Column: When we cook manoomin
In many parts of the world, wild rice is a gourmet delicacy which, because it is expensive and scarce, is served only on special occasions.
A few years ago, a friend of Tim's had company visiting from the west coast. Because we had such a good time meeting them and wanted to give them a nice gift, we brought them two pounds of Nett Lake rice to take back. They thanked us many times, and, as Tim's friend told us later, acted as though we had given them bags of gold.
That wasn't too far from the truth: manoomin, the good seed (wild rice), is a gift of sustenance from the Creator that is both sacred and spiritual, its source and purpose at least as precious as gold.
Mewinzhaa, a long time ago, the Anishinaabe people traveled from what is now the east coast of America and Canada, on a route that roughly followed the Great Lakes, to the places we live today. The Great Migration began and was guided by the Creator, the Great Spirit, who sent visions of a land where food would grow out of the water.
This was manoomin which, because of its spiritual beginnings, is more than just food. When we watch the stalks grow in summer, when we harvest, when we prepare and store manoomin, and when we cook and eat, we do so in a thankful manner, remembering the preciousness of the good seed.
Today, manoomin is harvested and processed in much the same way as it was hundreds of years ago: the heads are loosened from the stalks, dried and cracked open; winnowed; and stored in a dry place where it will keep for a long time.
The wild rice that we gifted to our new friends was a variegated, medium-brown color, and cooked quickly, in about 20 minutes. That is the best rice, and the kind that a Native person who "rices" would end up with. Around the late 1960s, I think, another kind of rice began to appear in grocery stores: paddy (cultivated) rice, which is a very dark near-black uniform color, shiny, and with a much harder finish. This kind of rice takes quite a lot longer to cook and, in my opinion, is not anywhere as good as the traditionally finished rice, but it is edible and can work out, if you are careful and patient.
Here is how I cook manoomin: for just my husband and myself, I scoop out a good-sized handful and sprinkle it into a small saucepan. I cover it with water and then use a sieve to rinse it, back and forth, six or seven times, to get the dust off (traditionally finished wild rice is rather dusty).
I pick out any little sticks. Next, I cover the rice with water and heat it to a boil, quickly removing it from the heat and skimming any other little sticks off the top. Then I simmer it (on low) for about 10 minutes, covered, and then t is ready to eat by itself or mixed up in a recipe.
I love manoomin hot or cold, plain or in a mixed dish (if there aren't too many other ingredients).
My usual way of fixing it is to cook enough manoomin for 5-6 servings and mix it gently with one can of cream of mushroom soup and some cut-up cooked meat, chicken or white fish. Then I cover and bake it for a half-hour or so, adding a little water if it looks like it needs it. I never add much water, as manoomin will absorb and absorb until it becomes mushy; and
I mix it once more, again very gently to avoid mushiness. The soup, which provides some cohesiveness and heat retention, is invisible by the time this is ready to eat; this simple "hot dish" looks like only manoomin mixed with meat.
And that is about as hot-dishy as I get with manoomin: no onions, celery or peppers, although some people do like to add them.
I also love manoomin mixed with some blueberries and, for a really good breakfast, a little milk or cream, raisins, nuts, craisins, cinnamon and sugar.
Nim bakade, noongoom. Now I am hungry. Jiibaakwe daa, dash wiisinni daa. Let's cook, let's eat.
Gaye animay migwechiwendam daa. And let us pray our thankfulness.
Monthly columnist Linda LeGarde Grover is a professor of American Indian studies at the University of Minnesota Duluth, an award-winning writer and a member of the Bois Forte Band of the Minnesota Chippewa Tribe. E-mail her at firstname.lastname@example.org.