A few weeks ago, to kick off the 50th anniversary of the Taste section, we sifted through our archives and explored the history of wild rice soup. It’s probably Taste’s most-published recipe, with more than 60 iterations appearing over the years. (That's our version of the recipe, above, in a photo by Dennis Becker and Lisa Golden Schroeder).
The story generated a phone call – and a ton of memories – from Keith Kersten. He’s now the CEO of Bushel Boy Farms in Owatonna, Minn. In the mid-1970s, he was a recent graduate of the Culinary Institute of America, finishing his studies at the University of Minnesota and working for chef Willy Mueller and general manager Niels Tiedt at the Orion Room, the swanky restaurant at the top of the IDS Tower in downtown Minneapolis. That’s where the recipe originated, and where this chapter of the story begins.
“Willy was Swiss, and when he got here, he fell in love with wild rice,” recalled Kersten. “He had never seen it before. He made a pilaf with it, and it went on every dish, and it was delicious. Every night, he would make up two big roasting pans of wild rice, and he’d often have one left over, and that was an extremely expensive and wasteful thing to do. Back in 1974, you could only harvest wild rice if you were Native American, and, as a result, that created a monopoly. It was $16 a pound, I remember that to this day. That’s the equivalent of $40 to $50 today. [Actually, according to the Federal Reserve Bank of Minneapolis, it’s closer to $80]. Niels said that, at that price, wild rice was ‘Minnesota truffles.”
Yes, the recipe for wild rice soup was created out of economic necessity.
“Niels was saying, ‘He’s throwing all of this wild rice away, what are we going to do with this guy?’” said Kersten, pictured, above, in a Star Tribune file photo. “So I went in and I whipped up a wild rice soup. I took that [leftover] wild rice, I incorporated a bechamel, and then added ham, which brought it all together. Everyone loved it, and so we put it out at lunch. Ann Burckhardt [a Minneapolis Star food writer] happened to be there that day, and she raved about it.”
Word obviously got around, because on Aug 28, 1974, a Minneapolis Star reader wrote into the Taste section’s Restaurant Requests column, asking for the recipe. Tiedt politely declined.
The clip reads, “This particular soup, although served in the Orion Restaurant, was created for the Tower Club, which is a private luncheon club,” wrote Tiedt. “We prefer to keep the recipe for our members and guests only.”
But Kersten said that there was more to it than that.
“I said I wasn’t interested in giving the secret ingredient,” he said. “Not because I didn’t want readers to know, but because I didn’t want Willy to know. I was young, and I was dumb, but I had a good clientele built up there, and I wasn’t going to give it up. That’s why we turned down the request to publish the recipe. Niels even put some pressure on, but I knew that I wasn’t going to be there for very long. The soup was extremely popular; it’s what saved my job. Willy wanted me fired, but Niels said, ‘I can’t fire him. Ann Burckhardt might write a story about that soup.’”
Turns out, she didn’t, at least not then. Shortly thereafter, Kersten went to work for Northwest Airlines, and relocated to Montana.
Fast-forward to Dec. 17, 1975. Another Taste reader wrote into Restaurant Requests, inquiring about the recipe. This time, the restaurant obliged (find the recipe at the end of this story). There’s just one hitch.
“It wasn’t my recipe, it was Willy’s,” said Kersten. “When I left the Orion Room, Willy did his own rendition of wild rice soup, and that’s the recipe that they shared with the newspaper. My mother cut it out of the Star and sent it to me, and I got a big kick out of seeing it.”
Four years passed. Kersten was back in Minneapolis on a family visit, and on a walk with his young daughter, he ran into supermarket owner Don Byerly.
“He was trimming his roses,” said Kersten. “He gave my daughter a rose, and a week later I was working for him.”
Byerly wanted to build a central kitchen to supply his growing chain of supermarkets with freshly prepared foods, and he hired Kersten to make the project a reality. Guess who was a fan of that Orion Room wild rice soup?
“When he’d visit the restaurant, Don would ask for a couple of quarts -- or whatever he could get -- and then take the soup back to the Byerly’s kitchen, and they would try and figure it out,” said Kersten. “I remember going there – it was at the St. Paul store, on Suburban Avenue -- and seeing what they were doing, and they were using things like artificial creamer, and cream of mushroom soup. I got a big kick out of that. That’s when I said, ‘I have the recipe.’”
Frozen heat-and-serve wild rice soup was about to become a mainstream favorite, thanks to the reach and influence of Byerly’s, which by 1980 was operating five busy locations, including its influential, much-copied mega supermarket in St. Louis Park.
