Wild Rice and Butternut Blessings
Hello friend. It’s been a while. I sincerely hope that these words find you getting by as best you can in this strange world we find ourselves in. Staying centered and grounded these days is no small feat, and I’m grateful to find myself here again, with the energy and space to share.
This post is actually two years in the making. The experience I’m about to tell you about deserves thought, healing, and humility, and though I made a delicious recipe, I needed ample time to learn from, and honour the situation. Almost like with rich decadent food, your body and mind needs time to digest emotion and experience, and over the past 20 months of intense turmoil, discovering and uncovering, and worldly change, there is no better occasion or cultural climate than this moment to share one of my life’s most potent experiences. I hope you’ll join me on the entirety of this journey and take the time to read and digest it for yourself too.
I welcome conscious comments and will receive your words gracefully and with humility in regards to my personal history and ask kindly that the inevitable missteps, mistakes, and / or insensitivities in my story shared below are highlighted with respect and with the intention of learning, inspiring community and healing, and are supportive of a better and more just future.
I’ll begin by introducing the people of the story that span many generations, many places of origin, and many cultures:
The Anishinaabeg – an Indigenous community made up of the Ojibwa, Odawa, Potawatami, Chippewa, Mississauga, Algonquin, and Delaware peoples who stewarded the Great Lakes Basin before and through the late 1600s.
A man named James Whetung of the Black Duck clan, Anishinaabe who has called this land home for his lifetime and the many generations before him.
My European ancestors who arrived in this same area (“Upper Canada” then, and what is now known as Southern Ontario) in the early-to-mid 1800s.
A young man named Mossom Boyd, my great-, great-, great-grandfather, who landed in 1833. He purchased 100 acres of land and cleared it himself in the hopes of building a prosperous life. After farming for a few years, he wasn’t making the income he’d hoped for, and sought work at a local sawmill, eventually taking it over, on the site which is now Bobcaygeon, Ontario.
As Boyd continued to work the land, benefitting from the abundant natural resources, he experienced great success with his lumbering enterprise. He later went on to cut forests in great swathes across Ontario, then moved out west to Vancouver Island with his son, Martin Mossom Boyd, who eventually took over the business. Needless to say, the family’s enterprise had an indelible impact on the Canadian landscape and the Indigenous peoples.
Me, a white, privileged woman who benefits from this history in seen and unseen ways with a mission to inspire health to the people of this world through conscious choices. Here’s one of my many stories…
I spent my summers in the Kawartha Lakes, just 12 kilometers upstream from the reserve where James lived and lives. My grandparents lived on the canal at the mouth of Pigeon lake, on the Trent-Severn Waterway. My grandfather owned a substantial portion of the land there (how we understand “owned” in our modern world), and a 1085-acre island just off the shoreline.
I was a very lucky kid to have so much wild land to explore, play with, and learn from. To say I feel connected to nature, to the earth and water, to the elements there, would be an understatement. That forest and lake are inside of me, just as much as I am inside of it – I knew every rock, nook, cranny, and crevice. I knew the plants, the poison ivy, the lichen, the cedar; the shallow soil, dry and bare rocks, the limestone; I can evoke the alchemical aroma of it all in an instant. My hideaways along the shoreline in giant rock fractures were coated in moss and gnarled cedar roots, and there I would live in worlds of my imagination, connected to nature’s creations and its magnetic energy. The sensation of being there, on every level, is burned into my being. It is cellular memory.
There is a museum in town, named after my great-great-great grandfather Mossom, honouring his vision and entrepreneurial genius (as our culture recognizes). This history was one to celebrate, an empire that spanned the country, a legacy to be proud of. We would visit the museum almost every summer when I was growing up, so that I could better understand where I came from.
These truths coexisted within me — nature and empire. As I began to see the complexities of this place that is deeply a part of me, I sought out a way to understand the same land, water, air, forest through the eyes, hands, and hearts of the people with a completely different history to the shared nature and to the empire of my lineage.
James’ family has been living with the land known as the Michi Saagig Anishinaabeg territory for approximately 4,000 years, dated by wild rice fossils found by geologists. This being the same land, that Mossom Boyd purchased 3,780 years later.
When I drove up to Curve Lake First Nations to experience a wild rice (known as manoomin) harvest two years ago, I met James Whetung and his family. The man whose name I had heard before, but was admittedly afraid to come face to face with, as I had some idea of how my lineage had impacted his. At least I thought I knew.
When the group of us had all arrived and settled, James introduced himself, and told his story – the side that I had never heard before. “They cut all the trees, floated them down river using the highways of my people. They needed clearer waterways, so they dredged the lakes and removed the rice beds that had provided our food. The First Nations peoples were forcefully moved to reserves, and confined there, needing written permission to leave, and only in order to work for local farmers at slave wages. You had to be Christian to live on the reserve, and Natives were not allowed to practice their own spirituality or pass it on to subsequent generations. The people were starving.”
