Containers

I am home from my latest expedition, which began in Chicago, on a panel at The Good Food Festival.

 

“When I opened my bakery four years ago, I thought it would be easy to get local flour,” said Ellen Levine. The owner of Hewn had trained as a pastry chef in Seattle, and thought that moving home to the breadbasket would give her access to my favorite food. However, like Randy George of Red Hen Baking in Vermont, patience and inquisition have been the keys to helping develop regional supply.

Erin Meyer and I in front of Hewn, in Evanston.

Visiting her bakery and meeting her business partner Julie and some of their employees was a treat. I couldn’t have dreamt up a better origin story: this iteration of the bakery began when Ellen’s very small bicycle delivery CSB caught Julie’s attention. Once Julie had the bread, she began a journey to help get this bread to more people. Now, Hewn is waiting for Janie’s Farm to get their milling operation online so they can use more regional flour.

 

Next I went to the Mill City Museum, which is made from the ruins of Pillsbury’s Washburn A mill. As I was researching my book I read about Minnesota’s history with milling and wheat. This is where spring bread wheat really took root, and so did American roller milling. Maybe this was Ground Zero for the disappearance of wheat, flour and bread from daily life? I don’t think there’s really one Ground Zero for the sea changes we’ve seen in grains over the last 200 years, but significant changes began to happen in Minneapolis, and I was glad to visit the remnants of the mill.

The reason for this trip was a residency at the McCarthy Center for Public Policy and Civic Engagement at St. John’s University. I spent three days there and at the College of St. Benedict’s, talking my heart out about regional grains and how to change the food system.

 

Professor Matt Lindstrom, Director of the McCarthy Center invited me, and hosted the centerpiece event, a conversation with Chef Paul Berglund, the James Beard award-winning chef from The Bachelor Farmer. We talked about the challenges of using food that links more directly to the land than products from the dominant production system.

Matt Lindstrom, Paul Berglund and I at St. John’s Pottery.

The talk was held at St. John’s Pottery, which operates in a tradition that glues the pottery to the place. Now I can drink tea from the mug that Richard Bresnahan gave me, and reflect on a subject that’s been itching me this year.

 

As people we create containers for each other. We open and shut doors to each other and experiences. This notion came to me because in January and February, my city lost a few residents. Dean Leith founder of Capital Roots, and Mary Jane Smith, who founded Unity House, and my neighbor Chico Christopher and my aunt Mary Ellen Halloran all passed away. My cousin John and Steve’s remembrances of their mother helped me see a lesson in these exits.

 

Do the work, was the theme that John took from his mother’s life, using the fact that she made bread for their sandwiches all through school as a suggestion that we should just do the work, not fuss about presidential dramas or other unsolvable woes. Steve noted that his mother, an elementary school teacher didn’t try to change people. She loved her students, and that changed them.

 

Do the work and love each other — these practical injunctions resonate for me as I consider the structures that the other people I mentioned created. My neighbor Chico was an architect and served on the board at Capital Roots, which grew from Dean Leith and Garden Way’s initial community garden into a multi-pronged food access and urban greening agency. Mary Jane Smith was an architect of the multi-pronged human services agency that houses the community meals and food pantry programs where I work.

 

At St. John’s and St. Ben’s, I realized that my grains storytelling began when Matt and Amy Lindstrom built another container, the Troy Waterfront Farmers Market with other people in my city. I applied for the job as market manager because I was tired of writing query letters for jobs that I never got. I had no clue that my writing would find a new imperative. Working for the farmers I saw I needed to make visible the work that we eaters take for granted.

 

And that awareness is something I explore in another container – an essay in the book Letters to a Young Farmer. Stone Barns Center for Food and Agriculture invited me to contribute this piece to that book, which is part of their general effort to create change and opportunities in farming.

 

My trip to the Midwest held many more people that I want to tell you about, but I’ve been talking long enough this morning, so I will tell you more another time.

Lauren and Ali, who are researching the nutritional value of Emmer. I dub them, with affection, The Emmer Sisters.

 

Time

 

I can’t believe how much of it has slipped under us already this year. It feels like I was just packing for the Cascadia Grains conference, yet since then, I’ve been enough places to break a suitcase.

