The global grain

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The global grain

Rice transcends borders as a dietary staple
It’s wild, but is it rice?

Wars were fought over it. Festivals and celebrations heralded its harvest. Arguments still erupt about its botanical origin.
Wild rice, that second cousin once removed from the family of commonly known rice varieties, doesn’t quite share all the family habits and cooking quirks of traditional rice.
That’s because it’s not really a rice, but a grass, served as a grain – Zizanic palustris, originally harvested mostly in the freshwater lakes north and west of the Great Lakes region, where the ancestral people called it “mahnomen.”
So precious to the Ojibwa tribe, wild rice was considered a gift from the Great Spirit. During harsh winters, it sustained more than a dozen additional tribes in North America. Wars were fought over the territorial waters where it was harvested.
Centuries later, 4 million pounds of wild rice is harvested annually in these same waters, using methods similar to those used by the Ojibwa people. The chewy outer sheath boasts a tender inner grain and slight vegetal taste that’s worth the hefty price tag, wild-rice fans say.
The cultivation of wild rice began in the early 1960s, mostly at commercial farms in California and in Minnesota, where it is the state’s official grain. Now more than 18 million pounds of the more affordable cultivated variety are harvested annually in the United States.
Isolated pockets of varying species of wild rice still grow in fresh water areas from New Jersey to Florida and near the San Marcos River, north of San Antonio, but the taste varies considerably.
Wild rice has a rich history of tradition. Lore has it that long before women were credited for bringing home the bacon, Native American women were the chief harvesters of the grain that kept their families alive during the brutally cold and dismal winters, especially if their husbands’ fall hunting and fishing were not as successful.
One woman might steer a canoe with a pole through billowing plumes of wild rice, while another used two knockers to gently bend the boughs and thresh the seed so that most would land in their canoe, with some reseeding the lake beds for next year’s harvest.
Some sources say that both men and women worked together as teams to bring in the rice.
Spiritual ritual and celebration heralded the harvest. Attempt a harvest too soon, and the too-green seed would cling to the stalk. Wait too many days past its prime, and the birds would have foraged first, leaving little for the harvesters to gather.
Today’s wild rice continues to be a good source of vitamin B and protein that is low fat and high fiber, rich in manganese and the amino acid, lysine.
Canada, Australia and Hungary are also wild rice producers, but in China, only the stem is eaten as a vegetable.
kbrucolianesi@durangoherald.com

The global grain

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