Today is Maundy Thursday, Holy Thursday, or the Feast of the Lord’s Supper. I was looking forward to this day in jail, because I often think about food and ritual meals. I suppose Job put me in a ‘desert father’ mood, reminded me of something I heard from Abba Moses: sit in thine cell, and thine cell will teach thee all.
In Aitkin County we didn’t have a fire to sit around, but we did have the warm worm-glow of the television. So around muted TV, we told stories, often over lunch trays of chicken feet and oatmeal pie. One cellmate had harvested wild rice last fall; over winter rice makes up a third of his diet. Another dude was overcoming addiction by returning to traditional practices. A third guy sporadically shouted, ‘DOWN WITH THE CROWN!’ which I first took as a sly reference to coronavirus (‘corona’ is Latin for crown), but quickly learned was his protest against the Queen of England (which through leaps of logic he blamed for the land theft perpetuated by Enbridge, the Canadian company behind Line 3). Somewhere in the disintegrating fog of a post-lunch nap, I tuned out the protests and dreamt of wild rice.
I was at a Passover Seder (the ritual meal of the Jewish liberation story) on a sinking ship somewhere between New York and Atlantis. Many people brought dishes to share alongside the lamb shank, charoset and bitter herbs. My dish was made of light, but it floated away as soon as anyone looked at it. I can remember its name: anam manoomin’n. Anam means soul in the Irish language. Manomin is the Anishinaabemowin name for wild rice, deriving from manitou, roughly meaning spirit, and meenum, or delicacy. And the Hebrew word for life is chai, consisting of two letters: chet (n) and yud (‘). Anam manoomin’n basically means wild rice as a way of life. I never found out what it tasted like.
I woke up for dinner, scrawling in pencil on the back of my ‘Probable Cause to Detain’ form: learn not how to decolonise your diet, but how to let food decolonise you. It was Sunday three days into Epiphany – Fat Tuesday was over a month away; I had some time before Passover to translate this dream dish into edible food. I knew where to start.
In the fall of 2017 my partner Lindsay and I travelled across the Great Lakes filming interviews on the water for a project we would later name Emergent Seas. We were documenting the afterlives of the auto-industrial complex, mostly curious to see how the land and water respond to oil spills. At a Line 5 flotilla protest on the Straits of Mackinac, a friend introduced us to Lee Sprague. Lee is Ogema of the Little River Band of Ottawa Indians in Michigan as well as Mnomen Elder of the Gun Lake Pottawatomi. When we met him, Lee was restoring stretches of the Kalamazoo River after the apocalyptic 2010 Enbridge oil spill, and he was using mnomen to do it. (Note: Spellings in Anishinaabemowin vary widely depending on location. In present-day Michigan, where Lee Sprague lives, wild rice is spelled ‘mnomen’, whereas in present-day Minnesota ‘manomin’ or “manomin is used. I try to respect local spellings when travelling in my writing.)
As Lee explained to us, wild rice is an indicator species; it’s very sensitive to its environment. To bring back mnomen requires rehabilitating its native habitat, which for the Kalamazoo means pollution cleanup, dam removal, and restoration of shallow-water banks, among other Sisyphean efforts. Wild rice needs stable water levels, especially in spring and summer when the plants are in ‘floating leaf-stage’, where its roots are still weak and the plant has not yet entered its ‘emergent stage’; motorboats and their wakes can easily uproot and kill the fragile yet resilient plants. The coastal marshes, inland lakes, and the lush mouths of tributaries of the Great Lakes are the only places on Earth where mnomen grows wild – as in, not including ‘paddy rice’ and the cultivated varieties – and this is no accident.
I’ve heard it said that all creation stories are true. As Lee and other friends tell us, the Neshnabek and their Algonquin relatives once lived all along the Northeast Coast of Turtle Island – what is now New England and Nova Scotia. As the glaciers retreated, seven prophecies came to the Neshnabek; two told them to move west or face extermination. The people would know they reached their promised land when they discovered ‘the food that grows on water’. For many generations the Neshnabek migrated across the Great Lakes, stopping along the way, until they arrived on the western tip of Lake Superior and beheld wild rice, standing tall like a wheat field or bamboo culms on the water. Mnomen for this and many reasons is sacred here, spiritual nourishment for the Neshnabek, the first food they give a newborn, spirit of land and water.