Maybe this is why my suitcase broke!

 

Cascadia Grains Conference in Olympia, WA

NOFA-NY Winter Conference in Saratoga, NY

Farmer Brewer Winter Weekend at Hartwick College in Oneonta, NY

Hudson Valley Grains School in Coxsackie, NY

Brewers’ Choice in Brooklyn

Louismill in Louisville, KY

IACP Conference in Louisville, KY

 

I wanted to write about each one and tell you about the grains pioneers I met, but as soon as I get home I’m back to work at Unity House. I am grateful that my job is flexible enough to let me pursue so many opportunities. Everywhere I go, I try to get a taste of the innovations in emergency feeding programs like the ones I help run.

 

Last week in New York, I visited Holy Apostles Soup Kitchen, which serves 1000 lunches a day. 50 different volunteers make this happen, plus Chef Felipe Saint-Martin and a small but steady kitchen support staff. One thing I love about this place is that they use whole grains and lots of fresh vegetables. Dessert is always a piece of fruit. Offering these nutrient dense staples is tough in an emergency food environment. I was really inspired by their example, and I look forward to visiting with them again, maybe for their fundraiser in May, Farm to Tray.

1000 meals a day calls for some goofing off.

At work, we are serving lots of vegetables these days. Pickled beets, carrot salad with turnips, and green salad with oranges and grapes. Blueberries are pouring in, free from the USDA commodities program, and somehow, we are getting zillions of grapes through the food bank. The flow of food always intrigues me, but the routes to grains are the ones I want to understand most.

 

Beautiful soft white pastry wheat. Made great pancakes! And some killer biscuits, too.

 

Tom Edwards is doing something extraordinary with Louismill & MozzaPi in Louisville, Kentucky. I am so grateful I had four whole hours to do a presentation with him before the IACP conference. Tom served grits and beautiful breads for breakfast, and talked about what he was doing with the mill – creating a new model that prioritizes farmers and the grains themselves. He talked about the conversation he had with the Mennonite farmers who are growing his corn, and paying them twice the commodity rate so that they could stop working off-farm.

This is what fuels my fire: the decision to create new relationships between staple crops, from field to mill and mill to me. Thank you Tom, for making such a fantastic place. That day really nourished me.

 

Now I am home for a minute, and the snow is about to pile on us in the Northeast. I’ll be walking to work and making breakfast for lunch for whoever braves the blizzard. I hope you are tucked in snug, like blueberries under a crust – be sure to get or bake some pie for Pi Day, okay?

 

 

Read Write Cook

I miss my friend Ellie so she and I are stretching across the clouds between us through the best glue we know — pictures, food and words. Instagram has been a penpal service covering the distance between Troy, New York and Brazil, where she now lives. In salute to the new year, we’re getting organized about connecting with each other through social media. This isn’t a private journey — please tag along.

Ellie Markovitch makes me want to eat vegetables, like this beet and rye bread.
Ellie Markovitch makes me want to eat vegetables, like this beet and rye bread.

What do you want more of in 2017? We want to take 20 minutes every day to connect with food and words. Join us. Share your stories of reading, writing and cooking and label them

#ReadWriteCook2017

#take20minutes

#CreatePatterns

 

Do you want to bake your own bread? Cook more at home? Set up regular times for reading? Cultivating habits is easier with friends, so we invite you to join our challenge.

 

Decide what goal you want to focus on, state it in your first post, and show us again and again how you #CreatePatterns in your life. Show us your flour. Snap a shot of the page you’re reading. Show us your ingredients. People you are sharing meals with.

 

The rules? None. The suggestions: set aside 20 minutes a day. Choose one goal. Switch focus after a week, a month, a year – whenever you want to guide your attentions to another area.

 

Ellie's King's Cake made with rye.
Ellie’s King’s Cake made with rye.

This idea comes from us, two friends who want to bridge the gap between Brazil and upstate New York, where they used to inspire each other in cooking, writing and photography projects. Photojournalist @Ellie Markovitch (storycooking.com) is pushing the reset button, returning to her home country, starting a kitchen from scratch in Rio de Janeiro. On Instagram, I am @Amy.Halloran, @flourambassador (amyhalloran.net) and I want to set a tone for growth, and develop a social structure to support it past the first weeks of the new year.

