Wild rice: A valuable natural gift

Growing in patches along the Chain of Lakes in Lake County and the Illinois, Fox and Mississippi rivers in Illinois, wild rice is not nearly as common as it was in bygone days, when it was harvested extensively by the Indians and early settlers. Some years ago, I saw and photographed stands of it in certain areas of the Cook County Forest Preserve District, and some may still exist there today.

This nutritional grain comes from a coarse aquatic grass with short roots that are easily dislodged from the mud. Living only a year, it is classified as an annual, but it bears such large quantities of seed that harvesting by waterfowl and occasionally by man does not decimate its fecundity.

This is a stately plant with long, rather broad, pointed leaves on a stalk that grows from 4 to 12 feet in height. At the top is a large flower cluster with spreading lower branches from which dangle the pollen-producing flowers. Erect broom-like branches contain the seed-producing spikelets. The slender awl-shaped seed (the rice grain) is almost black when mature and is found in a husk with a long bristle at the tip. These grains fall very quickly after they mature in mid-summer and early fall, especially on a windy day.

Our September was the Indians’ “Rice Moon,” when they prepared to harvest their annual crop. On the night before the harvest was to begin, the spiritual leader made a sacrifice and offered prayers to the Great Spirit, and the underground powers, after which there was a feast.

The rice grains were gathered in small boats or canoes. Each was paddled or pushed through the shallow water or soft mud by a squaw in the stern, while another pulled the fruiting head of the stalks over the side and beat the rice into the boat. On shore, the grains were spread on mats and trampled by women to break off the long, sharp beards. It was then dried in the sun or parched over a low fire to break open the enclosing hulls. Then, the men took over the “difficult” work.

The rice was then placed in a shallow pit lined with skins, and a brave, wearing new moccasins and singing the ceremonial rice song, would dance wildly on the grain to thresh it. The kernels and hulls were then winnowed by tossing them up and down in trays made of bark so the wind would carry away the chaff. After winnowing, the rice was washed and stored in bark boxes or skin bags.

The Indians particularly enjoyed wild rice cooked with fowl and game, just as we do today. They sometimes would cook the grain into a tasty pudding and flavor it with whatever sweetening agent was available, usually honey or maple sugar. They were especially fond of a delicious soup made by boiling wild rice and blueberries together.

One tribe in the Midwest adopted the name Menominee (wild rice men) and today lives on a large reservation in northern Wisconsin. Bloody battles were fought by the tribes over the rights to extensive stands of rice, the Dakotas being evicted from the Minnesota lake region on that account. Although wild rice apparently did not trigger any major tribal confrontations in Illinois as far as we know, it is safe to assume the local tribes posted equivalent of “No Trespassing” signs on the areas of wild rice they controlled.

Cultivated rice from which its fat, fiber and protein have been removed by scouring and polishing sells for about 50-60 cents a pound in the store, while cultivated wild rice usually commands a price of more than $10 a pound.

But, nothing beats a wild duck roasted with wild rice stuffing or a Cornish game hen prepared the same way that I recently enjoyed at my son and daughter-in-law’s home!

Dr. Robert Hedeen is a former resident of Maryland’s eastern shore and resided in the Chicago area from 1960 to 1971. He is a retired professor emeritus of biological sciences in the University of Maryland system. He has published more than 30 scientific papers, has written numerous magazine articles, and is the author of two books on the natural history of the Chesapeake Bay.

From the May 24-30, 2006, issue

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