Listening to James, and hearing first-hand what his ancestors had gone through because of my ancestors, was heartbreaking, and it filled me with bitter shame and confusion. What was once a celebrated history of my family, became tainted and disgraceful. When he was finished, I raised my hand to speak, compelled to admit that I came from the family he was talking about. The lineage and industry that changed the landscape of his ancestors’ home. That I was deeply remorseful. He responded graciously by inviting me to canoe out with him to harvest manoomin.
He said that those on the reserves eventually were able to take the remaining rice seeds and plant them. By 1920, the yields were up but only until the 1950’s when destructive colonial farming practices began using chemicals (many of which still are in use today), which created chemical run-off causing imbalances in the lakes, soil, air, and water, further affecting the aquatic grasses; the nutritious, traditional food source.
Wild Rice on Pigeon Lake
Canadian cottage culture took off in the area around this time as well, motor boat traffic increased destroying the rice beds, and leaked oil and gas into the water. Septic beds were added for sewage treatment, but none were regulated and leaching into lakes was a regular occurrence. In the years between 1950 and 1980, the Trent Severn Waterway underwent a weed eradication program using agent orange (a highly toxic herbicide) to “make swimming more enjoyable for the cottagers.”
Shortly after, James started planting seeds to feed his family and community despite the many cultural and environmental concerns out of his control. Wild rice as a traditional food source is highly nutritious and is known to help prevent diabetes — a huge problem within Indigenous peoples due to a forced disconnection from their traditional practices and nourishment sources.
James started sowing seeds on Pigeon lake, where his grandfather had seeded and harvested for many generations. He was healing his people, and as demand increased, he started to invent technologies to make his work easier and faster. The increased production meant that he could not only feed his community, but start selling his wild rice at local farmers’ markets.
Unfortunately, not everyone is as enthusiastic about the wild rice increase in Pigeon and surrounding lakes. Since 2007, a group of cottagers have been fighting against Whetung’s seeding of wild rice, claiming that the shoreline is their property and that the rice beds impede recreational boating. They’ve gone so far as to form a protest group, called Save Pigeon Lake, which asks James to harvest without the use of a motorboat (he did this to increase efficiency) and to stop seeding the rice.
Canada and Curve Lake First Nation are both signatories to the United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples. This Declaration states that “Indigenous peoples have the right to maintain and develop their political, economic and social systems or institutions, to be secure in the enjoyment of their own means of subsistence and development, and to engage freely in all their traditional and other economic activities” (Article 20). And further, that “Indigenous peoples have the right to maintain, control, protect and develop their cultural heritage, traditional knowledge, and traditional cultural expressions, as well as the manifestations of the sciences, technologies and cultures, including human and genetic resources, seeds, medicines, knowledge of the properties of fauna and flora…” (Article 31). The rice beds run along the TSW in the tri-lakes area, which includes Buckhorn, Chemong and Pigeon lakes. Despite the concerns of waterfront property owners, Whetung says the land falls under Treaty 20 and is therefore not under the jurisdiction of the TSW, which is operated by Parks Canada.
“I’m going to keep doing what I am doing. Why would I stop? Our people have starved for thousands of years. This is food; this is a livelihood,” says Whetung. And personally, as an advocate for healthy food access for all, for a thriving world, and supported communities, I whole-heartedly agree.
For more about James and his community’s work, please visit the Black Duck Wild Rice website. I am deeply grateful for James’ time, energy, heart, perseverance, and spirit. This is a forever healing journey and one I intend to continue with the peoples intrinsically linked to my own family’s history here in Canada.
Wild Rice Harvesting and Preparation
Let’s talk about this beautiful offering, manoomin, or wild rice. Having always been drawn to this remarkable plant, I knew that when I moved back to Ontario, Canada, I had to learn more about it firsthand, and perhaps even how to harvest and process it. That is what led me to James and Black Duck Wild Rice. Every year around the September full moon, the manoomin harvest takes place, and he and his community welcome those who want to join and learn.
James taught us the traditional way, in canoes, all by hand. With two people per boat, one navigates and steers, while the other uses two long, thin sticks (bawa’iganaakoog); one to bend the rice into the canoe and the other to beat the grasses until the rice seeds fall into the hull of the canoe. Once you get the hang of it, it’s rhythmic and meditative, but still a physical and time-consuming ritual that requires community. As with most traditional food cultivation practices it’s a closed loop cycle, for whatever rice that doesn’t fall into the canoe to be processed falls into the water, planting next year’s crop at the same time!
