Wild Food Summit 2009

21 06 2009

by Meredith Hart and Emily Larson

It is hard to get more local than finding your own food in the forest next to your campsite.  Of course, it helps to have experts explain which plants are edible and nutritious, and which ones should be avoided like the plague. From cattails to wild mushrooms, and from plantains to wild sumac, there is a plethora of food in the natural world that we see daily but never view as food. The idea of bringing the wild into our lives was the theme of the fourth annual Wild Food Summit at the White Earth Rediscovery Center on White Earth Lake, White Earth, MN that occurred from June 17th to 20th. The White Earth Tribal and Community College Extension Service founded and hosted this event, and it grows and changes with each passing year.

Digging In - by Emily Larson

Of all the events we will be attending for the Community of a Plate project, this one was probably the easiest to document, as we were literally picking the food ourselves, or standing next to the person who did, and all we had to do was point at the forest or the lake to locate the source. During our two days at the Summit, we learned about foraging for wild foods from highly experienced, enthusiastic people, many of whom have spent their lives educating themselves on plant identification and preparation. As for the rest of us, we were there to enjoy the food, the weather, and the company and to find out what was available in the wild that could be on our plates. We were certainly surprised.

The first day we arrived (the second of the Summit) was focused on harvesting wild fungi.  In the morning, Tom Peterson, a professional mushroom cultivator, taught a class on the basics of mushroom identification.  While the group crowded under a large a very local harvestwhite tent, he stressed the crucial differences between edible and poisonous mushrooms and where they can typically be found in the woods. After lunch, participants bushwhacked through the surrounding forest to gather mushrooms which they then brought back for Tom to identify, some of which later became part of dinner.  We found ourselves stomping through shoulder-high grasses and collecting mosquito bites as we followed Steve Dahlberg, one of the Summit’s organizers on a search for edible fungi. Although we didn’t find anything significant enough to bring back to the group we did happen upon a small bird’s nest with four tiny eggs. The mother was nearby and audibly unhappy with our presence. Despite our empty hands, one of the younger participants, a teenage girl, hit the jackpot with a hefty find of Sulphur Shelf mushrooms or “Chicken of the Woods” as they are more commonly called. You may have seen them settling in on stumps and fallen trees, their flat, bright-orange brackets sitting atop one another. This type of mushroom is so called “Chicken of the Woods” because of its distinctive chicken-like texture and flavor, delicious in many different types of dishes. The dinner plans adjusted accordingly.

Other lessons throughout the day consisted of walnut and hickory nut cracking techniques with Mike Krebill, cattail harvesting with Laura Reeves, “sumac-aide” with Sunny Savage, and traditional clay cooking with Matt Mattson, among others.  Kathleen, a regular at the Summit, shared stories and lessons that emphasized the power of the plant world and the value of giving back to the Earth.  “My work is less about the food and more about the plant as self, soul, spirit,” she told us as she invited all the participants to become a part of her stories.  Before each meal a small piece of each dish was thrown into the fire as an offering back to nature.  The knowledge contributed by these individuals created a community of learning inspired by the bounty of nature. Francois, a seasoned forager who takes a leadership role in preparing the wild food, described the power of nature: “there’s something spiritual, the closer you are to natural things.” For many of the participants this was not their first year at the summit and most likely will not be their last.

Lunch our last day was almost entirely comprised of food harvested by Summit participants. The ingredients not harvested directly at Collecting Cattail Shoots - by Meredith Hartthe summit were grown and brought by participants to complete the meal. It included buffalo dumpling soup, cattail stir fry, grilled cattail rhizomes, curried chickpeas, rhubarb sauce, and fresh acorn bread. We chose to help harvest cattails, as we had absolutely no idea what part of the cattail you ate or how you would prepare it. We walked down to the lake with a big group of people and Laura Reeves showed us what to do. A few people waded up to their thighs in the lake and pulled the cattails up by the roots, then brought them to all of us sitting on the dock. The people in the lake were faster than those of us on the dock, so before we knew it, a large mountain of cattails rose before us. Despite the intimidating size of the pile, we sat on the dock, chatted about everything from carpentry to careers, and cut the inner white shoots out of the cattail. We ripped off the leaves, and cut the green stem off the cattail until all that remained was a thin, white, flimsy shoot, ready to be thrown into a stir fry. We dissected cattails for a couple hours while sitting on the dock, talking, laughing and enjoying the beautiful lake. In addition to the inner shoots, we harvested the rhizomes, a thick root with a tough skin and a starchy, fibrous center, and the male flower parts.  The expert chefs wrapped the rhizomes in tin foil and roasted them on the grill, and mixed the male flowers into a curried chickpea dish.  In total, there are five parts of the cattail you can eat: the inner white shoot, the rhizomes, the male flowers, the pollen, usually used with flour in breads or muffins, and the lateral rhizome shoots, small shoots often used in salads. We also saved the long, thin, rich green cattail leaves for weaving. After food harvesting, some women sat by the lake and learned how to weave with cattail leaves.

