Our late summer foraging showcases a larder crop among the predominantly medicinal plants we gather and prepare. This year it is blueberry. In the morning we will forage for twenty gallons of berries. We will make mead, jellies, jams, syrup, fruit leather, and eat many of these amazing foods raw.
Our next actionable major larder is wild rice. It is said by the cultures that harvest the rice, as it stated by those who interact with any crop, that the rice suffers from our lack of participation in its life cycle. We scout for the rice in early August and continue to monitor its health and development until it is ready; sometimes in late August, but as far into the fall as mid September.
There are two surges in rice production. The first is the rice harvested for food, the second is the seed rice. In each case, the traditional harvesting techniques ensure that the rice is broadcast far from the mother plant and distributed more evenly and more widely through its habitat. This, in turn, provides more rice for the coming years and benefits ducks, fish, and the host of wildlife that depend on the wetlands these plants are encouraged to flourish in. The rice gathering guild understands their responsibilities in gathering, reseeding, and preparing rice as a major winter food. We have to. To do otherwise would diminish a vital food source for our community.
Thus, we have a ricing school to ensure that the traditional methods are adhered to to increase bounty. We always enter the rice in the same direction to prevent the laying down of the stalks in different directions. We pole through the rice slow and steady to allow the harvesters to keep rhythm with the rice passing by the gunnels of the canoe. Our canoes remain parallel but far enough apart to not interfere with the broadcasting of the rice that lands back into the pond after each pass. It should be noted that less than a third of the rice we knock from the seed head lands in the canoe. The rest is cast away from the plant to insure better germination and a healthier scatter pattern for increased yield for the next season.
The gathering takes roughly two to three days. If the area has been worked in years passed, it will be more dense and yield more, making the time it takes to gather less. A drought, or neglected rice area can mean extra days in the canoes. The processing takes another week. It is important to harvest and disperse the seed rice as the rest of the ricing camp sets up the drying areas for the rice to be put up for winter. In the two days to seven that it takes the rice to dry (weather permitting), the parching stations, treading stations, and winnowing areas should already be set up and good to go. Parching is the slight roasting of the hulls of the seed structures. It involves constantly stirring the rice in a container near a fire or over coals. Too hot and the rice will smoke and eventually pop like miniature pop corn, too cold and you won’t get that golden brown color that tells you the hulls ca be removed readily under foot during the treading stage.
When we tread we dig holes in the earth and line them with canvas. The holes are about eighteen inches deep and just large enough for two human feet to do the twist in the bottom of the hole. It is important to have your canvass overlap outside of the hole to prevent contamination. We have also made canvass moccasins specifically for treading the rice. This is to protect ones feet as well as the rice. Even with August temperatures, we wear thick, insular I’ve socks in our ricing Mocs to protect our feet from the uncomfortably warm rice as it is freshly poured from the parching container into the treading pit. The dance a thong for winter food then begins. A well parched batch may take as little as forty minutes to tread completely. It helps to have a person other than the reader come to inspect the rice to see if it is ready. By running ones fingers through the treaded rice, you can see if the the rice, shiney, and black has been largely avulsed from its protective sheaths. Most of the sheaths will be powdered and at the very bottom of the pit and most (90% or greater) of the rice will be exposed and on top of the treaded pile. This process is repeated until all of the rice is processed.
The last action before your rice can be eaten or stored for later use is winnowing the chaff from the seed head. Winnowing baskets are useful and a skill that is first taught, than acquired before it becomes efficient. In lieu of winnowing baskets, small strong fans set to blow between the outing bucket and the gathering bucket at also efficient. It takes a few slow outs to get all the chaff to winnow out, but the patience to do so will save a great deal of time in the kitchen.
Remember, we harvest in a manner that increases yield, health, and vigor, both in the population of specific species we harvest and in the ecological systems they serve. Without this approach, we either neglect or overharvest, doing a disservice to our landscape and our selves.