Once on shore, the canoes are emptied by hand onto large sheets which are transferred to a cool dark place so the rice can cure. Two or three times a day for a week or so, the rice is turned and aerated, left to dry.
Toasting / Parching
The rice was traditionally toasted in a cast-iron cauldron over an open fire. James showed me how to use an old canoe paddle to turn the rice constantly so as not to scorch it — its texture and scent slowly transformed. This takes about an hour of constant stirring with a keen eye on the fire so it remains at the perfect temperature for toasting. If you stop for even a second, the rice will burn. James could tell from the smell, and how the rice felt between his fingers when it was ready the mark of a true artisan, energetically connected to his craft. Nowadays, James uses a machine that he designed and built himself, that stirs the rice automatically over open flames and gets the rice toasty faster and with less manual labour. Toasting the rice increases the flavour, and helps preserve it. If properly toasted and dry, wild rice can last in storage for five years or more (a necessity to help balance the yearly ebbs and flows of the harvest).
Dancing / Jigging
This was my favourite part of the process because it involved several people working together, and having the pleasure and honour of wearing beautiful, specially-designed moccasins just for this process. The toasted rice is put into another large cauldron (or sometimes a hole in the ground lined with leather cloth or a tarp) while three people sit around it, with our feet in the center. Once we had our soft shoes laced all the way up, we vigorously twisted and swooshed our feet around on the rice to loosen some of the chaff from the rice kernels — this was extremely hard work! We rotated through the group as people got tired, and eventually we were ready for the last step.
The danced rice is then turned out onto a large fabric sheet, with everyone holding the edge with both hands. Count to three and up the rice goes into the air, the breeze blowing the chaff away. This needs to be repeated countless times to separate the rice from the chaff completely. This is unbelievably time-consuming work and experiencing it first hand made me appreciate every grain so much more!
At the end of a grounding day of traditional work, you are gifted a few cups of cleaned wild rice. The appreciation I felt to see the yield of the countless hours by many people, not to mention the effort and contribution of this Earth truly became overwhelming. The experience solidified how food has the unparalleled ability to bring people together — requiring many enthusiastic, hard-working hands (and feet!) to get the job done, start to finish. At the end of the journey, everyone is rewarded with delicious food, straight from the Earth, her waters, her people. It is so simple, and so powerful.
Wild rice is not related to true rice nor is a grain at all in fact, but the seed of aquatic grass that grows along the shores of freshwater lakes in Canada and the Northern US. It’s a little more expensive than other varieties, as it is often harvested by hand.
Wild rice is also, of course, wildly nutritious and is no surprise that Indigenous peoples made a point to cultivate this true super food. Containing high levels of protein, fiber, iron, and calcium, wild rice is also gluten-free. It is extremely high in folic acid, an essential B-complex vitamin lacking in many people’s diets. Just half a cup of cooked wild rice yields 21.3 mcg of folic acid – necessary for cardiovascular support, red blood cell production, brain and nervous system health, and of particular importance during pregnancy – where brown rice by comparison offers only 3.9 mcg. The niacin content of wild rice is also notably high with l.06 mg for every 1/2 cup cooked rice. Potassium packs an 83 mg punch, and zinc, which is usually available in trace amounts, registers 1.1 mg.
Wild rice is a wonderful alternative to any grain that you would use in either hot or cold dishes. My favourite is to enjoy it in veggie bowls, soups and stews, as well as hearty salads. Its rich, nutty flavour pairs well with other earthy-sweet foods like beets, sweet potato, pumpkins and squash, making it the perfect ingredient to add to your fall recipes, already full of abundance and gratitude. It lasts for about a week after cooking, so making a large batch at the beginning of the week will give you the honour to grace your meals with a serious boost of nutrition and spirit with every grain!
Wild Rice & Butternut Blessings
This recipe was born from the desire to combine the elements that James and I had a hand in growing: wild rice from his lake, and butternut squash from my garden, coming together for one beautiful meal. Stacking the squash rounds makes for a grand, dramatic, and eye-catching presentation where the simple ingredients are made into something very special. This would be the most stunning main dish for a harvest celebration meal, or even into the winter holidays. It has the perfect balance of flavours, textures, and nutrition, so you’ll feel satisfied on every level.
Try to find a butternut squash with a long and hefty neck. Since we are after nice big rounds, the longer your neck, the more rounds you’ll have! And try to source your wild rice from a local reserve or farmers market, if possible.
There are several components to this recipe, but I’ve written it in a way that you can juggle all the elements with seamless management of your time.
Wild Rice and Butternut Blessings with Mushrooms, Toasted Walnut Garlic Sauce, and Sumac
- 4 lb. / 2kg butternut squash about 1 large, try to find one with a long neck!
