Most people head for the grocery store when they have a hankering for rice. On the other hand, there are people who never write "wild rice" on a shopping list, although their pantries are filled with jars of the grain.
Take Ray Hoffman, for instance. He’s never read the store-bought package label touting the nutritional benefits of this water-grass seed: "high in protein, zinc, folic acid and vitamin E." Yet, wild rice is as much a part of his life as it is to the Chippewa and Potawatomi tribes, whose cultures are entwined with the only cereal grain native to North America.
For more than 80 years, since he was 10, Hoffman has been harvesting, preparing and eating the wild rice of northern Wisconsin’s Oneida and Forest counties.
When Joe Gerzinski helped out on the Hoffman family farm in the 1920s, he befriended Ray. The two of them would "go out chumming together" and watch the Sokaogon Chippewa harvest and process the wild rice. They asked questions and learned to add the grain, which Native Americans call manoomin (the good seed), to the family table. Wild rice from the shallows of the nearby lakes nourished the Hoffmans through the hard times of crop loss, a world war and economic depression.
Nowadays, Hoffman lives next to his old family farm near Crandon, Wisconsin. His current ricing chum is a fellow nonagenarian, Donald Torgeson. When the sunflower seeds mature, the duo knows it’s time to consider their harvesting plan.
They visit area waters, including the Rat River, Swamp Creek, Lake Whitefish, Little Rice Lake and Lake Wabigon, looking for wild rice that’s prime for picking. The state’s Department of Natural Resources has the final say as to when harvesting begins for regulated waters.
Sometime between late August and mid-September, they begin. Torgeson sits in the back of the canoe and pole pushes through the tall wild grasses. Hoffman sits in the middle with two long sticks. He bends the stalks over the canoe with one knocker and hits them with the other to shake the kernels loose. He harvests the rice as he learned from the Chippewa, gently so as not to break the stalk and ruin the harvest in following weeks.
The grass seed matures over a two-week period with the highest seeds on the stalk maturing first, so the pair return many times. After each trip, the men cover the canoe and pull it onto a trailer. Once home, they carry the canoe into an outbuilding where they tip out the raw rice onto a tarp to cure.
Several centuries ago, American Indians took weeks to dry their harvest under an unpredictable autumn sun. Since the 1700s, when the cast-iron kettle arrived with the fur trade, American Indians have been parching their rice over a fire. Hoffman builds a fire under a big metal trough he describes as "an old-timer’s bathtub." Torgeson and Hoffman stir the rice with two paddles and are experts at determining when the kernels are just right. They have a feel for the distinctive pop of readiness that comes after about an hour, when they pinch a kernel and feel the eviscerating split.
Traditionally, Chippewa thresh the rice to loosen the hull by carefully dancing over the kernels. This foot trouncing is also known as jiggling. Hoffman doesn’t dance, so he built a mechanical thresher, using an old motor to blow air through a spinning drum. The turning breaks the hulls, and the forced air blows the coarse chaff out a vent. His Chippewa friends, while not ready to abandon the traditional ways, have offered to buy the contraption when he’s ready to sell.
As with all the steps involved in ricing, Native Americans bring artistry to the final step in processing; winnowing the grain to remove fine dust and broken shafts. They use a birch basket or tray to toss the grain again and again, so the wind blows away the chaff, and the cleaned rice settles back into the basket.
Hoffman’s technique has its own creativity. He sets up a fan behind a screen. At the bottom of the screen is a flattened funnel. He and Torgeson toss handfuls of rice onto the front of the screen. The kernels of rice flow down the funnel and into a bucket, while the lighter hulls and dust blow away. To block the dust and hulls from blowing back into the finished rice, Hoffman ties an old apron over the funnel and bucket.
Hoffman processes between 50 and 100 pounds of rice a year and gives away most of it. He keeps enough to eat wild rice for breakfast all year long. He soaks a half cup of seeds in water before he goes to bed at night, and then cooks it up in the morning, adding only one ingredient, Wisconsin maple syrup. You can bet he never buys his syrup at a store. When winter begins to break, before the rice seeds begin to germinate near the shores of the lakes and rives, he heads for his sugaring camp deep in the sugar-maple forests near his home.