The weed that gourmets go for

Indians called it mano’min (good berry) and risked their scalps for it. Today food lovers still covet the wild rice of central Canada and enshrine it on the world’s most expensive menus

ROBERT COLLINS November 24 1956

The weed that gourmets go for

Indians called it mano’min (good berry) and risked their scalps for it. Today food lovers still covet the wild rice of central Canada and enshrine it on the world’s most expensive menus

ROBERT COLLINS November 24 1956

The weed that gourmets go for

Indians called it mano’min (good berry) and risked their scalps for it. Today food lovers still covet the wild rice of central Canada and enshrine it on the world’s most expensive menus

ROBERT COLLINS

Tonight in Jack and Charlie’s in Manhattan, it’s safe to predict some young man-abouttown bent on impressing his date will order the Scottish grouse (air-expressed across the Atlantic), and to confirm his savoir faire, a side dish of seeds from a water weed that earlier this fall a Cree Indian had threshed into his canoe as it inched through the thick growth in a muddy Manitoba lake. A couple of hours later (to allow for a time zone and an even more fashionably late dinner hour) the chefs at famous, century-old Antoine's Restaurant in New Orleans will be dishing out gourmets’ orders of a savory casserole of ham, chicken livers, minced shallot onions—and again that brownish-purple cereal of humble origin.

For the grain of a prairie water weed has acquired a renown synonymous with the rare, the exotic and the expensive in foods. It is called wild rice. The annals of memorable eating are full of tales in which wild rice plays a star role. It has been told, for example, how in the paneled dining room of a sedate Toronto club the atmosphere becomes even gloomier when the head steward regretfully announces that there’s none left of the members’ favorite provender—wildrice dressing for the squab and guinea hen. They tell, too, of how the late James Speers, dean of western Canada racing tycoons, proudly inaugurated the Canadian Derby (with a stake of five thousand dollars, unprecedented in that year of 1941) by holding a banquet he promised would be “the best ever,” and fulfilled the promise with a dozen Cross Lake wild geese overstuffed with savory wild rice. And among the souvenirs of Princess Elizabeth’s 1951 visit to Manitoba’s Government House in Winnipeg is a menu of the buffet supper at which the province offered its best to the future queen and the Duke of Edinburgh: breast of wild duck in orange sauce, larded breast of prairie chicken, and a great platter of baked wild rice.

What is there about wild rice that makes it so esteemed? The taste for it is probably acquired, since different people come up with varying reasons for liking it. One gourmet believes that texture rather than taste explains the appeal of wild rice, and maintains that the long, firm-yet-tender grains “feel luxurious to the palate.” Another praises its color appeal although some people facing the delicacy for the first time are taken aback by its dark color, which is unfamiliar in other foods. Some connoisseurs are intrigued by the ability of wild rice to absorb the most delicate flavors of the ingredients with which it is cooked, and still others dwell on its nutty taste. And then, loo, there are some who just can't stand it. l ike, surprisingly, John Newis, secretary of Winnipeg’s Red River Grain Co. which wholesales around ten tons of wild rice a year. “To me,” he says, “it just tastes musty.” There’s a chef in a Toronto hotel who declares bluntly: “People fancy wild rice for the same reason they fancy anything that’s hard to find and costs a lot. because it’s hard to find and costs a lot.”

With American menus glamorizing our small crop of wild rice Canadian housewives seldom see it

Certainly wild rice is both scarce and expensive. Wholesalers charge $1.25 a pound for it. and in twelve-ounce packages it retails for $1.65 at Hardy and Buchanan. Winnipeg’s oldest specialty grocery, for $1.69 at Eaton’s in Toronto and $2.25 at the Cheese Shoppe in Montreal. In comparison, ordinary rice sells for less than twenty cents a pound. However, it really isn't fair to compare wild rice with the more familiar white grain that most of the world knows.