- 1 cup / 175g wild rice soaked for at least 12 hours
- 9 oz. / 250g mixed wild mushrooms or any mushroom of your choice
- 3 cloves garlic minced
- a couple sprigs fresh thyme and rosemary
- ½ cup / 13g chopped flat-leaf parsley
- 1 batch Toasted Walnut Sauce recipe follows
- 1 Tbsp. sumac divided
- freshly cracked black pepper
- handful of walnuts for garnish if desired
Toasted Walnut Garlic Sauce
- 1 cup / 125g raw walnuts
- 1 garlic clove
- 2 Tbsp. cold-pressed olive oil
- 4 tsp. apple cider vinegar
- 2 tsp. pure maple syrup
- 2 generous pinches of fine sea salt plus more as needed
Start by cooking the wild rice: drain and rinse the soaked rice well, place in a pot. Add 3 cups / 750ml of fresh water, a couple pinches of sea salt, then bring to a boil, and reduce to simmer. Cook until rice is chewy-tender – about 45 minutes.
While the rice is cooking, preheat the oven to 350°F / 180°C. Spread the walnuts in a single layer on a rimmed baking sheet. Toast for 7 to 10 minutes, watching them carefully so they do not burn, until they are golden and fragrant. Remove from the oven and let cool slightly.
Turn the oven heat up to 400°F / 200°C. Give the butternut squash a good scrub, making sure to remove any dust or dirt. Leaving the skin on, slice the squash neck into rounds about 1” / 2.5cm thick. Place on a baking sheet, sprinkle with a little salt, and roast in the oven for 20-30 minutes, flipping once halfway through cooking, until the squash is fork tender. Remove from the oven and drizzle with olive oil and a little more salt, if desired.
While the squash is roasting, make the Toasted Walnut Sauce. Place the toasted walnuts, garlic, olive oil, apple cider vinegar, and maple syrup in a blender.
Blend on high, adding up to 1 cup / 250ml of water to thin the dressing as needed—you are looking for the consistency of melted ice cream. Season with salt. Store in an airtight glass container in the fridge for up to 5 days.
Lastly, prepare the mushrooms. Clean and cut the mushrooms as desired (I used king oyster mushrooms, sliced in half lengthwise and scored diagonally). Add a knob of your favourite cooking fat to a large skillet, and once melted add the mushrooms and a couple pinches of salt. Cook the mushrooms without crowding them, and do not move them about in the pan too much. You’re looking for a nice sear and that comes after the mushrooms have been in constant, direct contact with high heat. Once golden on one side, flip, and continue cooking until golden on the other.
In a large bowl, combine the wild rice and parsley. Drizzle a touch of the sauce and about ½ Tbsp. of the sumac, a few grinds of black pepper, and fold to incorporate.
To assemble, drizzle or puddle some sauce on the bottom of your serving plate. Add a round of butternut squash, followed by the wild rice mixture, a couple mushrooms, then repeat the layers of squash, rice, mushrooms. Drizzle remaining sauce over top, sprinkle with additional sumac and black pepper, and a handful of walnuts.
Say thank you and enjoy each bite, each grain.
Makes approximately 1 cup / 270ml of Sauce
Click here to print this recipe
I would love to hear your thoughts about how we can better respect and heal our pasts culturally, together. I wanted to open up the conversation here, not try to offer some kind of “solution”. This is a complicated, complex, deeply layered issue that has deep roots, well beyond us here today. I feel really lucky to have had the opportunity to be in a canoe with James himself, to witness how to harvest with intention and gratitude. It felt deeply meaningful to be there with him, the place our two family lines have crossed in many ways for many years, finally converging in a peaceful, cooperative, and hopefully reciprocal way. This extends far beyond James and I, and takes many more hands and hearts. The first step of many, I am forever grateful to James for sharing the story of his family and community as it has been silenced for too long.
Thank you for taking the time to read this today. I’d also like to add for those who haven’t seen Canadian news over the past few months, that there has been uncovering of more extreme darkness in this country in relation to the Indigneous people of this land. The residential school system removed children from their Indigenous culture, communities, families, and ways of being. These Anglo-Saxon, Christian boarding schools are sites of mass unmarked graves where thousands of children’s bodies were found, taken from their families. There are many agencies working towards healing, remediation, and reconciliation in response to these unfathomable atrocities in our history. One of them is the Downie Wenjack Foundation, which aims to to aid our collective reconciliation journey through a combination of awareness, education, and action. This link will take you to their page about Reconcili-ACTION, and a list of ways to catalyze important conversations and meaningful change, recognizing that change starts with every one of us and each person can make an impact.