(The actual video of harvesting wild rice is at the bottom of this blog post!)
I have had the opportuntiy to forage wild foods for a few years now, with each season yielding greater and greater amounts of food. No harvest yet has supplied me with the amount of food energy that I was able to gather this September when I learned the ancient art of "Ricing".
Most of the wild plants that I have been learning to use are incredibly nutritious (as well as delicious) but a bit low in calories. Many wild foraged plants are eaten like vegetables (stinging nettle come to mind) but lack the energy density that we get from meats, grains, oils, concentrated sugars. This means that as a forager I am still largely dependent on my local agricultural system to provide me with calories that I need to live out my daily life.
Wild rice however, is a complex carbohydrate (macro-nutrient), and unlike the mono-cropped and refined carbohydrates of the average American diet, is a rich whole food grain loaded with vitamins and minerals (micronutrients) as well.
Today, most of the worlds citizens are living with an inverse relationship between micronutrients (vitamins, minerals, etc) and macronutrients (calories). We have become overfed and under nourished. Our ancestors ate extremely micronutrient dense diets when compared against our own. Their constant quest instead was securing the macronutrient (carbohydrate, lipid, and protein calories) that they required for their huge daily energy expenditures.
Of course today it is nearly the opposite, where most of the (over) developed world has calorie rich diet composed of overly processed and refined food - think white sugar, white flour, high fructose corn syrup, etc - that is deeply lacking in micro-nutrition. Most Americans are deficient in micronutrients even to the RDA standard (recommended daily allowances of the U.S. National Academy of Sciences) which is surprisingly low when compared against the nutrient intakes of so called "primitive peoples".
Now that I am moving away from "novelty foraging" toward a subsistence that includes Wild Foods, I am acutely aware of this nutritional crux. There are plenty of micronutrients in the foods that I forage from my ecosystem, but most of my actual caloric needs still come from my local farm.
That is all changing for me now that I have learned to forage a few key items, perhaps the greatest and most important, of which is Wild Rice.
Zizania palustris is an aquatic grain occurring widely throughout the Eastern United States (like Maine where I live) and Canada. It inhabits the shallow waters of lakes, ponds, and slow moving rivers. There is a long and rich historical record of its harvest by native peoples of this continent and is to this day still harvested by existing native populations of North America, and in particular the Great Lakes region.
Though today much of the Wild Rice sold in the market place is cultivated in rice paddies, this highly nutritious grain is still available to the forager for the price of his or her labor.
Before trying truly wild rice, I was familiar only with the store bought, paddy cultivated wild rice which, though wonderful in flavor and rich in nutrition, just simply pales in comparison. Hand harvested, sundried, fire parched, foot treaded, and wind winnowed wild rice is so soft and delicate in flavor that it simply has to be tasted to be understood. The softness is like that of the most perfectly cooked white rice but with all the nutritious nutty flavors of a wild intact grain. This is because of a curing process used with commercially prepared "wild rice" that causes the grains to become very hard and locks in some of the unpleasantly strong flavors.
In contrast to many wild foraged plants, wild rice requires a more considerable amount of know how and equipment to locate, access, harvest, and process, so to show this in its entirety is simply outside the scope of a blog post. Instead I have prepared this short video to highlight the experiences I had ricing this season.
I am hoping that in the future some of you will have the opportunity to come to Maine to learn the art in person.
What a wonderful feeling to know that this winter I will be eating more of my calories from foods that were sustainably harvested from my local landscape.
I am grateful to the abundant Earth.