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Parching Wild Rice by Hand and Fire

Wild Rice
Parching pans mare used to dry green rice over a smouldering fire. After it is parched hulls and chaff are separated from the rice.

My wife Mary and I have been wild ricing since 2006. While searching for a processor for our 2009 harvest, one processor piqued my interest because of her traditional parching method. Most commercial rice processors parch rice in big tumblers heated by gas or LPG. Cathy Chaver hand-parches the rice over an open fire.

Parching destroys the rice germ, which prevents the seed from sprouting, allowing the rice to be stored for long periods. Parching also hardens the kernel and loosens the hull (to be broken off and discarded in the hulling part of the process).

Cathy has wild rice in her blood. Her father was a partner for many years in the King Bros. wild rice processing operation in Nett Lake, Minn. King Bros. grew to be one of the area’s largest rice processors, some years processing over 100,000 pounds of finished rice. One year, the company processed over half a million pounds. The King Bros. plant burned down in 1972 when a spark from an electric motor ignited the highly flammable rice.

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Still, Cathy’s father continued the King Bros. tradition of processing wild rice. (After all, he was married to one of the King daughters.) The main difference with his operation was the switch to hand parching, with a wood fire as the heat source. Cathy continues to use that method today.

The parching pans hold 60 to 80 pounds of green rice, depending upon moisture content and the lake where the rice was harvested. Two people, called “parchers,” wield short-handled canoe paddles on either side of the pan, moving the rice from end to end and side to side. Watching the stroke of the parchers reminded me of playing shuffleboard. Hardwoods, mostly oak and maple, fuel the fire below the pan. Pine is added judiciously if the fire needs a quick boost. A clock set up close to the parching operation times each new batch of rice. The average time needed to parch a batch of rice is 45 to 60 minutes.

During the teeth of the processing season, the parchers may put in 10-hour days. (That’s a lot of rice pushing.) Barb Bunker, a parcher for the operation for nine years, drives 60 miles each way to work. Asked why she travels so far for such an arduous job, Barb said she really likes the folks she works with, and working with the rice and the ricers helps keep her connected to her heritage.

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Parching over a wood fire imparts a unique, slightly smoky taste to the already nutty flavor of wild rice. Open a bag of the rice nine months after processing and you can still catch a whiff of the smoke from the parching fire.

After Cathy’s father had to quit the business, Cathy was the only sibling that wanted to carry on the tradition. But, fortunately for Mary and I (and our ricing partners), Cathy is grooming her sons, Tim and Eddy, to take over the business--which will ensure a traditional processing outlet for many future rice harvests.

If you would like more information about Cathy Chaver’s wild rice processing operation, contact the author via email at outriderduluth@msn.com.

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