We are whom we eat. Food is medicine and spirit, and when you take away someone’s access to those spirits, everyone dies a little inside – especially Indigenous peoples removed from their homelands onto Indian Reservations, forced by the U.S. Commodity Food Program to eat white flour, white potatoes, and white sugar. I’m white, and I currently live on the Fond du Lac Reservation near Lake Superior, also near Line 3. In Anishinaabemowin, the word for Reservation is Ishkwanjigan, which translates as ‘leftover food’, which I find especially poignant. Here I witness first hand the diabetes, addiction and cascading consequences of having to buy your groceries at Walmart or receive leftover foodstuffs from the Salvation Army. Not that everyone’s a victim.
We are whom we eat. Food is medicine and spirit, and when you take away someone’s access to those spirits, everyone dies a little inside.
I’ve lived between the Mississippi River and Lake Superior all my life, but I’m not native here. Fleeing the Hunger in Ireland and invasions in Austria-Hungary, my disparate ancestors settled their anxious appetites on a smorgasbord of Minnesota State fare – lottsa latkes, lefse and goulash at family gatherings with white wine and whisky passed under the table, kind of fare. Given this State’s realities of white chauvinist policing and a Prairie Home Companion-brand of settler colonialism, on top of my misguided attempts at humility, I was shy when I was growing up about sharing my ancestral culture with my Minneapolis neighbours, giving away dumpstered bagels at potlucks rather than risk a hot take on Irish or Ashkenazi cuisine. ‘Authentic’ shepherd’s pie always felt too invasive, like I might as well bring a bucket of buckthorn to the party. Like I said, misplaced humility.
Lying awake after lights-out in jail, I reflected on Lee Sprague, the rice camp he led, and his invitation to ‘bring in’ our ancestors, our faith. Then I dreamt about my brave little Seder dish: an ‘Irishinaabe’ stirabout perhaps, or a wild rice salad if I decide to get fresh.
This year Maundy Thursday fell on April Fools’ Day, which used to be New Year’s in the West. For the Anishinaabeg we were waning away from the Snow Crust Moon. I decide to welcome the false spring by revisiting the footage I took of Lee.
It’s sunny; laughter slaps the sky like rice poles on water. Although we’re in a very carefree setting –no proscribed gender roles, for instance –Lee conducts rice camp with the spirit and methods traditional to his ancestors. First we offer prayers and tobacco. Young people are parching freshly harvested rice in a cast iron pot over open fire, grabbing handfuls to feel if its ready, smelling the coffee-brown pot and listening for the popping of white seeds, which they giddily toss in their mouths, careful not to prick themselves on the sharp barbs. Students in moccasins are dancing on roasted rice, a traditional practice of hulling the shells held long before modern machines were introduced. Birch bark baskets help sift the chaff from the grain. Elders-in-training are busy teaching children how to make their own push poles out of tamarack and spruce (these woods lessen the blunt impact on the fragile mnomen plant); elsewhere kids are carving knockers out of cedar, one of the four sacred plants to the Neshnabek. They will use these poles to propel their jiimans (canoes) across the rice beds, and with the knockers they will gently tap the head of the stalks to release the rice into the hulls of their boats. But for now, intentions are set. ‘Good thoughts, always help’, Lee smiles big.
The bundles of knowledge he shares are also seeds to plant in our body-minds.
The next video clip we’re lowering our jiimans into the water, preparing not to harvest, but to plant seeds. As sexy as harvesting mnomen is, seeding may be more important out here, where pipelines, climate change, and non-native harvesters threaten to destroy wild rice habitat for good. Wild rice holds sediment back, preventing soil from washing away. Sediment is where the nutrients live. The restoration work Lee does is supported by the Great Lakes Restoration Fund; much of that work involves planting seeds, as well as holding back the cultural sediment, i.e. documenting invasive species to observe evolving relationships between native and non-native species. The bundles of knowledge he shares are also seeds to plant in our body-minds.
‘These are some native cattails, see how fat they are?’ Lee surprises himself as we drop fistfuls of seeds into sunny patches of river shallows. ‘All the rest of these are the Asian narrow leaf cattails; it’s invasive. I didn’t even notice how fast they took over from the native cattails. I ate the first one about a year and a half ago now, in the spring time –’
‘ – You ate one!?’ a seven year old in his canoe can’t believe it.
‘Yeah. We eat the native cattails, has more calories per acre than wild rice, by a factor of five or ten. And the rhizomes that connect these plants, on our native cattail, are a little thicker and have sweeter starch. Right above the root mass, if you cut it, it’s like celery, and it’s got a peppery taste to it, so it can be added to salads. If I was smart, and I’m not, I would start a company that would make cattail shoots for salads or stir fries’.
