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Northwoods nostalgia

–by Liz Morrison

Listen to a radio segment on Minnestalgia’s wild rice

wild rice, MinnestalgiaJay and Lori Erckenbrack have been selling northwoods nostalgia for two decades.

Their company, Minnestalgia, produces more than 80 food products from “up north,” including maple syrup and sugar; wild berry jellies, jams and syrups; pancake mixes; and wild rice. Their Minnestalgia Winery makes distinctive honey and wild berry wines.

Now, the McGregor, Minn., entrepreneurs have introduced several new Minnesota wild rice products: stone ground flour, wild rice cereal and quick-cooking polenta. The products were developed with help from AURI food scientist Charan Wadhawan, who has assisted the company since its founding.

Jay Erckenbrack has worked in the wild rice industry since 1982. He once asked a veteran northern grower why people don’t eat more of Minnesota’s delicious native grain. The grower’s answer: “Cook time.”

Steaming or boiling long grain wild rice takes 45 to 60 minutes. But Minnestalgia’s stone ground wild rice cooks in less than six minutes, Erckenbrack says, a convenience for today’s busy cooks. “You can have hot cereal or a great side dish in a few minutes.”

Nutritionally, ground wild rice is identical to whole grain wild rice, says Wadhawan, who did a comparative nutritional analysis for the company. That distinguishes it from instant wild rice, which has been pre-cooked and dried.

Ground wild rice is also easy to incorporate into other dishes, like chili, soup or casseroles, without a separate cooking step, Wadhawan adds. “Wherever you use regular white rice, you could replace it with ground wild rice.”

Foodie trends

In addition to convenience, Minnestalgia’s stone ground wild rice products tap into other current food trends, Wadhawan says.

For example, consumers are being urged to eat more whole grains for good health, a move that has even found its way into new federal school lunch requirements. Wild rice and wild rice flour are also gluten-free, another hot food trend. Gluten-free food offerings have expanded 200 percent since 2009, Wadhawan notes.

Wild rice dishes also appeal to health-conscious consumers looking for unique flavors and textures, Erckenbrack says. Wild rice polenta, for instance, can be served hot and creamy, like grits, or chilled, then sliced and fried. And it’s a versatile vehicle for other flavors, like mushroom and onion, he adds.

Like a trip to Grandma’s

Erckenbrack started the company — formerly called Minnesota Wild — in 1990 to give consumers a taste of northern Minnesota’s plentiful native foods. In addition to wild rice, the region’s bogs and woodlands produce abundant wild fruit — chokecherries, high bush cranberries, red currants, blackberries, plums and more. The company buys thousands of pounds of hand-picked fruit and wild rice from dozens of independent suppliers, many from northern Minnesota’s Leech Lake and Red Lake Indian Reservations.

From the start, Minnestalgia jellies, syrups, and wines were meant to evoke memories of “a trip to Grandma’s house,” Erckenbrack says. “My grandma on my mother’s side made a delicious red currant jam. I can still see it. She always had fresh bread and rolls, and homemade jam and jelly. We’re doing the same thing on a larger scale.”

Minnestalgia operates a 12,500-square-foot plant in McGregor, which includes processing and packaging facilities, a stone mill, a winery with a public tasting room, and a retail store.

Erckenbrack also does processing for other companies’ brands, and Wadhawan often connects Minnestalgia with new food start-ups looking for a northern Minnesota packer.

Minnestalgia stores

Minnestalgia products are available in Minnesota specialty and gift shops, and direct from the company at its McGregor store or through its website,

This spring, longtime Crow Wing County businessman Steve Foy opened a Minnestalgia outlet in Brainerd, Minn. He had carried a few Minnestalgia products at his home décor, antiques and fine furnishings store, Design Consign. “They sold really well, so we decided to become a distributor.” Foy’s new 1,200-square-foot Minnestalgia shop, a store-within-a-store located in Design Consign, offers the entire Minnestalgia product line, plus custom gift baskets and mail orders.

Customers like the fact that the foods are “all natural and 100 percent Minnesota-grown,” says Foy, who has two decades of experience in the wholesale food distribution business. The wild rice and chokecherry products are especially good sellers, he says. “People say, I remember when my grandmother picked chokecherries.”