As anyone with a smattering of advanced botany knows, wild rice is Zizania aquatica, a tall North American perennial grass and a fairly distant cousin of Oryza sativa, which is an Oriental and tropical annual grass. But undoubtedly the most striking difference between the two rices is that the white variety is the most heavily produced grain on earth— even more is grown than wheat—and the 330 billion pounds harvested annually is the staple food of more than half of mankind. The average annual wild-rice crop, on the other hand, is a mere one million pounds, and it is eaten collectively only on extremely rare occasions, such as the dinner Chasen’s Restaurant in Los Angeles served to Jack Benny, Dinah Shore, Eve Arden, Jimmy Durante and a few hundred other guests at the “Emmy” TV Awards last March.

Although Canada produces a third of North America’s million pounds of wild rice the Canadian housewife seldom encounters it in her shopping tours. The reason is simple: in the United States demand is always far ahead of supply, and gourmets willingly pay top prices, such as three dollars a pound and up in California and New York for raw rice and seventy-five cents for a side dish in Boston’s old Locke-Ober restaurant. One New York businessman values wild rice so highly that he has been known to send out twelve-ounce packages as Christmas gifts to people he most wants to please.

All of which explains the buying pressure that takes most of the Canadian rice across the border. Moreover, Canada's more northerly weed beds are considered to produce the best quality rice, which is in special demand not only as a premium product but for use in blending with relatively inferior United States rice.

'The farther north it grows the better it tastes.” says Peter M. Lazarenko, president of Northland Wild Rice Ltd. of Winnipeg, which buys and processes a hundred thousand pounds or more a year.

"Rice matures more slowly in our cooler climate.” explains Howard (Billy) Williams, of Pointe du Bois, Man., a pioneer harvester whose rice was served to Princess Elizabeth. "That makes it plumper and firmer than most American rice.”

Williams and other growers have received orders for wild-rice seed from experimental growers in the Nile fioodlands of Egypt, in Holland where a few agricultural scientists hope wild rice might thrive in their marshy lowlands, from famous Kew Gardens in London, from Austria and India and even from a man in Lincolnshire. England, who wanted to raise wild rice for his ducks. But the Canadian growers have never heard if wild rice ever took root in any of these places.

The crop depends on pests

In North America it grows in scattered areas from the midwest to the Atlantic. But the only important commercial fields are in Minnesota, the fringe of Wisconsin and a wedge of central Canada, bounded approximately by Fort Frances, Fort William and Kenora. Ont., and southeastern Manitoba to the shores of Lake Winnipeg.

Even in this region any of half a dozen weather conditions or pests can wipe out a crop. The Whiteshell forest reserve of Manitoba produced about two hundred thousand pounds of rice in 1952 but only 1,659 pounds in 1955. The Minnesota conservation department estimates that in any four-year period a wild-rice field will produce two fair crops, a good one and a failure.

Wild rice grows only in shallow lakes, calm river mouths or borders of sluggish streams. It can’t stand stagnant or alkaline water. It needs five or six inches of oozy bottom mud where seeds will bury themselves until spring germination, after dropping from the ripe plants each fall.

In May the plant sends up one or two limp delicate leaves that float on the water surface. For about three weeks the plant is in mortal danger: wind or high waves will damage it; high water will drown its leaves and kill it. Fortunately nature provides for such catastrophes by leaving some seeds dormant in the lake bed until the second year.

If the rice survives long enough to raise a slender stem above water, and avoids several varieties of fungus disease, it grows six to ten feet tall and ripens a dark pointed seed an inch or more long and about as thick as a pencil refill. Even at this stage the crop can be wiped out Overnight. Rain, wind or hail will crush it down. The army worm, a type of caterpillar, sometimes ruins Manitoba rice fields by boring into the kernels. And in addition to man, ducks, blackbirds, bobolinks, moose, deer, muskrats and even cows suddenly become gourmets when faced with a wild-rice crop.

After the braves filled canoes with rice the squaws parched it and children danced off the husks

Even after harvest the crop’s in danger. Ripe rice in its green husks will spoil if not rushed to a processing plant by train, truck or even by plane. But at one rice camp—Billy Williams’ place near Pointe du Bois, a hundred miles northeast of Winnipeg—time is no hazard, it’s only a few steps from Williams’ rice mill to twelve-hundred-acre Lac du Bois (locally called Rice Lake) which Williams leases annually from the provincial government. He believes his is the only camp in North America that completes the harvest operation in one spot.