This plate was truly produced by the community. Everyone contributed to the success of this meal by participating at different stages of preparation, no matter of age or strength. While some waded in the lake to uproot cattails, others harvested the young shoots. While some found mushrooms in the forest, others cooked them in huge woks on the open fire. The entire community at the Summit worked together to create this plate while celebrating the sacredness of nature’s contributions to our meal, and our responsibility to give back.

Cooking in the Wok - by Meredith HartThe Wild Food Summit continues year to year because of the dedication of its organizers in creating community, education, and of course, delicious food. This is an event where people come for the comestibles and stay for the community. The success of the Summit will continue into the future as people absorb new values and knowledge and spread them throughout their own communities.  As visitors, we were welcomed and encouraged to participate in the activities and now, being back in Minneapolis, find ourselves picking up plants from the ground and offering them to friends to eat. Like most new things, the skills we learned at the Summit will take some adjustment as we translate them into our daily lives, but will be incredibly rewarding once we do.

To see more images from the Wild Summit, see our Flickr slideshow.


Minwanjige Café

10 10 2008

by Alison Welwood with edits from Emily Larson

Minwanjige Cafe - by Alison WelwoodWithin the last few years, the Minwanjige Café has established itself as a destination restaurant: a lunch spot for visitors and locals alike with a cozy and welcoming atmosphere. This is perhaps why the White Earth Land Recovery Project and Native Harvest use the café to promote tourism at the White Earth Indian Reservation. The café itself displays the strong bond within the White Earth community, shown through its support of local producers as the menu is based on local ingredients. “We use as much local produce as possible, but some ingredients (such as cheese) are too hard to get locally, simply because there is no one on the Reservation who makes them,” said Keira, of Native Harvest’s Farm to School program, who works with the café to order the few ingredients needed from outside the reserve.

Chef Jenise Skramstad works closely with producers on or near White Earth to purchase the local ingredients. She also grows produce in the garden behind the café. The café features unique products like freshly roasted Muskrat Coffee, a brand owned by Native Harvest. Muskrat Coffee is a mix of beans from all around the world, purchased from fair trade suppliers. The café roasts the beans on-site, serving its customers an eclectic mix of rich flavors. The café also sells many other Native Harvest products, including wild rice harvested on the reserve and wild rice products like their famous wild rice cake mix. Other unique items include their homemade salad dressings, jams and maple butter.

The Minwanjige Café is a humble little log cabin on the edge of one of White Earth’s many forests. It exudes a homey and homemade feel, reflected by the handmade Native American crafts and goods lining the walls. The smell of the current day’s lunch fills the café, patiently waiting to entice anyone who enters. The dining area of the café consists of about eight wooden tables that fit tightly together in the largest portion of the single room dining room. Jenise and Keira greeted us kindly when we entered. We assumed they both were staff members, but found later that only Jenise is officially staff. Jenise served several White Earth locals who had stopped by for lunch, and Keira sat down with us to enjoy a delicious meal.

Chef Jenise Skramstad - Alison WelwoodThere are no menus in the café because there is only one lunch item served each day. The café is usually only open for lunch, but now serves dinner occasionally. Because the café uses almost all local ingredients, menu options are more limited. Thus, it’s much simpler to have a flexible, easily adaptable menu. “I usually decide what to make either the night before or in the morning, and usually whatever I’m in the mood for is what I make,” explained Jenise. “There’s always a soup and a sandwich with a side salad when I can get vegetables from the garden.” Unfortunately, food sourced as locally as your own garden has a disadvantage: it’s not available year round.

The menu also changes based on the interaction between individuals in the community. Bill Paulson, a local wild rice harvester and miller joined us for lunch. By the end of the meal, a couple of wild rice harvesters stopped by the café hoping to make an exchange. Local producers often drop by with produce for sale. It is these exchanges that help diversify the menu. Jenise uses ingredients until the café either runs out or there is a new purchase of different ingredients. Thus, the menu at Minwanjige Café changes according to the season, interactions with local producers, and the inspiration of Jenise.

