about 2 pounds of rice at a time (slow going, I know). Once warmed to between 140-160°F, plumes of steam begin to rise off the rice with every turn. The steam diminishes and the rice starts to look and feel dry at about 170°F, but I continue parching until it reaches 185-190°F. All told, it takes about 20-30 minutes per batch. If the rice starts popping, that means rice isn’t being stirred enough. If you are stirring frantically and still have popping rice it is time to turn the temperature down on the pan. See this interesting scientific study for more information on parching rice.

Each kernel of rice is surrounded by a close fitting hull or husk, which is coarse, hairy, and armed with a long stiff awn that renders the grain a downright choking hazard if not completely removed. Native Americans traditionally rubbed off these hulls by “dancing” on the rice inside of buckskins lined pits. Dancers skillfully shuffle off to buffalo, or do the moccasin moonwalk to loosen the hulls.
A ripe Wild Rice hull (top) and kernel (bottom)

Rubber lined paddles
Some people continue to salsa on rice but my shoe rack doesn’t include the proper footgear, so I set out to make my own rice hulling machine. It is basically a rubber bladed paddle wheel inside of a rubber lined bucket, powered by a hand crank. With a few exceptions, all the parts are recycled. I started with a used five gallon bucket and glued a piece of sheet rubber to the inside of the bucket. Then I drilled holes in the center of the bottom of the bucket and the lid, and pressed in 1 5/8 x ¾ inch wheelbarrow bearings. Through these bearings I laced my driveshaft, made of ¾ inch stainless pipe that I found at a scrap yard. I also found some thin gauge stainless sheet metal that I cut into paddles, onto which I glued more sheet rubber and bolted to the drive shaft. The hand crank is made from a used aluminum bicycle crank and was machined mostly by my friend Ric. We enlarged the square hole mount to a ¾ inch round hole and tapped another small hole for a set screw to hold the crank in place. The hand-hold is simply a pedal with all the flat parts ground away.
Bicycle crank arm
Winnowing ports

Having invested a couple days into the design and fabrication of this machine, I was pretty nervous to see if it worked or not. For the inaugural hulling I only put in 2 cups of parched rice. I cranked it for 2 minutes and dumped out the grain. Success! Half the rice was properly hulled. I put in more and cranked for longer with better results. Now I process about 2 pounds of rice at a time for 20-25 minutes a batch.

Once the hulls are rubbed off, they must then be separated from the grain, a process known as winnowing. Classically, people dump rice from one container into another on a windy day, or toss grain in the air using a winnowing basket to separate the chaff. I am becoming more proficient at both techniques, but felt there was opportunity to incorporate winnowing action into my rice hulling machine.

I purchased a used fan at the thrift store and found some old plastic flower pots that were going to be thrown away to make a reduction tube to convert the 10 inch diameter fan down to a 4 inch diameter hole that I drilled into the lid of the bucket. The fan sucks chaff laden air out of the bucket. I had to drill another hole to allow air into the bucket, and when I discovered that my fan wasn’t powerful enough to pull out all the chaff, I supercharged the process by putting a hair dryer on the air intake. With this set up I can winnow 95% of the chaff off the rice while it is still in the hulling machine and greatly reduce the amount of time hand-winnowing.
My winnowing attachment

Final Cleaning
It is hard to rub all the hulls off the rice with my machine. The longer I run the machine, the fewer hulls are left on the grain, but I also break more kernels and begin to rub off the black outer coating. Therefore I stop hulling when 98 percent of the kernels are clean, and pick out the remaining un-hulled grain by hand. This sounds tedious, but it is actually kind of fun- like knitting or weeding. Katrina discovered that tweezers really speed up the process, and these days she has been using the activity as a way to unwind after long days in grad-school.

A bowl of our cleaned, raw Wild Rice

Plump black kernels
Future Improvements
It is hard for me to use a piece of equipment without thinking about modifications, and I already have considered several design improvements. The size of my machinery puts a major limit on its labor efficiency. With bigger parching pans and hulling paddles, I could parch and hull more rice in the same amount of time. Broken rice grains are also an annoying result of both the amount of stirring required while parching the rice, and size of the rice huller. I am contemplating a new rice parching set-up that not only has more volume, but uses rotary motion to move the rice- something like a cement mixer or clothes dryer. In this parching system rice would be gently tumbled instead of forcefully stirred, and I believe fewer kernels would break. The high arc angle of long rice kernels across the small circumference of a 5-gallon bucket also breaks grain. Increasing the circumference of the huller would allow even the longest grains of rice to lay virtually flat across the arc of the huller. For labor efficiency's sake, it would be best to scale up my parcher and huller for 15-30 pound batches (from 1.5-2 pound batches), but I have limited storage for equipment that I only use on a yearly basis, and will probably just continue to tweak my current system.

Two of our favorite ways to eat rice
Wild Rice for Breakfast
Wild Rice Breakfast Cereal
½ cup Wild Rice
1 cup water
¼ cup dried Cranberries (substitute any dried berry)
¼ cup Heartnuts (substitute any nut)
1-2 tablespoons Bigleaf Maple syrup (substitute Sugar Maple syrup, honey, or agave nectar)

Rinse and boil ½ cup Wild Rice in 1 cup of water for 20 minutes, until you hear it crackle. Mix in the remaining ingredients. Enjoy hot or cold. Makes 2 servings

Wild Rice Pilaf
1 cup Wild Rice
2 cup water
½ cup dried and diced Winged Kelp
¼ cup dried morels
½ cup chopped Beaked or American Hazelnut (substitute filberts)

Bring 2 cup of water to a simmer. Add ¼ cup dried Morels, diced Winged Kelp, and 1 cup rinsed Wild Rice. Boil for 20 minutes, until you hear the rice crackle. Mix in the Hazelnuts and serve hot. Makes 4 servings.

For many, starch is the final frontier of the wild food diet, and a critical gap for those seeking independence from the industrial food system. Wild Rice has fantastic flavor, stores superbly, and cooks quickly, making it an attractive substitute to agricultural grains, and like many other wild foods, there are ecological benefits as well. Wild Rice is rare among annual cereal crops in that it doesn’t require any soil disturbance, and grows in places with gradual soil accumulation, not erosion. Though somewhat novel to the Pacific Northwest, Wild Rice is Native to North America and has a long legacy in our region. With several years’ worth of rice safely stored away, I feel closer than ever to my dream of re-wilding my diet.

The Rice Knowledge Bank website is full of interesting information about white rice processing machinery. I should have checked it out before I designed my equipment!

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