Williams, a big white-haired man of sixty-two, has devoted thirty-nine years to wild rice. He could have chosen any of several occupations. He’s been a surveyor, can make violins or canoes from wood, paints creditable oils and invents most of the machinery used at his plant. But in 1915, while surveying a forest reserve, he saw Manitoba Indians harvesting rice by hand.

They glided through the fields, two to a canoe. While one paddled, the other bent plants over the boat and tapped ripe kernels into the canoe bottom. Squaws parched the rice over a slow fire. Children or braves poured it in shallow pits and “danced” off the husks.

“There must be a better way to do that,” Williams thought.

He took a job at Pointe du Bois. Every night and week end he trudged seven miles to “Rice Lake” to study the crop. In 1917 he began buying rice from the Indians. Then he invented a harvester, similar to the old-time prairie wheat binder. He’s now using his fifth modification: a motor-driven paddle-wheel scow with three revolving reels in front. It chugs ponderously through the rice lake, tapping off kernels and bringing to shore four thousand pounds or more a day.

But mechanical harvesters have never wholly replaced the hand pickers. Wildrice heads ripen from top to bottom over about three weeks, but as soon as kernels are ripe they must be harvested or they’ll drop in the water. Hence, two or three forays over the same area arc necessary to get it all.

Machines tend to break the stalks so Indian pickers generally make the first foray. They can also work closer to shore. The harvester, on the other hand, is frequently used for the final quick clean-up. It’s also handy in case Indian pickers leave the fields abruptly for a spree in town.

In Manitoba’s forest reserves mechanical harvesters are forbidden; the Indian’s traditional job is protected. Indian pickers supplement machines in most other fields too.

Some Indians earn $100 a day

This year Williams harvested the best crop of his career, close to a hundred thousand pounds of finished rice (it takes about two pounds of green to make one pound of finished rice). Many other rice fields were Hooded out this spring but Williams manipulated his homemade dam on Lac du Bois to keep the water level within bounds, and saved a bumper crop. Selling finished rice at $1.25 a pound, Williams is in for a big year, he admits, even after substantial expenses. In the first place, lessors of rice lands like Williams pay the provincial government up to fifteen percent of their crops’ cash value. Payments to Indian pickers on Williams’ small and thickly planted lake amount to about thirty cents per pound of finished rice, although pickers where the crop is thin and inaccessible earn as much as forty-five cents per pound of green rice harvested. On Williams’ lake this fall some couples brought in two loads a day at fifty dollars a load. A few industrious families had saved six hundred dollars by their second week, including days on which they took things easy —and nights on which the poker game didn’t go well for the head of the family.

There were other advantages to Williams’ little hideaway camp in the bush: rent-free cabins, canoes for those who had none and, best of all, a carnival atmosphere that the Indians look forward to all year—softball games, gossip and poker around the smoky campfires after work. Entire families follow the harvest. A hundred Cree were at Williams’ last September, from Andrew Thickfoot's seven children to Mary Jane Doré, who is over seventy but still a harvester.

It was fun and the money was good, but it wasn't much like harvests Mary Jane knew fifty and sixty years ago. Then the old chiefs would stage an elaborate ceremony of blessing the crop on the first day; and as the green rice came ashore in damp canoe loads whole families would join in a dance atop the wild-rice heaps — a dance that was not only a thanksgiving but served the useful purpose of removing the husks from the rice for winter use. Nowadays what wild rice the Indians eat is the screenings they get from the mills—broken grains useless for sale.

The canoes still glided ashore with damp green loads but there Mary Jane’s link with the past ended. Crews hustled the rice into a long low drying shed for days of airing and turning. At the crucial moment experienced hands forked the rice into parching drums over a wood fire. While Williams, convalescing from illness, fretted on the sidelines his men checked the parching drums continuously. This stage of the process can make or ruin the wild-rice flavor. Overheating will also “pop” the kernels and lower their value. After parching the rice was mechanically husked and cleaned, then the dark, shiny grains went into hundredpound bags, later to be subdivided into portions computed in ounces for the waiting gourmets.