On this sunny autumn day, Jenise probably based the meal of the day around the buffalo meat she recently purchased. The lunch of the day was wild rice and buffalo soup, served with a cheddar cheese and turkey sandwich on a homemade bun, and a side salad. As soon as the food was brought to the table, it was easy to imagine yourself sitting at your grandmother’s kitchen table enjoying her famous home-cooked soup. The soup was brothy with tender pieces of braised buffalo meat from a local buffalo farm, locally-harvested wild rice, and potatoes from a local organic potato farmer. The salad was a compilation of freshly picked vegetables and greens from the café’s garden, served with a choice of Native Harvest dressings. The bread for the Minwanjige "Plate" - by Alison Welwoodsandwiches came from the oven just minutes before. “I put them outside to try and cool them off enough to cut, they’re still a little warm,” warned Jenise. No warning was necessary, however, as their wheaty scent and soft texture amplified the flavor of the sandwich. The meal itself was every bit as delicious as its smell foreshadowed when we first arrived. We completed the perfect meal with a couple baskets of large assorted cookies, freshly baked that morning.

The café isn’t regularly open for breakfast, but we were invited for a late morning meal the next day. When we arrived, we found that Jenise had woken up early to begin preparing for us. She had incorporated many of the same ingredients from our lunch the day before into our breakfast. We enjoyed a spread of wild rice porridge made with Bill Paulson’s rice, pure maple syrup from Native Harvest, the same local, organic potatoes, sausage, egg bake, ripe apples and freshly baked bread toasted and served with Native Harvests maple butter. To drink, we had Muskrat Coffee and fresh juice. As we ate, Jenise prepared the kitchen for lunch. Two of her daughters helped at the café, having fun assisting their mother, and of course, enjoying the delectable breakfast.

Locally sourced food is, of course, better tasting and noticeably fresher than food flown from miles away. In addition to the better food, the Minwanjige Café’s support of local producers economically strengthens White Earth’s community.  Community building is apparent in almost every aspect of the café. By purchasing locally and encouraging friendly working relations with its local producers, Minwanjige Café serves as an example to other rural establishments who work towards sustainable practices and, of course, a successful restaurant that serves delicious food.

To view more photos see the Minwanjige Cafe slideshow.

Buffalo Farm in White Earth, MN

10 10 2008

by Kristen Ramirez with edits by Emily Larson

After a sampling a wonderful wild rice and buffalo soup at Minwanjige Café on the White Earth Indian Reservation, we set out to find the second ingredient in the soup: the buffalo. We sought out the buffalo farmer, Steve Roberts. Steve started raising buffalo twelve years ago. He wanted to utilize more of his land but not degrade it with unsanitaryBuffalo - by Kristen Ramirez cattle. Cattle degrade the wetlands by defecating in the water, but buffalo’s instincts make them fearful of predators near the water. Thus, buffalo go for a drink but that is all.

One problem Steve faces is the misconception that buffalo is more expensive than beef, making it more difficult to sell. Small farms like Steve’s cannot match the low prices of huge farms. The very great difference stems from the quality of care Steve’s buffalo receive. “Look at the quality!” Steve said when explaining his perspective on pricing. “And it’s costing less than if you went into Wal-Mart, and God only knows where that stuff comes from. I don’t even know if God knows where that stuff comes from.” After all, the health of the buffalo translates to the health of the consumer. Steve doesn’t use vaccines and he doesn’t take away the young from the mothers like most other farms do. New baby buffalo take care of themselves once they are dry and walking. Other farmers stick and prod the buffalo, but not Steve. He opens a gate and lets them through. The only thing Steve manipulates is which pasture the buffalo graze in, which he must do to produce grass-fed meat. Grass-fed animals must have plenty Steve Roberts - by Kristen Ramirezof land, so this year Steve designated 80 acres for the buffalo in order to save on food costs. Normally, Steve would have started feeding them hay, but this way he has saved two months worth of feed. He will not need to start feeding hay to the buffalo until there are four feet of snow, thus he only needs hay for four months instead of seven. Buffalo eat snow, whereas cattle will not, so he does not worry about hydration. He doesn’t see any reason to manipulate the buffalo more than this.

