Wild Rice: From the canoe to your plate

October 15, 2010

Wild Rice: From the canoe to your plate
For Greg Bellanger, what makes wild rice special is the effort that goes into harvesting it.

Just take a look at any videos online that feature "ricing" and you can see the exertion that goes into gathering this aquatic grass seed from its watery habitat. Typically, two people venture out in a canoe among rivers and lakes with one person standing with a pole with a duckbill on the end to pull through the tall stalks of grasses. The other person takes two sticks to beat the rice off the stalks and the mature grains fall into the canoe.

"It's amazing food -- it takes a lot of work to get to it and, because of that, the benefits from it are so great," Bellanger said.

Bellanger is store manager of Northland Visions, a Tanka retailer in the heart of the Ojibwe community on Franklin Avenue in Minneapolis, MN. He has a strong passion for wild rice. Manoomin is the Ojibwe word for wild rice, which means "the good berry" and is a key ingredient in Tanka Wild snack sticks.

"The Ojibwe originally came from the east coast and migrated west before the first settlers came," he said. "The elders had a vision that they needed to move west until they found 'the food that grows on the water.' From Minnesota to Canada, no matter how you travel from north of the Great Lakes or south, you will run into wild rice."

A family tradition

Bellanger's family, which has been ricing for years, is from the White Earth Reservation, the Mississippi band of Ojibwe tribes. His father, who is part Ojibwe, used to give away wild rice for Christmas gifts.

"I remember it being hot, sticky, dirty and a very long day, but I enjoyed every minute of it and found it very humbling, and wanted to do it again and again," Bellanger recalls of his ricing days as a youth. "The most rewarding part is eating the fruits of your labor, knowing it is by your hand it was harvested, cleaned and dried to your liking."

In 1995, Bellanger's father started a gift package business out of their home. The family business moved to its current location on Franklin Avenue a few years later. They sell various native-made arts and jewelry, as well as a variety of wild rice products, such as wild rice pancake mix and wild rice soup.

Natural vs. cultivated

Bellanger said that wild rice is a very versatile food, but much different than what you might find at the grocery store, which is a cultivated version of the seed. The cultivated version is always black and is an isolated variety instead of the various 13 strains you can get from natural harvesting.

"The dark color comes from the protective seed coating that is naturally black and is usually scratched and partially worn away during the parching and cleaning process," Bellanger said. "When the coating is left intact it makes it harder for the rice to absorb water extending the cooking time."

Once a combine runs through the cultivated wild rice, Bellanger said it can make "millions of pounds, but doesn't have the same flavor because it doesn't have the genetic strains and varieties" you get from natural harvesting.

"That's why you get different sizes and color depending on which part of the state it grows in and the growing season," Bellanger said of natural wild rice. "There is a taste difference, too. It's nuttier if it's from here and gets starchier when it gets big. It's a personal preference."

Anyone can harvest wild rice with a license on state lands. Reservations though, require you to be a band member to harvest on their lands. Northland Visions buys its rice from native pickers from Northern Minnesota -- the White Earth and Leech Lake areas.

According to wildrice.org, "Each year, U.S. lake and river producers harvest approximately 0.5 million pounds of the "wild" varieties of Wild Rice." Minnesota's wild rice web site, mnwildrice.org, states Minnesota harvests between four and six and half million pounds of cultivated rice each year and is about $5 per pound.

Healthy advantages

Along with the multitude of wild rice strains, there are several ways to eat it. Bellanger said any wild game actually makes it taste better or it can be barely cooked and put in salad. Or left over wild rice can be used with eggs, such as in an omelet.

The main thing Bellanger said he wants people to know about wild rice is to realize its benefits, which he said justifies the expense. He listed wild rice's health benefits, which includes being rich in potassium, riboflavin and niacin as well as being a good source of fiber and protein.

"Wild rice is perfect if you are looking for something to add to your diet that is healthy, tastes goods and goes with everything. It's a little more expensive, but expands three to one. For every cup of dry turns into three cups," he said. "People are looking for healthier ways to eat and even kids like it."

You can keep up with Northland Visions here.

Related wild rice links:

Video of wild rice harvesting

Wild rice difficult to restore in Muskegon Lake

Native rice may hold key to food future

Eagle Waters Resort Chicken & Wild Rice Soup

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