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Rice on the wild side: exotic natural grain from Minnesota

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DURING a recent holiday in Minnesota I indulged for nine days in one of the great natural culinary delights in this country -- wild rice. I cooked, ate, and served the exotic grain at least once a day: in omelets for breakfast, soups for lunch, in salads, saut'eed with mushrooms and onions as a side dish, in casseroles, and of course as a stuffing for poultry.

Northern Minnesota produces nearly two-thirds of the world supply of wild rice. Most of it comes from up here near the boundary waters.

In spite of the common name, this dark, native grain -- Zizania aquatica, to be exact -- is not related to the common rice: Oryza sativa.

So important was this grain to the Chippewa and Sioux Indians in this area that tribal wars were periodically waged to control and maintain the shallow waters where it grew.

That's no longer a problem in the area now. Up here, wild rice is sold in every supermarket, as well as at gas stations -- ``It's there, right next to the Trail Blazer brand beef jerky'' -- and even in bait shops and sporting goods stores.

At the Leech Lake Indian Reservation, LeRoy Ellis runs the One Stop Bait Shop. He's quick to hand out his glossy, yellow-and-black waterproof business card featuring a duck in flight, a stag's head, and a jumping fish. Just under his motto (``Our Minnows Are Guaranteed to Catch Fish or Die Trying'') it boasts ``The Finest Native Wild Rice.''

He plucks a few one-pound packages from the glass case of fishing lures.

``Co-owned A & E Wild Rice for over 30 years,'' Mr. Ellis says, adjusting his wool cap. ``Gave it up to be a trophy guide a few years ago.''

``Do I like it?'' he asks rhetorically. ``It's the best. I'll tell you what's good -- leftover plain boiled wild rice with cream and sugar on it for breakfast.'' That, I suppose, is a bit of a luxury you can afford when you own the company.

``That's five dollars a pound,'' he says, handing me two packets and two leaflets with recipes and directions for cooking. Bargain prices compared to what it goes for on the East Coast.

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