Steve explained the pricing breakdown. Buffalo sells for $2.20 per pound hot hanging weight, which means meat and bones, but no innards, head, hide or legs. Finished weight is about $4.16 per pound, which means the butcher takes out particular parts. An online buffalo farmer sells ground buffalo $6.50 per pound, but the charges $6 to $10 per pound for shipping, which in total costs more than Steve’s buffalo. Crops generate more income than grass-fed animals, and it takes three and a half years to get returns from the first herd of buffalo. The economic climate makes small farms more difficult to start and maintain, and as a result, the number of family farms decreases as the number of corporate farms increases.

Buffalo Farm Landscape - Kristen RamirezBuffalo farming is difficult to finance because you cannot “run them up to the sales barn,” said Steve. There are only two auctions for buffalo all year. Many people leave the business because they can’t afford to accept less money for their buffalo each year. He wishes he could sell the calves every year, but they might be taken to feedlots, and then he wouldn’t be promoting grass-fed meat. “When animals are happy with their situation and they don’t feel stressed out, they are going to grow better,” he said. Most buffalo farmers use feedlots, which he believes defeats the purpose of raising buffalo. “You might as well eat a cow then,” he exclaimed. On feedlots, cows eat high volume, high protein food, but don’t get exercise, so they just get fat. Steve thinks it is partially because people want uniformity in their food and are misinformed about the consequences of the process. Education about local food, he believes, is easy for people in cities, but is more difficult in rural areas because of the cost of transportation.

Steve is proud of how he raises buffalo; it is healthier and more sustainable than cattle. “I’m not saying we’re the best thing since sliced bread,” Steve explained. “But you don’t have to be mean to them. They’re not stupid animals. They’re actually pretty smart.” His buffalo are custom ordered, so the farm never wastes meat. Roberts said his goal is to have 10 to 20 families buying half the animals.

It’s easy to forget the consequences of what we eat when we are so caught up in everything else. But it’s not easy to ignore these consequences when we’re close enough to the source to get cow pie on our shoes. We must learn about where our food comes from and seek out sustainable food before there is nothing left to be sought. It is time to start measuring the impact of our everyday lives on the planet, and one good place to start is the origin of our food.

To view these photos and more, please see the Buffalo Farm slideshow.

GiiWaadin Wild Rice

3 10 2008

by Ben Kjos with edits by Emily Larson and Sarah Milnar

Wild Rice- Ben KjosWhile enjoying the Minwanjige Café’s wild rice and buffalo soup, many people may not give much thought to the history of the ingredients sitting in that bowl. But underneath and amongst those tender pieces of local buffalo, swimming alongside those recently harvested potatoes, and soaking up freshly made broth is the ingredient that has one of the most important stories to the people of White Earth: the wild rice. However, the wild rice from harvesters at White Earth should not remotely be confused with the generic wild rice you purchase in a Minnesota grocery store.

We learned the two characteristics to look for when purchasing wild rice are “hand-harvested” and “wood-parched.” Initially, we thought these two characteristics were minor details that separated identical items, such as the difference between quarters minted in Philadelphia and the ones minted in Denver. How wrong we were! It wasn’t until Bill Paulson, a wild rice miller and seller, showed us a package of Native Harvest wild rice that we understood the blatant difference between White Earth rice and the commercial kind produced elsewhere.

The main differences were the slightly pitted surface of the White Earth rice, and the dull, matte finish instead of the shiny black version I had grown up knowing. The White Earth wild rice was dark brown, instead of black, and had a longer grain. Since Bill mills and gets the wild rice ready for sale, he is the main contact for rice harvesters.

Two men arrived at the café to see if Bill was buying any rice. We asked Bill if he thought that the two harvesters would show us what freshly harvested rice looked like. “You want to see rice?” one harvester said. “You’ve never seen fresh wild rice before?” We sheepishly grinned and admitted that we hadn’t, and followed them to their car. Since fresh wild rice was something they’d grown up with, I could see how they’d be shocked that something they viewed as commonplace as so new and exciting to outsiders. As MCAD students, I’m sure we would be just as surprised to find out someone had never used an Apple computer.Bill Paulson - by Ben Kjos

After opening the back of his vehicle, the harvester pulled out a heavy, white, woven plastic bag – the kind you expect to see used for sandbags. As he untied the twine from the top, we hunched down with anticipation to see what was inside. I don’t know about the others, but I really didn’t know what to expect. Would the bag be filled with grains of the wild rice? As it opened, I was pleasantly surprised to see a bag filled with dense, wet, green stalks. Bill stated earlier that a common misconception is that wild rice is a grain, when it’s more appropriately considered a grass. By looking closely, the rice could be seen shooting up out of the stalks at different intervals.

