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Questions

My friend Ellie Markovitch moved to Brazil. I always knew she might not stay here – she and her Russian husband have lived in a lot of places – but that doesn’t mean I’m ready to let her go.

Ellie Markovitch stacked flat circles and made them a lovely tower of corn crepes.
Ellie Markovitch stacked flat circles and made them a lovely tower of corn crepes.

 

Ellie is electric. Her mind and heart are wide open, whether she’s talking to you, cooking with you, feeding you, or teaching you something: photography, cooking, or both. Whether she’s using capeoira, the Brazilian martial arts dance, to help describe the focus and physicality of taking pictures, or priming your senses for a cooking class with the warm scent of pao de queijo, cheese pastries. The perfume of these little chews invites you into the kitchen, and into the moment: that is Ellie, always in the moment, and drawing you into it too, in as many ways as she can. Those moments include the past, each of our experiences stacked tight like Lego blocks, and building more.

 

I’ve never met anyone quite like her. There are friends who set you on fire, who make you feel good and grand and very alive. Ellie is one of these people for me, but she sets a lot of people on fire, not just her pals.

Could flour look lovelier? More of Ellie's eye on my interests.
Could flour look lovelier? More of Ellie’s eye on my interests.

Ellie trained as a photojournalist, and so for a long time I thought of her as someone who took pictures. As she trained her eye and questions on me, however, I realized that categorization was too narrow. The scope of her inquisition is broad. The questions she asked me stuck with me and made me think deeply about the answers I gave.

 

What are my first memories of baking when I was a kid? What did I like about the process of making pancakes? I answered them for whatever project we were working on – digital story, blog post – and then I kept answering them for myself, incorporating her quizzes into my writing, writing more on those topics.

Ellie catching me with Felix as he wondered when a crepe is ready to flip.
Ellie catching me with Felix as he wondered when a crepe is ready to flip.

Now I’ll have to find a reason to go see her – maybe we can teach together again – two years in a row we got to teach writing and photography to a group of women veterans, and all of us were charged by the classes. Brazil, I am sure you want Ellie and me to collaborate!

 

In the meantime, I have to not pout about her going, unless I scare away the next person who might have half the capacity to light up my mind and life. So I’m musing on this idea: questions matter more than answers. Keep asking the right ones.

 

Lessons

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In my job at Unity House, I know we are serving more than calories. We are offering nutrition for bellies and spirits, serving smiles and choices as people go through the line, and select what foods they want on their plates.

 

I am often applauding this part of eating – the opportunity to exchange affection and kindness through cooking. But I don’t easily accept the affection and kindness offered by other cooks, especially when it comes pancakes.

 

I have such a thing going with pancakes that I don’t really want to eat other people’s versions of them. I like my pancakes. I like the process of making them. I like the engagement. I can’t really eat someone else’s engagement, can I? Well, that’s what I ask of others, so maybe I can.

 

I pickled myself with a bicycle crash, and if I want pancakes, or any kind of food, I need lots of help. Luckily, I only earned a mildly fractured pelvis and some road rash. I’m delighted that I didn’t hit my head. I did earn a few days in the hospital.

 

Once I got home, my first meal was pancakes. I had to surrender the process to Felix. He is pretty well schooled, and made an excellent re-entry plate of spelt cakes for me, with minimal demandingness and micromanagement on my part.

 

That night, friends brought dinner and lo and behold, that was corncakes! From afar I helped with the heat on the griddle, and then all I could do was marvel and enjoy.

 

Enjoying the lovely cakey and soft corn cakes was simple. Topped with a couple of salsas – chicken tomatillo and very vegetabley tomato/summer squash – and sour cream, they were the perfect meal.

 

Swallowing my resistance to other people’s pancakes turned out to be pretty easy, too. No, I am not going to run out to restaurants and try their sweet takes on white flour cakes – that’s not my gig. But I am letting down my guard, and thinking a lot about how ideas can get in the way of communion.

 

I had two plates of perfect pancakes in one day. Thanks, accident, for delivering me the food, and the lesson.

