There the wrinkled old Nokomis
Nursed the little Hiawatha,
Rocked him in his linden cradle,
Bedded soft in moss and rushes,
Safely bound with reindeer sinews....

Unmolested worked the women,
Made their sugar from the maple
Gatherered wild rice in the meadows...

Then Nokomis the old woman
Spoke and said to Minnehaha;
'Tis the moon when leaves are falling
All the wild rice has been gathered...

--Henry Wadsworth Longfellow's "Hiawatha's Childhood"

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Wild Rice

(Zizania aquatica)

A tall, aquatic grass with long blades and terminal panicles that grows best in the shallow waters of the northern United States and southern Canada. It's generally believed to be an annual plant--and is the only grain native to the North American continent. It's these grains that are so beloved by Native Americans and gourmets alike.

Anishinaabeg (Ojibwe) legend tells how its hero Nanaboozhoo was introduced to wild rice:

One evening Nanaboozhoo returned from hunting, but he had no game. As he came to his fire, there was a duck sitting on the edge of his kettle full of boiling water. After the duck flew away, Nanaboozhoo looked into the kettle and found wild rice floating upon the water, but he did not know what it was. He ate his supper from the kettle, and it was the best soup he had ever tasted. Later, he followed in the direction that the duck had taken and came to a lake full of wild rice. After that, when Nanaboozhoo did not kill a deer, he knew where to find food to eat.

Historically, wild rice was one of the chief foods of Native Americans in the Great Lakes region, especially the Algonquin linguistic group. Ojibwa and Menominee tribes as well as Sioux warred for hundreds of years over control of the wild rice fields. Those who controlled the shallow lakes and rivers were wild rice grew were taller and stornger and survived the winters better than those who didn't.

To harvest, they would paddle through the fields in the autumn on canoes, bend the great heads of grass over the canoes and beat the seeds from them with paddles. The seeds were then sun dried--or parched over a slow fire--then they were threshed by tramping on them and winnowed by throwing them up in the air, so their husks would blow away.

Chippewa and Ojibwe called the seed Mahnomen--meaning "good" (mano) "grain" (min). But in the 17th century, French fur trappers called it folle avoine or "wild oats"--and the name stuck.

Today most "wild" rice is cultivated in Minnesota--sown in the spring to provide food and shelter to fish and waterfowl, then harvested for the world's large gourmand market. For the record, wild rice is "done" when the grains are swollen and cracked down the side. If it's opened and looks like popcorn, it's overcooked.

p.s.: thanks Meg!