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  • September 1st, 2018

MUNCHING ON GRASS SEED

By Joel M. Vance

Maybe the analogy is flawed but those of us who have an addiction to wild rice cherish our connections to that delectable dish as avidly as does a crackhead cherish his back alley connection.

My guy quite likely has gone to the great rice beds in the sky by now— last time I saw him he looked as if they were a day or two away from paddling his canoe into eternity. But he was our connection to top-quality wild rice. And that is a connection to be as cherished as a map to the exact location of the Lost Dutchman gold mine. You would not have recognized his place as a retirement home for a Fortune 500 entrepreneur. The front yard was decorated with a collection of rusted out pickup trucks defunct refrigerators and other obsolete appliances that, we found out, served as repositories for his annual harvest of wild rice.

The house and yard basically defy description. If you have seen the movie Deliverance, you’ll get some idea of what the place looked like. Every time we stopped to buy rice, I expected to hear the sound of a banjo and see a genetically impaired kid sitting on the porch. I had my guitar in our truck, but I wasn’t about to get it out— I was there to buy wild rice, not to buy trouble with people who looked as if trouble was a major hobby.

God knows what was inside the house— when we knocked at the door, more than a little apprehensively, he would appear behind the screen which had holes in it big enough to admit small birds, looking as if he were in the throes of a massive hangover, but when we asked if he had any wild rice to sell, he would totter over to one of the decrepit pickups pry open a rusty door and retrieve bags of rice in whatever amount we wanted.

It was the prime stuff—wild rice varies in quality from almost black colored farm raised rice, to almost white prime rice from remote lake beds where Native Americans still thrash it into canoes. His was a pale tan color, obviously the best of the best and the taste was incomparable. My son-in-law, Ron DeValk, tried for years to inveigle his way into the house to see what was there, but the guy guarded his entryway like the gatekeeper at the castle of the Great Oz. We’ll never know what other treasures might have been inside because the last time we stopped to buy wild rice, there was no one home and the house and yard seemed abandoned. It was as if we had finally stumbled into the Lost Dutchman mind to find that, instead of gold, it was filled with rusty tin cans and empty beer bottles.

Rice beds also serve as hotspots for duck hunting. One avid rice bed hunter says,
“You have to enjoy paddling. From the beginning of the day until the end (minus a few snack breaks) we paddle. It’s not hard work and the thrill of going around the next turn and anticipating a flock of woodies or teal jumping keeps the adrenaline going.

“Since you paddle through the wild rice camouflage isn’t nearly as important as it is to the duck blind guys. The ducks we hunt aren’t looking down on us. You have to be quiet and keep below the top of the rice stalks. I prefer plastic boats because they’re quieter than aluminum, fiberglass, or Kevlar. The gunner has to be ready at all times and listen for ducks jumping because most of the time ducks see you before you see them.

“Rice seems to grow in cycles: some years a pothole can be so full of rice that it looks like a wheat field and other years it is too thin for ducks. Scouting is part of the fun of hunting–drive around the weekend before opener and find your spot. We’ve set up decoys maybe five times. Jump shooting requires the guy in the front to be ready. Ducks are flying away from you so they don’t need much lead and the breast meat never gets shot up.”

You also can park your boat in a rice bed, concealed by the towering rice stalks, throw out a few decoys and hunt as if from a traditional blind. Three of us were hunting in a rice bed in a northern Minnesota lake, our boat tucked into the thick golden grass with a few decoys in open water. It was a sharply cold morning with a good breeze to tickle the decoys, but the ducks were scarce. My half-asleep buddy reacted instinctively when a ducklike bird flashed in front of the decoys, made a beautiful right-to-left crossing shot….and picked up a defunct coot to the derision of the rest of us.

We, of course, insisted he cook and eat it and I suggested the traditional coot recipe: Place coot on a plank and roast for several hours, then throw away the coot and eat the plank. A gourmet cook, he instead marinated the coot breast along with woodcock breasts in olive oil spiced with Cavender’s Greek seasoning, then lovingly wrapped each chunk of dark meat in bacon, roasted the result and served it on a bed of wild rice.

We loved it, not knowing coot from ‘cock. When he sneered that after all our insults we had relished his cooked coot, I suggested it wasn’t the coot but the wild rice that we were cheering. Maybe it was—we’ve had wild rice at every wild game dinner since but no more coots.

Actually wild rice is not a rice and much of it these days isn’t all that wild, but wild rice is a boon both to man and duck. It is an aquatic grass unrelated to rice. Today much wild rice on the market actually is grown in carefully established beds and harvested by machinery.

But traditionally, as done by Native Americans and old time ricers, wild rice was a two-person operation in a canoe. One poled the canoe and the “knocker” used two sticks, one to bend the rice stalks into the canoe, the other to knock the seeds off. That method takes only a fifth of the available seed and the rest falls to the bottom to generate the next year’s crop.

Some wild rice grows in nearly every state east of the Rocky Mountains, but northern North America is the heart of the seed and Minnesota among the Lower 48 states is the heart of the heart. No state produces as much wild rice as Minnesota and the preservation of rice beds and traditional ricing is a cooperative venture between the Department of Natural Resources and Native American tribes. Various conservation groups also chip in money and time.