 

 

Flour Ambassadors

 

 

I can’t believe The Kneading Conference is over. I never can – I love the bubble of bread that happens in Skowhegan the last weekend in July. I love the people I meet and the people I stay with – Susan and David are my Maine family and already I miss them dearly. But for a few days I got to be shoulder to shoulder with people who love bread and love making it. And I got to be the keynote for this event’s 10th anniversary. What a treat.


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This place is my book come to life and I hope that my speech makes more regional grain projects happen. I emphasized the importance of mills in giving farmers choices of what to grow. After the conference was over, I went on a farm tour that hammered home the point I was making. Up and up a hill, deep in the middle of nowhere I visited Rusted Rooster farm. Sean O’Donnell was showing people his equipment and crops.

He used an old Clipper cleaner to demonstrate seed cleaning. Behind the machines sat his Gleaner combine and the John Deere combine he uses for parts. He talked about the way his grains lodge and what he does to get those crops out of the field. He talked about soil pH and the hundred years of crop development that made other places better for grain farming.

Sean was really good at articulating how these facts and habits affect what people grow. “I’ve got friends who farm GMO corn and soy. And they aren’t evil. They’re just boxed in by a system,” he said.

My thoughts exactly! Mills are the key to creating new systems that serve the off-grid grain choices people want – heritage varieties, stone milling, non-Big Wheat stuff. The Somerset Grist Mill is fostering such alternatives. Rusted Rooster’s Red Fife – whose seed heads are still green as other growers in the Northeast are finishing up wheat harvest – will head to the mill. Crops from more than 20 other farms go to the mill, too.

Grains are a high volume, low value crop that needs intermediate processing to get to market. Mills are a critical piece of infrastructure. That’s what I told people at the beginning of the conference. Here is the oath:

I do solemnly, happily swear

that I am going to tell everyone I see

that it’s okay to love flour!

 

Bread is not poison. Invisibility is poison.

I will try to make visible all the labor in bread,

from seed to mill, from mill to loaf.

 

Mills are the levers to get more interesting

grains in the ground, and on our tables,

and under our butter.

 

 

Bread Builds Community

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A month from today I will be waking up in Maine, getting ready to talk about my favorite thing: fresh flour and the people who make it. The Kneading Conference has invited me to be their keynote speaker, and I’m thrilled. The Maine Grain Alliance is celebrating 10 years of this bread event, and the two days of the conference will bring my book to life.

 

When I first started talking to people about bread building community, the Kneading Conference kept popping up, like it was a country I had to visit. I was a little worried the place wouldn’t meet my expectations, because so many people spoke so fondly of it, but this is one instance where high hopes were very much met.

 

I love the bread community that grows each July at the fairgrounds in Skowhegan, and the year-round attentions to farming, milling and baking that have grown in Maine. The Somerset Grist Mill, home of Maine Grains, is housed in the former county jail: talk about transformation!

 

Grains require so much cooperation from seed to loaf and ground to glass; I’m fascinated by the shared work that is bringing so many people together. These collaborations cross the boundaries of political affiliations and schisms, and are a real emblem of human potential in practice – something we really need to see right now.

 

At the Kneading Conference, I can’t wait to see people interacting with the stories I caught in The New Bread Basket: Blair Marvin and Andrew Heyn will be leading a milling workshop, and Peter Endriss will be teaching a full two days for home bakers. Bien Cuit, Elmore Mountain Bread, Runner & Stone. Ciril Hitz, Richard Miscovitch and Zach Golper will be there too. I admire all of these bakers and bakeries to no end and can’t wait to be near them.

 

I’m excited to meet other presenters and attendees, too — like bread, the days will be a chance to share and get full, mind, body and soul. Find out more about the conference here.

Flying Pancakes

If pancakes could fly, they would go straight from me to the world. Since they can’t, I will.

Andrew Ross, cereal scientist, and me in the greenhouse. Thanks Shawn Linehan for the great pictures here.
Andrew Ross, cereal scientist, and me in the greenhouse. Thanks Shawn Linehan for the great pictures here.

 

Oregon State University flew me out to make pancakes for their Barley Day. I’ve never made pancakes in a greenhouse before, but I was in my element flipping pancakes for 100 eager barley hounds – growers, brewers, maltsters and bakers, and plenty of others, too.

