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Wild Rice Grew in These Marshes, Before Practically Going Extinct

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This hearty, natural food source grows in the shallows, but its history runs deep.

The lake at Curve Lake First Nation, about 
twenty–five kilometres north of Peterborough, Ontario, is peacock blue and glassy, and the scene would be as peaceful as a leaf–peeping stroll were it not for the Canada geese flying by in honking flocks. It’s also duck season, and I can hear hunters’ shotguns going off, lending a bloodthirsty vibe to the otherwise calming waters. I’m glad to be wearing my red K–Way.

November 5, 2021

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For hundreds of years wild rice grew in these marshy reaches, before practically going extinct in recent times. A hearty, natural food source, it’s an indigenous grass that looks like rice and cooks like a grain, with a deliciously toasty, nutty flavour. And as we paddle along in his green fibreglass canoe, James Whetung tells me that collecting it is his way of holding onto Anishinaabe traditions.

He first learned to gather and process wild rice over 30 years ago, when, because almost nobody else was harvesting it at the time, the Ontario Ministry of Natural Resources issued a licence to a commercial harvester. “We didn’t want that,” he says, with a glint in his eye, as he explains how a settlement was finally reached. When I mention how expensive wild rice is compared to regular rice, he shakes his head and guffaws. “Talking about it is easy. When you see how much labour goes into it, you will think it’s worth triple the cost!”

And so goes the day, proving his point: We glide out on the lake carrying two smooth sticks; one is used to gently bend the long grass into the canoe, while the other taps the heads so the seeds fall into the hull. It’s like using comically oversized chopsticks to pick up wee grains of rice. Back on land, Whetung lays the seeds out in long piles in the cement basement of his lakeside barn, adding to the rows of seeds already curing. He will continue turning the piles with pitchforks once a day for the next 10 days. This is the first part of a process that’s all about separating the hay–like chaff from the dark, edible wild rice inside. Whetung shows me a massive iron cauldron, that we’ll use to roast the seeds. Today we’re going the traditional route, but he tells me he normally uses a larger, higher–tech machine.

Whetung builds a fire under the cauldron that he will maintain for several hours. He pours some already cured rice from a sack into the cauldron and we stir it constantly with a wooden paddle to ensure an even toast. It starts out clumpy, and my thoughts turn to the possibilities of wild–rice pudding, but as it dries it separates, smells buttery and toasty and turns a deep champagne colour. (I begin imagining an Anishinaabe–style fried rice.)

We let the fire die out and the pot cools. “Now we’ll dance the chaff off,” Whetung announces. I slip on a pair of tanned leather moccasins, climb into the cauldron and lean on one side as I push the rice up the other with my feet, like learning the whip kick in a kiddie pool. It feels like swimming in quicksand. I last only a few minutes before throwing in the towel, but Whetung does this for an hour, no sweat.

With most of the chaff removed from the seeds, we take the rice and put it in the middle of a large blanket. Four people each hold a corner of the blanket and we winnow – tossing the rice into the evening breeze so that the last of the chaff blows away, catching the rice when it lands. Now it’s ready to be cooked and eaten. Whetung’s daughter dishes up some amazing acorn squash stuffed with a savoury wild–rice filling, which, as it turns out, is worth its weight in gold.

Check back for the latest updates on Canada’s Best New Cookbook, coming in spring 2022.

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