So as we all jump off the cliff of another year, let’s hold hands and #ReadWriteCook2017

Okay?

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Made Visible

Christmas Eve, my parents made lots of magic after we went to bed. The most wonderful thing was the dolls’ breakfast my mom set up. She took our dolls and stuffed animals and set them up at a table. In the morning my sisters and I were completely enchanted. The dolls had a tea party, and tiny presents. This was only the first of delights. Next came the stockings, and then the tree. Sometimes, in between, there was a treasure hunt, with clues in the stockings guiding us around the house to find larger presents that didn’t fit under the tree.

I don’t know if I ever managed to make a setup for my kids, though this was the kind of magic I wanted to repeat. I marvel at how my mom managed to make such charms for us, her care hidden from us while we slept.

One of my mom's Christmas setups.
One of my mom’s Christmas setups.

My mother made us feel that special was normal. Not everybody gets to have that luxury. I get to see this in my day job, running a community meals program and food pantry.

This work seems very different from my writing about regional grain projects, but the jobs share a common thread. I am making people visible.

Feeding people is not just physical. In the best scenarios, feeding is a manifestation of care, an extension of concern that should answer more than hunger. In the dining room and in the pantry, I hope we make people feel seen and acknowledged. That all their appetites – for work, emotional safety, health, and interpersonal connections – are valuable and that they as people are worthy and deserving.

Writing is a way to make people visible, too. Stories are bridges, helping us cross into other lives. I get to connect readers to the work that goes into bread, from field to loaf. Even though I was an avid baker most of my life, it took me forty years to begin to wonder about flour.

My book was a way to show my wonder, and introduce some of the pioneers working in grains. I want to keep showing the labors tucked inside each miraculous loaf of bread, behind every glass of beer. I’m thrilled that I got another chance to tell the story of Skowhegan, Maine at the New Food Economy.

Bread is medicine for Skowhegan, and for lots of other places where people want to find new ways to connect with each other over food. This concept isn’t new, but adding milling and local grain farming into the mix is. Baking has long been a conduit for stitching people together, from swapping sweets at the holidays, to bake sale fundraisers, to much grander projects, like a bakery that’s in the works in Lebanon.

The Sadalsuud Foundation is launching a bakery to help create a bridge between residents and Syrian refugees. Sarah Owens, author of the beautiful and useful Sourdough Cookbook is soon leaving to set up the bakery and train bakers. She’s written about the project on her blog.

screen-shot-2016-11-20-at-5-14-37-pm

This is bread building community, making us visible, and our work visible, to each other. I started the Flour Ambassador campaign with this kind of visibility in mind: to shine a light on great grains and regional mills, and raise awareness of all the people whose work goes into making bread.

This bakery project in Lebanon is letting flour and bread bridge cultures, helping people see each other in the work of making our daily bread.

I have embroidered badges with the Flour Ambassador logo. If you’d like one, please donate to the Sadalsuud Foundation, and then send me an email note with your physical address, and I’ll send you a badge, or two or three.AmbassadorM

Here’s to bread, and all the hidden work that makes our days special and normal.

Thanks mom, for showing me that life can be both pedestrian and spectacular. What a wonderful lesson.

Holiday Baking

Shortbreads are a great way to taste fresh whole grain flours. As Nan Kohler of Grist & Toll says, the flavors seem to amplify each other – the butter gets butterier, the salt tastes saltier, and good flour tastes fantastic in a shortbread.

 

Purple Egyptian barley shortbreads make a house I want to live inside.
Purple Egyptian barley shortbreads make a house I want to live inside.

Holiday baking makes me want to go fancy, and get festive with the ingredients & shapes. But shortbreads do best as themselves. Salt, butter, flour – maybe some sugar, maybe not. There is no need to dress these up, or make pretty shapes. Just cut a bunch of tiny squares and bake and you have done your best by the flour.

My favorite shortbreads I’ve made this year are from purple Egyptian barley grown on the Palouse Colony Farm. I could not get over the taste – this barley has a lot of flavor. It is not commonly found, so it may seem I’m teasing you by mentioning it. Sorry about that: I’m just in love with it.