That’s the thing with invasive species: they’re everywhere. Lee’s original attitude was to uproot them all, but with irreversible climate change he’s realised that task is impossible. So his elders told him, Lee, see what the animals are doing with it. ‘And I see the muskrat making their lodges with this now. I see birds in the cattail marshes, so I learned a little about what the animals are doing. That’s what Nanaboozhoo did, when he first came here for the wild rice. He observed the duck eating the rice. When I hear our stories, I can see scientific knowledge, deeply embedded in the patterns of our kin. Nanaboozhoo brings the seeds home to his grandmother to plant back up river, and she plants them. That’s a message for us to do the same thing. These stories are three-dimensional beings – not just dead words on a shelf, like a treaty.’
We see some rice growing that Lee planted last year. As we pole upstream, a turtle passes by, then a muskrat.
‘That’s our creation story, right here in this river. I don’t need a lot of faith. I’m looking at it. It’s like wild rice and our creation story. It’s really good to take our communities down here, and our guests and allies, just to see this. Today I feel what we just did – this is what gives me goosebumps.’
Watching this footage gives me goosebumps too. Wild rice is rich in amino acids, vitamins, fibres – one of the healthiest grains in the world – but the cattails, and other wild roots, native and non-native, each have something unique to offer. They’re here anyway, might as well put them to use. That’s when anam manomin’n appears, a faint light in the dark night of the Lord’s Supper. Perhaps I can bring this light dish to next year’s Seder potluck, as long as I stay out of jail. Better late than never: that’s my life motto.
Epilogue: I call Lee to ask permission to tell this story. He responds with an update. Since Lindsay and I were last in Battle Creek, Michigan, Lee’s worked with fellow Standing Rock water protector Gerardo Reyes, alongside ‘allies’ and local tribal members – mostly Gun Lake Potawatomi and Prairie Band Potawatomi –to restore the Kalamazoo River through mnomen and ‘traditional ecological knowledge (TEK)’. The day we spoke, Lee and his amazing dog, Nmush (Anishinaabemowin for dog), saw mnomen growing at the ‘ground zero mark –the Talmadge Creek Delta – of the Enbridge Line 6B oil spill. Considering how devastated the Kalamazoo was, nobody thought it was possible for rice to reclaim it, Lee beams as he tells me. Then he sends me numerous videos of Nmush chasing geese off the rice. Reminds me of goose fat and how schmaltzy I feel for the underdog battling Goliath.
A recipe for anam manomin’n
This is a rich dish, adapted from recipes by Korii Northrup Stonerbeforehorses and Beatrice Ojakangas. The herbs and wild roots are added as flourish, making it a dream. The spirit of the dish is to find wholesome herbs, roots, fats, and sweets that grow natively, or invasively, in your region, and to learn the cultural significance of each.
Wild Rice (native harvested if possible)
Chicken stock (vegetable stock for vegan)
Schmaltz (butter for vegetarian, avocado oil for vegans)
Maple Syrup (native harvested if possible)
Narrow Leaf Cattails
Lamb off the bone (wood ear mushrooms for vegetarian/vegan)
Ramsons, bear leeks, buckrams, or garlic
Ramps, tarragon, thyme, or loveroot
Parsley, Parsley Root
- Start by offering prayers of thanksgiving to God/Creator/Great Spirit, the land and waters from which your ingredients come, the original stewards of that land, and the current hands that harvested it.
- Rinse wild rice in hot water. Keeping in mind that manomin cooks at a 3/1 ratio of water or liquid, on stovetop boil a pot of stock and add rice once boiling, turning to simmer after one minute.
- In a pan, fry half a yellow onion in stock and schmaltz. The schmaltz may come from goose or chicken, whichever is prepared for the Seder meal, if applicable. Add narrow leaf cattails, ramsons, ramps, and parsley root. Lightly caramelize. Add to simmering rice. Cover.
- Fry salted lamb in the same pan with juices and crusty bits. Set aside.
- Chop parsley and dates.
- Simmer until rice is tender and has opened, typically 45 minutes, depending on the lake from which the rice was harvested, less time for chewier rice. Drain any extra liquid (into a preserving jar, not the sink!)
- Add parsley, dates, and a few gulps of maple syrup. Stir. Serve with lamb. Give first taste to the ancestors. Enjoy!