 

These beer-curious people came to learn about what is happening at OSU’s barley breeding program. This was a daylong adventure in getting to know grains work, from plant genetics, to fields of test plots. Along the way, we saw the facilities – including the new micro malting tank that will allow them to analyze smaller batches as they investigate what varieties and crosses are worth pursuing – ate and drank barley goods, and got to hear from lots of people who are working with malt.

Pat Hayes is a barley researcher and breeder at Oregon State University.
Pat Hayes is a barley researcher and breeder at Oregon State University.

 

I met Pat Hayes, barley researcher, and cereal scientist Andrew Ross as I researched my book. Pat and Andrew are both good-humored brainiacs, and I wish I could plant myself in their work and write more about their studies, and all the grains things happening in Oregon.

 

The mesh of human connections required from seed to glass and seed to loaf fascinates me. Scientists, growers, millers, maltsters, marketers, brewers, and bakers: quite a bucket brigade of labors is underway. I got to catch up with James Henderson, Farm Liaison from Hummingbird Wholesale, and meet Scott Sayer, who grew out an OSU barley variety, Full Pint, that is now being used by craft brewers.

 

Oregon is a place where grains of known origin can work. I loved being at Seastar Bakery & Handsome Pizza, and tasting all the attention and affection these bakers give to my favorite foods, helping grains shine like the more coveted kids in the food kingdom. I loved making English muffins at a workshop put together by Adrian Hale of 1000 Bites of Bread & Communal Table. The Maris Widgeon (from Lonesome Whistle) & Star wheat (thanks Grist & Toll for finding this LOVELY wheat & making such amazing flour) English muffins we made were interstellar!

Thanks again Shawn Linehan for catching the cakes in action.
Thanks again Shawn Linehan for catching the cakes in action.

 

So thank you, OSU for inviting me to be a part of Barley Day. I’m very grateful, as I am to Food Tank, for putting me on their summer reading list – lots of great company in those titles!

 

And last but not least, thanks to WAMC, my local public radio station, for having me on Food Friday. I made a Flour Hour, taking calls on my favorite topic. The show is archived here. I could talk about flour all day long. How about a Flour Hour marathon? Any interested programmers, give a ring.

 

 

 

 

Fingers Crossed

I almost got through Lent without making Hot Cross Buns. I’ve been very excited about English muffins, and they were sort of taking care of my need to make something small and bready and wonderful before Easter. But then I read this post by Tami Weiser and since I am mildly superstitious, I had to make some. And then some more.

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“Great friendships are said to be sealed over a shared bun, and baking and eating them atavistically protects you from getting the evil eye,” she wrote on The Kitchn.

Those words got me baking, same as some other words got me baking in June 1998. My son Francis was just born, and I was reading Frank McCourt’s memoir. The thought of the author’s twin siblings potentially going to purgatory because they died unbaptized made me concoct a backyard ceremony.

My husband is a multigenerational agnostic, and I am a lapsed Catholic. I wasn’t interested in baptism until I read the book. Jack went along with my plan, and asked a friend who lived in a former matzo factory to bring water from the once-blessed pipes.

We invited friends, and I made loads of hot cross buns, and I said something silly and stabbing at eternity and protection. The day was sunny and there was dew on the grass.

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Now my kid is almost 18. I gave some buns to friends, in gratitude and in superstition, trying to seal my pals to me: they are so dear.

Here is a hint of how I made mine from Tami Weiser’s recipe: I cut the sugar to ¼ cup, and upped the cinnamon to 2 teaspoons. I skipped the zest because I forgot it. I used Farmer Ground Flour, both high extraction and spelt, and even people who don’t adore whole grain flours gobbled them up.

Traveling Around

Traveling around, I love getting to catch up with people I wrote about in the book. This week I got to go to Vermont, to one of the strongest grains education days: the Northern Grain Growers Association (NGGA) annual conference in Essex. This was the 12th one.

 

The NGGA started to investigate organic grain production for the dairy market, and shifted to food grade inquiries on production practices as the market developed. I love that farmers began and continue this work, very ably abetted by the enthusiasm and resources of Heather Darby and the crop and soil team at UVM.

 

This is where I met Jack Lazor, and his love of history and people. Where Randy George and Ben Gleason showed me how bakers and growers need to communicate about their work and needs. Where Loic Dewavrin helped me begin to understand the importance of seed.

