The Wild, Wild (Ricing) Midwest

You know you’re a Minnesotan if you’re infatuated by … wild rice?

Few things say true Minnesota northwoods culture like wild rice. After all, it’s not unlike a lot of things Minnesota – good comfort food/fodder. Not a whole lot of noise surrounding wild rice, although it’s in the news these days – the 1855 Treaty Authority recently announced an en mass wild rice harvest Aug. 27 by Chippewa tribal members at Hole-in-the-Day Lake across from Gull Lake outside Brainerd – off their reservations and without a state license in an effort to gain affirmation of hunting, fishing and gathering rights under the treaty with the federal government. They have since been warned that, if they do so, they could face criminal prosecution, with the Minnesota DNR saying that such could be in violation of state law. Stay tuned.

I’ve long wanted to take part in the wild rice harvest. It may sound easy enough, but anyone who has done it knows otherwise. It’s a bit like tapping and “producing” maple syrup, also a staple of that Minnesota northwoods culture – a labor-intensive effort. And the Minnesota DNR recently announced that the harvest of ripe wild rice will be allowed from between last Saturday and Sept. 30. Wildlife managers say it’s shaping up to be a good season for wild rice harvesting, adding that the dry spring provided favorable water levels, and rice beds have been growing well in most areas.

But, alas, I likely won’t be out in the rice paddies, at least not this season. That won’t deter me from continuing to enjoy all things wild rice, however. In fact, while living in Colorado recently – a wild rice-free state, it would appear – I ordered a half-dozen cans of pre-cooked wild rice from a central Minnesota wild rice company. With oft-expensive shipping and handling, it ended up costing me more than $7 a can. I love wild rice, but …

Now that I’m back in Minnesota, though, I’m surrounded by affordable wild rice and wild rice dishes galore. Life is good. Combine wild rice fares and the Great Minnesota Get-Together – two of my favorite Minnesota things – and life is great.

Each year, the Minnesota State Fair features numerous wild-and-crazy new food offerings. This year, that includes Spam burgers in five new flavors, a maple-bacon funnel cake, mac and cheese cupcakes and stuffed Italian meatloaf on a stick – the state fair wouldn’t be the same without all those wild on-a-stick concoctions.

Or wild offerings – walleye stuffed mushrooms are new this year.

And, too, wild rice offerings. The Minnesota Cultivated Wild Rice Council recently announced that its state fair booth will feature wild rice toscano, wild rice northwoods nachos, cashew pork wild rice salad and wild bacon-bleu stuffed filet mignon.

Bacon- and wild rice-stuffed filet mignon?

Count me in.

And, maybe someday, for the wild rice harvest, too. For true Minnesota backcounty types participating in this year’s harvest, enjoy what is expected to be a banner season.

“Rice growth appears to be a little ahead of last year,” said Ann Geisen, DNR wildlife lakes specialist. “Peak harvesting dates are estimated to be in late August to early September as long as weather remains mild.”

In Minnesota, more than 1,200 lakes and rivers in 54 counties contain wild rice, with concentrations of rice being the highest in Aitkin, Cass, Crow Wing, Itasca and St. Louis counties, according to the DNR.

The DNR went on to say that recent storms uprooted rice plants in some lakes, but overall, most of the state’s rice basins were untouched by the stormy weather. Allowing ample scouting time or finding a mentor who is willing to share their skills and knowledge can greatly improve success in this challenging effort, the DNR added.

Also according to the DNR, harvest must take place from a non-motorized canoe, 18 feet or less in length, using only a push pole or paddles for power. Rice is collected by using two sticks, or flails, to knock mature seeds into the canoe. Flails can be no longer than 30 inches and must weigh less than one pound each.

Harvesting licenses are $25 per season, or $15 per day, per person for Minnesota residents. There is no limit to the number of pounds harvested with a permit. Additional processing is necessary to finish the rice into its final food product – “the gathering process is labor-intensive, and accessing some lakes can be difficult,” the DNR said.

Hello, state fairgrounds.

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