The seed of an aquatic grass native to North America that grows up to 9 feet tall in marshes and small lakes from northern Minnesota to Ontario, Canada, wild rice is not actually rice at all (rice is native to India, Indonesia and Africa). Wild rice is still harvested in Minnesota by the Ojibwa tribe in the traditional manner, by slapping the grains off into canoes.
Writing in 1923, Artemas Ward, the grandson of a Major General in the Continental Army who was second in command to George Washington during the American Revolution, described a Native American wild rice harvest: “In northern Minnesota it is gathered by Indians in canoes paddling slowly through rice-beds, the seeds being shaken into the bottoms of the canoes from the grass-heads pulled over and downward for the purpose. As the seeds do not all ripen at the same time, a ‘field’ is gone over again and again at suitable intervals. Harvesting is followed by parching to dry the hulls which are then easily separated from the grain.” The harvest concluded with “jigging”; the grains were placed in a pit and the Ojibwa danced on them, allowing their moccasins to polish the rice.
Although well known to the tribes that harvested it and to locals in Canada, Minnesota and Wisconsin where it grew, wild rice was little known in the rest of the United States until after World War II. And even then it often was viewed as prohibitively expensive and complicated to cook. Although it still grows wild in the Great Lakes region, it did not become a supermarket staple until the 1960s, when research supported by the Uncle Ben’s Company led to cultivation in Minnesota and California and drove prices down. Prices were further effected by blends of wild and other varieties of rice that became commercially available later. Most of the wild rice sold in supermarkets today is commercially grown and mechanically harvested. When buying, look for long, polished, deep brown grains and avoid packages with lots of broken pieces.