As we thanked the two harvesters for teaching us about their wild rice and letting us snap a few pictures, they mumbled something to each other and chuckled, probably concerning our naivety about wild rice. I had to smile as well.

After getting my hands on a bottle of the Native Harvest dressing I had with my lunch at Minwanjige Café, it was time to follow Bill to our next stop. A short ride later, as our small caravan of cars sped along a winding dirt road, we arrived at our destination: GiiWaadin. GiiWaadin, meaning “a learning place,” is where Bill lives, works and teaches. Wild Rice Mill - by Ben KjosWe entered a long garage and saw a dozen heavy bags of rice. At their side was rice in flat wooden boxes and a large, cylindrical piece of machinery affixed to the ceiling that extended to the back of the garage. With a heavy handed push, Bill pushed the cylinder outside, showing us that it was attached to a garage door track so it could move outside or inside. This device, which Bill re-manufactured himself, was a giant roaster that was delivered to Earl Hoagland by the White Earth Land Recovery Project and was in need of repair and some slight modernization.  Originally designed as a stationary unit, he could now slide it outside, light a fire under it and then turn on the motor, thus rotating rice in the giant device over the fire. This further dried the rice and cooked off the excess inedible parts of the grass. Unlike other mills where many people are required to bring a heavy roaster in from the rain, or build a shelter over it, Bill needs only himself to push the roaster inside thanks to his garage door track idea. Prior to Bill’s more commercial style of milling, elders roasted the wild rice by stirring the rice in a heavy metal cooking kettle left by the pioneers as they traveled, or against a small mound built of hardened clay, both would have a fire built behind them to warm the kernels of rice. Elders slowly stirred the kernels with a paddle until it was dry enough to store through the winter. Afterward, the women and children (being lighter) would place the kernels in a hole lined with hides or canvas and dance (called jigging) on the rice to loosen the hulls from the grain. Then they would place the rice in birch bark containers called “winnowing” trays and in a precise action toss the grain upward and catch it again in the tray to allow the wind to sweep away all the light, extra pieces of hulls and grass.

Bill’s way of removing the hulls was quite interesting. A drum that was let into the chassis of a pickup truck was controlled by the transmission and had beaters in it that thrashed the rice to do what the “jigging” was doing originally. From here, the rice was put into its last step of the milling process, being shaken and sifted through a series of different screens in a milling machine that was rescued from an old grain mill. This divides the full grains of rice from the broken ones. Bill then sells the full grains to Native Harvest and uses the broken grains for soups. Traditionally they would be used for  the children or the elders since it is much easier for them to eat a porridge style food made from the broken grain.

We exited the garage and walked down to the lake. Our class understood we probably wouldn’t get to go directly onto the lake, since harvesting rice is a very protected activity for the Anishinaabe people on the waters that they control on the reservation. But we were ecstatic when Bill instructed us to pull some canoes down to the water. There are usually two people in a canoe while harvesting rice. The knocker carries two carved wooden sticks and the pusher carries an extremely long pole. The pusher slowly navigates through the Wild Rice Boat - by Ben Kjostall grasses of the lake by standing to the rear of the boat and pushing off from the bottom of the lake with his long pole. The knocker harvests the rice by gently swiping it with the carved wooden sticks into the canoe. This gentle action allows the ripened rice to fall not only into the canoe, (it is illegal to harvest unripened wild rice) but also down into the water so it can reseed itself. Unripened rice remains adhered to the stalk and experienced harvesters could go back in a few days to harvest again as it ripened more. This ability of Natural Wild rice to ripen over a period of time allows the grain to ensure its own survival and is one of the main reasons for the need to keep the original wild rice from being compromised by genetic engineering to produce a grain that can be cultivated.

Bill went on to tell us this wasn’t some large-scale operation, and that the rice they sell is meant to educate those that buy it. “When you cultivate rice, you are trying to make money,” he said. “When you harvest rice, you are trying to feed your family.”  The opportunity to sit in a canoe on the lake and learn a trade passed down from generation to generation instilled in us a deep respect for Bill and his desire to teach outsiders the meaning of harvesting rice and to share the history of his people. How else would we have learned where actual wild rice comes from, how it is harvested, or where it is found? By bringing people onto the reservation and teaching them about his people, Bill said then we could share what we learn with others. Through this sharing, the tribe is much better off. Wild rice is something that should be sought out and appreciated. And it tastes a whole lot better than that shiny black pellet stuff.

To view more images see the Wild Rice Slide Show