Nobody knows how long ago Indians discovered that wild rice was edible. But when the first explorers arrived in the wild-rice area they had to force their way through lakes and streams choked with “mano’min” (good berry) as the Algonquins called it. The Indians often fought among themselves for the choicest rice areas. The warlike Algonquins usually won, but the neighboring Sioux so coveted the food that they’d risk their scalps to slip back at night and steal canoe loads of wild rice.

The Indians introduced wild rice to the first explorers and missionaries in a variety of imaginative concoctions. They added it to soups and stews, and a favored dish was “tassimanonny,” consisting of rice, corn and fish. I he Indians were also aware of wild rice’s contribution to wildfowl cuisine—to this day the white man's favorite use for it. It was, alas, also whispered that wild rice was part of the recipe for an occasional victory banquet in which enemy warriors formed the main course.

Later wild rice helped discover the west. It was ideal food for missionaries, explorers and fur traders: nourishing yet easy to carry. The English called it wild rice, the French named it "folle avoine” (mad oat), but nobody argued about the taste. It was delicious with maple sugar or berries. And with bear grease or buffalo fat? Ma foi, what a dish!

The Red River settlers developed more rice recipes. So, later, did duck hunters. Today there are fifty or more ways of serving it, including jambalaya—a dish featuring rice with ham or seafood and rather reminiscent of “tassimanonny”— pudding’ and even wild-rice chow mein. The latter, incidentally, is an occidental creation: Chinese-Canadians practically never use wild rice.

Probably the most economical way to use wild rice is as a stuffing for fowl. For a one-and-a-half-pound pheasant you would take half a cup of wild rice, giblets from the bird, a tablespoon of fat, a quarter pound of sausage meat and half a teaspoon of powdered sage. After soaking the rice overnight you’d cook it ten minutes in boiling water; chop the giblets and onion and sauté them with the sausage meat for ten minutes. Add to this the rice, sage and half teaspoon of salt and cook another two minutes—and the stuffing’s ready for the bird.

Once it’s cooked, fluffed to four times normal size, however, wild rice can be used with infinite variety. One housewife at Pointe du Bois in the Manitoba wildrice area. Mrs. Elsie Williams, adds half a cup of brown sugar, half a cup of chopped dates and half a cup of chopped nuts to the rice and serves it with whipped cream.

The chef at Toronto’s King Edward Hotel likes it best boiled, baked or combined with mushrooms, onions or tomatoes. Boston’s Loeker-Ober Restaurant uses it to glorify the lowly liver: "chicken livers Madeira on wild rice,” $2.50 a plate.

Antoine's, New Orleans’ famous 116year-old restaurant which has hosted everyone from the late Franklin D. Roosevelt to Primo Camera (and obligingly propped a table on bricks so Carnera could get his over-long legs under it), prepares wild rice with ham, chicken livers and minced shallots (a type of onion).

Perhaps the stateliest rite involving a rice dish occurs at Marnel’s Restaurant in New York when patrons call for “wild duck à la presse.” The duck is warmed (not cooked) in the oven, brought before the customer, the breast cut in two pieces and squeezed in a press. A waiter reverently pours the blood into a chafing dish of butter. The captain of waiters judiciously stirs in lemon juice, salt, pepper and cognac. The sauce turns dark and thick. The captain, with half a dozen teaspoons at his elbow, samples it constantly and critically. At the crucial moment they pop the duck into the sauce for more cooking. Then a waiter nestles it in boiled wild rice—also bathed in sauce—.steps well back and waves the customer on.

Elaborate gastronomic creations like that may whet the appetite but they probably don’t encourage the average housewife to try wild rice at home, even if she could find it and afford it. Bui the wildrice growers are interested in expanding their market and bringing the price down.

First, they realize, they will have to increase production considerably. One method they are trying is betL r control of water levels in the wild-rice lakes, as Williams is doing; another is to develop hardier and more adaptable strains of rice.

If and when those things happen, wild rice might become a familiar item on supermarket shelves. There will, of course, always be a few die-hard gourmets who will regret an abundance of wild rice— as one more loss to the era of leisurely and expensive living, -fc