Byerly – he sold majority ownership of his company in 1990 and it was acquired by Lunds seven years later -- is retired and living in California. He isn’t sure of the exact date when the decision was made to get into the frozen wild-rice soup business, although he recalls that the phenomenon started as a menu item at the stores’ restaurants.
“We had a lot of customers asking to buy soup by the pint, or the quart, so they could take it home,” said Byerly (pictured, above, in a 1979 Star Tribune file photo). “Being a retail guy, I thought, ‘Wait a minute, I think there’s an opportunity here.’ We always tried to provide something that people couldn’t get elsewhere. Keith took the soup, and he ran with it, and it was definitely something that people couldn’t get elsewhere.”
They developed an audience by sampling it every weekend at the store’s deli counters. “That was another one of Don’s ideas,” said Kersten. “There really wasn’t much sampling in stores before then. When I would go to trade shows to sell it, I learned not to say, ‘Would you like to try wild rice soup?’ Instead, you just handed it to people. They’re so polite, they would just take it, and try it. And then they’d say, ‘This is really good. I didn’t know that I liked wild rice.’”
The production facility -- one of the first of its kind in the country -- opened in southeast Minneapolis in 1979. “And we built the kitchen around that soup,” said Kersten. “Don had great forethought. The kitchen was supposed to be for fresh foods, but there were huge spikes in demand, and to keep the staff busy during slow periods, we added the line of what developed into 19 frozen soups, from chicken noodle to vegetable beef. The wild rice soup became a cornerstone of that kitchen, and then it became an institution.”
It sure did. A 1985 Taste story notes that the supermarket chain was posting annual sales of 40,000 gallons of wild rice soup. Byerly recalls that, at one time, Kersten was supplying frozen wild rice soup to supermarket chains in 11 states, making it one of Minnesota’s most endearing and enduring food exports. (That's the soup, pictured, above, in an early 1990s Star Tribune file photo).
The company eventually built a larger production facility in Lake Mills, Iowa. “It’s still going strong today, and it was really built around that wild rice soup,” said Kersten.
Byerly’s also spread the wild rice soup gospel by sharing the recipe with its customers (“The recipe is sent all over the United States – with a bag of Minnesota-grown wild rice – to loving friends and relatives from Byerly’s customers,” said Gwen Bacheller, home economist at Byerly’s Ridgedale, in a 1985 Taste story). There was one slight hitch: the public wasn’t getting Kersten’s formula. He was still keeping that secret ingredient a secret.
“That was the recipe that was created by our home economists,” said Kersten. “They did a great job with lots of different recipes.”
Byerly’s wild rice soup recipe first appeared in Taste on Dec. 31, 1980; since then, variations have been published more than a half-dozen times (find the current iteration here).
Decades later, Kersten is no longer preparing wild rice soup.
“Why should I, when the Lunds & Byerlys version is so phenomenal?” he said, adding that he has an alternative. “I coat chicken breasts with seasoned flour, saute them in butter, then throw in some mushrooms and brandy. Then I add three or four packages of Lunds & Byerlys wild rice soup, and bake it for two hours. It’s the most amazing thing you’ve ever had.” (That's Lunds & Byerlys frozen soups, pictured above).
Byerly was obviously a fan. “Back then, I ate everything that was around, the richer, the better,” he said. “Since then, I’ve mended my ways. But yes, I loved it. I had it for lunch pretty much every day.”
By the way, that secret ingredient that Kersten refused to reveal, back in his Orion Room days? It’s staying that way.
“I'm not going to say what it is," he said. "It belongs to Lunds & Byerlys. It’s their business."
ORION ROOM WILD RICE SOUP
Note: Published in Taste on Dec. 17, 1975 (that's the Orion Room, above, in a 1974 Star Tribune file photo). Maggi seasoning is a flavor enhancer and is available at many supermarkets.
Duck bones or chicken carcasses from 1 to 2 birds
1 bay leaf
1 whole onion, sliced
1/4 rib celery and 2 carrots, chopped
1 1/2 qt. water
2 tsp. chopped peeled almonds
Salt and white pepper to taste
3 tsp. liquid Maggi seasoning
1 smoked ham bone
1/2 onion, finely minced
2 ribs celery, chopped
1 carrot, chopped
2 c. cooked wild rice
2 pints heavy cream
Place stock ingredients in a large kettle and cook slowly for 1 1/2 hours. In a separate soup pot, melt butter and saute onion, celery and carrot. Add wild rice. Fill pot with strained stock and cook on moderate heat 60 to 75 minutes. If necessary, thicken with cornstarch. Add cream just before serving.