 

I get such a charge from seeing these people and hearing about their work. Loic – from Le Moulins des Cedres in Quebec — is font of innovation. He told me about a rotary tine weeder he’s working on, and the way he’s rolling hulless oats. Blair Marvin from Elmore Mountain Bread told me about the shifts at the bakery now that Andrew is focusing on building mills.

 

I got to learn about nixtamalization from Joe Bossen of All Souls Tortilleria, and began to learn a little bit about grits from Greg Johnsman of Geechie Boy Mills in South Carolina. The world of corn is very big and tasty and confusing!

 

 

In the front is Red Hen bread with Quebec flour and Geechie Boy polenta. In the back is a loaf made from Tom, a variety trailed at the Farm Hub -- baked by Sharon Burns Leader and devoured by me!
My Vermont eats: In the front is Red Hen bread with Quebec flour and Geechie Boy polenta. In the back is a loaf made from Tom, a variety trailed at the Farm Hub — baked by Sharon Burns Leader and devoured by me!

 

I got to share my love of pancakes and fresh flour, too, lending hints on making mixes to growers who sell at farmers markets and need some help introducing flour to shoppers. Mixes sell much better than flour, I’ve heard farmers report, and while the purist in me objects, I know it is best to meet people where they’re at, rather than not meet them at all.

 

Now I’m looking forward to my next visit to a member of the book: Nan Kohler! Nan is such a champion in grains. I really admire her ability to introduce off-grid flours to the world. Her history in wine gives her an ability to articulate the nuances of flavor, and her experience baking allows her to very clearly express the functionality of the flours. That I get to work with these beautiful flours, so artfully milled, is a huge thrill.

 

I’ll be talking about flat cakes and flours at Grist & Toll on April 1st. You can sign up for the event here.

Flour Pedestal

I am now 7 x 7 years old, and I still adore pancakes.
I am now 7 x 7 years old, and I still adore pancakes.

Well, it’s conference season. Lots of people are interested in grains, so the book and I have been on the move.

 

The Cascadia Grains Conference in Olympia, Washington really put me on a flour pedestal. As I was scheming on how to get griddles across the country, I got an email from a flour pal asking if I’d like some flour for my pancake class. Oh boy!

 

I had a beautiful array of flours to choose from: Turkey Red, White Lammas, Sonora, Purple Egyptian barley – these were all from the Palouse Colony Farm, a small farm growing heritage varieties with lineage in the region. I also had Edison and Emmer from Camas Country Mill, and couldn’t have been happier. I decided to make both pancakes and crêpes to highlight the flavors of the grains, and show how well griddlecakes deliver these unique flours.

 

Showing off a beautiful griddle. Photo credit Andrew Ross.
Showing off a beautiful griddle. Photo credit Andrew Ross.

I truly felt like the pancake queen to have Andrew Ross, cereal scientist from Oregon State University, lend his scientific knowledge to the enthusiastic pronouncements I made in class. I am a fan of flour, and like all fans, my emotions can misinform me.

 

I also spoke about how policy helps small grains projects happen, like New York’s Farm Brewery licensing and Greenmarket Regional Grains Project’s major push to get bakers at their farmers markets using regional products. And I invited a few people from my book to tell their stories on another panel. Tissa Stein from Tabor Bread, Annie Moss from Seastar Bakery and Sue Hunton from Camas Country Mill are in my Oregon chapter, and it was so rewarding to hear them give voice to their work.

 

The middle weekend of January put me in the middle of New York, at Hartwick College, where the Farmer Brewer Winter Weekend migrated from its Pioneer Valley/Valley Malt nest. I had a ball planning the paired beer dinner for a Rye Feast – I’d love to do a meal like this again, and put grains on the pedestal, where they belong.

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And last weekend I was at NOFA-NY’s winter conference in Saratoga. Five years ago, this is where I first met pioneers in regional grains, and began to get to know the people who populate my book! Leading a writing workshop there felt terrific. What better way to salute the book, which I hope is creating chances for more small grains projects by showing possible models for people to follow, than to show farmers and food entrepreneurs how to tell their own stories.