Worldwide there are four species of wild rice—one in Asia; the other three in North America and of them all the one that grows in the temperate and boreal regions of the United States—think Minnesota—is the most cherished. It has been a staple in Native American diet for centuries–archeologists find traces as far back as 12,000 years. Many varieties of Zizania aquatica, the most-cherished species, exist, depending on water depth and other conditions. Most flourish in from three to eight feet of water, with a mud bottom.

The traditional method of harvesting wild rice now totals about a half-million pounds annually nationwide, far less than the estimated 18 million pounds raised commercially. Traditional ricing has declined steeply in the past 30 years, but Minnesota protects its historic methods by law. Even so, ricing permits have declined from a peak of about 12,000 annually to 2,000 today (an estimated 3,000 Native Americans who don’t need permits, swell the ricer total to about 5,000). Blame it largely on commercial competition, but also on competition from television, MP3s, cell phones and the other electronic addictions that seduce today’s youngsters away from the outdoors.

Today real wild rice (and by Minnesota law the label has to state it was collected by traditional methods) sells for as much as $10/pound. Of that the ricer gets between three and four dollars, the processor another dollar. Add in transportation and other pre-market costs and the profit margin is not great. Ducks are but one wildlife family that homes in on wild rice at dinnertime—an estimated 17 species that the DNR considers “species of greatest conservation need” eat or procreate in rice beds.

Given the state’s many wild rice lakes, it’s no wonder Minnesota is a duck magnet. So it makes sense to manage the rice beds both for human and avian food. The most cherished duck species—mallards and wood ducks, as well as ring-necked ducks—thrive on wild rice, but it also is food for black ducks, pintails, teal, widgeon, redheads and lesser scaup. One study indicated that wild rice is the most important food for mallards in the fall.

Sixty percent of the natural rice lakes in Minnesota are in Aitkin, Cass, Crow Wing, Itaska and St. Louis counties and they produce 70 percent of the traditionally-harvested seeds, but there are wild rice lakes in 55 Minnesota counties, some 1,300 of them totaling more than 64,000 acres. Before 1970 Minnesota accounted for half the global production of wild rice; now, thanks to commercial beds in other states—notably California—the Minnesota contribution is 10 percent.

The relatively few dollars dedicated to wild rice management have two intertwined aims—managing water levels to promote rice health and control of the beavers that raise water levels. It wasn’t so long ago that beavers, the furbearer that sucked the pioneer trappers westward, were almost extirpated from much of their range. Now they are a scourge on wild rice, damming small streams and flooding wetlands so deep that the rice can’t germinate. Coupled with wet years that raised lake water levels, the beaver invasion aided a precipitous drop in wild rice production in the 1990s.

Consequently rice and waterfowl managers have declared war on the flat-tailed busybodies. Ducks Unlimited and the DNR have cost-shared on beaver control. The object is to keep water levels low enough to germinate the rice and keep beavers few enough to stop them from plugging wetland outlets. A return to more normal rainfall years has helped lower lake levels to the depths rice needs to germinate and thrive. DU in 2008 spent more than $61,000, mostly to pay trappers to terminate beavers on 123 Minnesota wild rice lakes totaling nearly 39,000 acres. The DNR chipped in $6,500 in 2007 for rice seeding.

But compare the money for traditional wild rice bed management with what the federal government authorized for the commercial rice farmers: nearly $323,000 for research on shattering resistance, disease prevention and seed storage. Funds for rice lake management depend on sales of ricing permits and matching funds from conservation groups. Wild rice is to Minnesota is as corn is to Iowa. It is a symbol of the state and a cash crop as well. A DNR report says that unprocessed rice has ranged from a dime a pound in 1940 to $2.17 in 1966 and that 1966 figure in today’s dollar is a $12 million crop.

To a duck wild rice is as good as it gets and a rice-fed duck on the table is second to none. Historically, canvasbacks from Chesapeake Bay fed on wild celery and were a staple in the finest New York restaurants, the best of the best eating duck. But the celery declined as did canvasbacks (and the ducks abandoned their vegetarian ways for an animal diet and became less tasty).

In traditional ricing the team member in the stern poles the canoe through the rice, picking the route to maximize seed collection and minimize running aground or getting tangled in the thick vegetation. The raw seeds are a long way from the dinner table. They go to a processor who tumbles them to remove the outer husk. Depending on how much of the outer coating is removed in the processing, the seed can be black or nearly white. The blacker the seed the longer it should cook.

Cooked wild rice should retain a bit of crunch. Cook it too long and it turns to mush. “There’s no set time to cook it–it’s a matter of experience. Always use chicken broth instead of water—makes a much richer dish. And if you make your own stock all the better. Like regular rice it puffs up when cooked at a ratio of four or five to one. So a cup of wild rice will make at least four cups of cooked.

There’s no shortage of recipes for wild rice—Google “wild rice recipe books” and you’ll find a library’s-worth. Leftover rice, assuming there is any, can be turned into soup to die for.

Wild rice has filled some of the void left by wild celery. As good as wild rice is inside a duck, it’s equally as good outside, as a side dish to a duck dinner. So, any waterfowl hunter owes it to himself to try sneak shooting through a wild rice bed….and to serve the day’s bag on a bed of wild rice.
It goes great with coot.
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