Arne Vainio ricing. Photo by Ivy Vainio

Arne Vainio: Protecting our Manoomin, our wild rice

Manoomin (wild rice)

Tashia Hart is putting together a cookbook featuring manoomin (wild rice) and other wild foods of Minnesota. This will be published by the Minnesota Historical Society Press in the fall of 2021. I like to cook and she asked me for my manoomin recipe. At first I was honored she asked me, then I was worried because it’s such a simple recipe and I wanted it to be fancier somehow.

I don’t necessarily use many ingredients when I cook and I like to take my time. I’ve bought some expensive knife sets over the years and once I bought an entire set at a demonstration where the salesman cut through a hammer, then cut a tomato with the same knife. I like my hammers and never had a reason to do that. I ended up not using the knives and donated them to a shelter. The knife I use every day is one my brother Scott found when he was cleaning out a house after someone moved away.

I’ve watched shows with chefs who chop vegetables at high speed and use ingredients I’ve never even heard of and was suddenly aware of those shortcomings. I cut lots of onions and garlic and it takes me a long time. I don’t use processors and machines when I cook and wondered if it was too late to start using them.

When I open the bag and smell the rice, the manoomin, I remember when I was 12 years old. My grandfather Harry Durant was in boarding school when he was young and after that he was one of the Ojibwe people who were relocated to Minneapolis to assimilate and to help erase the Ojibwe culture. He was beaten in boarding school for speaking Ojibwe and was only taught to work menial jobs and that’s what he did for his entire life. He made ice cream in a state sanitarium and was never promoted beyond that in all his years of service. My grandmother worked in the laundry in the same sanitarium.

My grandfather didn’t have anyone to rice with and he came for me. We didn’t have canoe racks like everyone else. He put some old tires on the roof of his car and he took my mother’s clothesline and we loaded the canoe on top of the tires and tied it down. He got mad at me because I slid down in the seat whenever we met another car because I was embarrassed about the old tires on the roof. We got to the rice lake and there were people he hadn’t seen in a long time and he was laughing and joking with them in Ojibwe. I didn’t know what they were saying and he didn’t introduce me. He took my brother Kelly ricing the year before and they flipped the canoe over when it was full of rice and that was mostly what I was thinking about.

Youth from the Leech Lake Band of Ojibwe tend to wild rice in MInnesota. Photo: U.S. Department of Agriculture

We paddled to the far end of the lake and we could hear other people talking and laughing, but they were distant and we only heard them when the wind wanted us to. It was a beautiful sunny day and ducks and geese were landing and taking off by the thousands. Flocks of red winged blackbirds would rise suddenly in a big black cloud and settle into the rice just as fast.

My grandfather had me stand in the front of the canoe and he passed me the long ricing pole with the fork on the end. He told me how to carefully place it at the base of a clump of rice and slowly push the canoe forward. The bottom of the shallow lake was too soft to just push anywhere. He told me where he wanted me to go and I slowly pushed us through the rice and I could hear him pulling the rice in with one of the rice knockers and sweeping it into the canoe with the other.

“There are people who beat the rice from the stalks and they get lots of green rice before its ready. Don’t be one of those people. They only do that so they can sell it. You need to leave some for everything else out here.”

We riced all day and other than the sound of an occasional airplane high above, this could have been hundreds of years ago. The sounds of the lake were everywhere and the geese and ducks were feeding so they could fly south and I could hear the longing to move on in their calls.

We didn’t flip the canoe and we made it to the landing and everyone was laughing and joking again. There was a rice buyer there and we sold some of the rice, but the rest we kept to bring to be finished.

Honor The Earth: Bezhigobinesiikwe (One Thunderbird Woman) - Veronica Skinaway tells her story about knocking rice

Jim Northrup was a good friend and we used to visit him when he was finishing maple syrup in late winter. We would sit under a shelter around a big cast iron kettle. There was a pit under the kettle for the base of the fire and firewood was leaning against the kettle all the way around. As it burned away, new firewood was added. The kettle was filled with maple sap that was boiling constantly. The kettle was hanging from a tripod encircled by chairs. We sat there and Jim told stories and then he told more stories. Once in a while the boiling sap would rise and try to overflow the kettle. A single piece of bacon hung from a string over the kettle and the sap would rise up, touch the bacon and settle back down.

“It’s the way I was taught.” He said.

When I cook manoomin, I think about those things. I like cooking and would never call myself a chef. I cook the way my grandmother and my mother cooked. When I cook manoomin, there are many things I feel are important. The first is using real wild rice. I have a friend who used to buy pre-cooked wild rice in cans. I didn’t even know that existed. That isn’t real wild rice. Neither is the black rice sold in supermarkets or any rice that comes in a box.

You need to use real wild rice. If you know which lake it came from, all the better. If you can’t harvest it yourself, buy it from someone who does or make sure it’s harvested and processed properly. There are family businesses who process wild rice and maple syrup and do it well.

We buy our manoomin from Veronica Skinaway and she knows the proper ceremonies. The manoomin we get from her is clean and beautiful. Don’t offer less when you buy rice from someone who has harvested it. It’s a lot of work and the season only lasts a short time. People feed their families with that income. Commercial paddy rice hurts wild rice and should never be used.

The recipe:

About half a pound of wild rice. Rinse it well with a strainer. Pour in about a quart of chicken broth. If you don’t make your own broth, a 32 ounce container is fine. About ½ of a small onion, very finely diced. Some fine ground black pepper. My uncle Roger covered everything with pepper from one of those square cans. Just a few sprinkles is fine.

Salt to taste. I use Himalayan pink salt from a grinder because it makes me think about how much I use. Someone called me at work once and when I called her back, she talked about Himalayan pink salt for 45 minutes. I don’t remember what she said, but if she liked it that much, it’s good enough for me.

Garlic powder. About a teaspoon. If you accidentally put in two teaspoons, that’s fine.

A teaspoon of bacon grease. This is the part that made me worry I would lose my credibility as a doctor, but it works to keep the manoomin from foaming and boiling over as it’s cooking and it’s what Jim Northrup would want me to do.

Bring it to a boil, then cover it and turn it down to simmer until all the chicken broth is absorbed or simmered away.

Put a little bit on a small plate or on a small piece of birch bark and put it outside for your ancestors before anyone else eats any. Just a little bit is all that’s needed in the spirit world and the first of it should always go to them.

Share it with someone, preferably an elder. If this is cooked properly, it will make them remember. Listen to the stories. This is our ancestral food, this is indigenous food. It’s what we need, it’s worth cooking right and it’s forever worth protecting.

Arne Vainio, M.D. is an enrolled member of the Mille Lacs Band of Ojibwe and is a family practice physician on the Fond du Lac reservation in Cloquet, Minnesota. He can be contacted at

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