 

I used to love writing just because I love words, and I like to connect to people. Now I love writing for another reason: I’m fascinated by how storytelling helps move ideas in the world, and make ideas into actions. This is what I want the book to be, part of an engine for change. Thank you Cascadia, Farmer Brewer, and NOFA-NY for the invitations to help fuel new thoughts and chances for grains.

Flour Tours

 

This book has taken me on the road. I feel like a flour vaudevillian, and wish I had stickers from my stops to put on my griddle and suitcase. They would read Seattle, New Haven and New York City. I loved speaking with people from my book at Yale and Stone Barns, and making Christmas cookies close to home at Honest Weight Food Co-Op.

 

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Writing a book is so different than other things you do for other people. When I make a pancake I get fast feedback. I finished this book a year ago, and with my stunning patience, was ready to hear what people thought of it right away. I had a six-month lag time where the book was neither in my hands nor in my head, and that limbo makes the experience of hearing how the book is living in the world both surprising and satisfying.

 

My book is landing at a time when people want to hear something new about grains. Very often I get asked about gluten or big wheat. I’m not an expert in these topics, so I try to answer the questions with what I have learned, and always steer people toward the thing that directed my wonder on this topic in the first place: fresh flour.

 

I like when I can let the flour speak for itself. When I can hand someone a pancake, or shortbread, and people can taste a wildly lively ingredient. That’s the food that made me ask questions and led to my meeting all of the stunning pioneers who populate my book.

 

I was so happy this past weekend to lead a panel discussion at the Farmer Brewer Winter Weekend at Hartwick College. Some lions of local beer told their stories: Farmer Thor Oechsner, Brent Manning of River Bend Malt, Phil Leinhart of Brewery Ommegang, and Sam Filler from Empire State Development. Then I asked them to imagine what they need to help regional grains systems progress, and we had a conversation that was both dreamy and pragmatic.

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This is all a very real dream to me. In January 2011 I began to meet people in grains. I went to NOFA-NY’s winter conference and could not imagined that a few years forward I would be writing about the people in the room.

 

Friday I’ll be leading a workshop in Saratoga at NOFA-NY’s winter conference. I’ll be working with Rebecca Frimmer from Kitchen Table Consultants. She’ll be guiding people through social media planning, and I’ll be doing some writing exercises to help people find their voice.

 

I’ll be signing my book in the evening – I feel content to bring the book to another place it began. Like I’m bringing a baby home.

Plimoth Plantation

My latest trip was nothing like my time in Kansas. In that state, the cars were few under the sky, whizzing like nuts to remote destinations. Driving across Massachusetts, I could hardly believe how many of us there are, crawling from spot to spot in our cars. The mills were very different, also.

Gray's Grist Mill
Gray’s Grist Mill

I stopped by Gray’s Gristmill in Adamsville just because I was near. How could I resist taking a peek? Thinking about how many mills used to dot the landscape is a little unbelievable. This is how we got our flour: from great stones with waterpower. In New England, there were tide-powered mills. That we get basic foods so easily now doesn’t seem possible or right.

 

I like to run my mind over that conundrum, which is why I was thrilled when Kim Van Wormer, the miller at Plimoth Plantation invited me to come make pancakes at their Sampe Fest.

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Saturday and Sunday I set up near the water wheel with my electric griddle and made pancakes with Floriani Red cornmeal and rye from Farmer Ground Flour. These are my favorite fall pancakes, so hearty and sweet. Plus they tell a story of what grows here, and how we eat what is available.

 

Wheat didn’t grow very well in coastal New England, but rye did all right. So the settlers combined it with Indian corn and ate what they could.

 

The settlers didn’t have a gristmill until 1636, 16 years after they arrived. At first, they would’ve used a mortar and pestle, and then they had a water powered mortar and pestle. Building a large stone gristmill and its protective housing was an expensive project.

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Visitors to this mill can get an understanding of my favorite kind of milling, stone milling, and the other ways early Americans, both Native Americans and colonists would’ve processed grains. I love the history work that happens as the wheel turns and the building rattles, and I hope it helps get people’s gears turning in their heads about grains. Plus, you can get stone ground cornmeal!

 

Follow this link to my recipe for cornmeal rye pancakes. And put this mill on your map of places to visit.