I am also in love with spelt shortbreads, or rye-spelt, or 100% whole wheats. Sonora and other white wheats are great on their own, and oat flour is a great addition. When I used the purple Egyptian, I only used half barley because I didn’t have much of it. I also thought the cookie could be too crumbly if it were all barley – rye, oats and barley I think will do best combined with some wheat.

 

Bear in mind that if you use heritage flours, they are thirstier than flours you get on the supermarket shelf. What this means for cookies is that you might need less flour to get the dough you want. Start with 10 ounces and see how close to a pie crust style dough you get. If the dough isn’t stiff enough, add more. I’d start with 11 ounces for supermarket flours and modern varieties of wheat that are stone ground.

 

Recipe

10-14 ounces whole grain flour

¼ cup sugar

1 teaspoon salt

8 ounces butter, softened (but not melted)

 

Preheat oven to 350 degrees Fahrenheit.

Mix flour, sugar and salt in the bowl of a stand mixer. Cut butter into ½ inch squares, and using the paddle, mix into the dry ingredients. Start with 10 ounces and see what you’ve got. The dough should be pretty stiff, but come together in a ball. Think pastry crust, more than cookie dough.

You will likely need to add more flour to get to the right consistency. If you add too much flour — meaning that ball you made crumbles, just add a tablespoon of water or rose water, and add another if the dough is still crumbly. 

Put on a floured surface, and pat into a rectangle about an inch thick. Roll about ¼ inch thick, cut into 1 inch squares, and bake about 12-15 minutes on unbuttered cookie sheets. You might want to roll and cut on parchment to make the transfer simpler. I use a ruler and a knife to cut the cookie dough.

 

Tip: don’t try to make a shortbread into something else. Sugar cookie and gingerbread doughs are sturdier than this one, and the big, cookie cutter shapes you can make with gingerbread or sugar cookie dough will break with this one. Trust me.

 

 

 

 

 

 

Thanksgiving

 

Today isn’t about the food. Yes the meal will be tasty and preparing it has consumed our time and imagination for much of the week, but when I think about all the Thanksgivings I’ve had, I remember the people.

 

Ellie Markovitch stacked flat circles and made them a lovely tower of corn crepes.
Thanks Ellie Markovitch for this picture and making cornmeal crepes look great.

The excitement of dinner at my grandmother and grandfather’s house – I loved them. They died too soon, and the excitement shifted to dinner at my aunt and uncle’s house. The first Thanksgivings I cooked on my own in Seattle, I was ridiculously happy reading old cookbooks and thinking about what to serve. I thought it was about the food, because that’s what had my attention.

 

Now I have a job where we make big meals five days a week, and I am becoming more aware of the many things that food delivers besides nutrition. I love the camaraderie of extra volunteers helping prepare the many dishes from scratch. A little girl raises money at her mother’s salon, and comes in with her Girl Scout troop to decorate the dining room.

 

Last year my dear friend Ellie steered us through making 150 sweet potato hand pies. This year, I am looking at pictures of her hands on Instagram – she’s moved to Brazil because her husband got a job.

 

Ellie is from Brazil, and the holiday was hers to invent while she lived here. I remember being shocked at what she made for Thanksgiving: a turkey leg in a Crockpot so that she could take the day to hike with her family.

This is how Ellie looked at flour. Her picture from my kitchen, cornmeal and rye.
This is how Ellie looked at flour. Her picture from my kitchen, cornmeal and rye.

Why was this such a surprise? Food is but a conduit for the connections we foster and hold dear. Ellie’s life revolves around cooking and teaching and exploring the potential of food to do very many things.

 

Yet in my stilted imagination, I assumed her Thanksgivings in America should take our shape. Now that she’s gone, I see that she recognized what we disguise with our seven-layer starch cake of a meal surrounding a large bird.

 

Today is about the people. The food (and the many millions of pots and pans and dishes we will wash) is incidental, a delivery system for the sentiment my friend captured by going out and walking with her family in the beautiful world.

Bridges & Badges

AmbassadorM

 

Last night, I went to bed thinking about bridges – not real ones, but the idea of bread as a bridge. I crossed one with Sarah Owens, author of the beautiful and helpful Sourdough cookbook.

Yesterday she taught a great class at the Hillsdale Home Chef. What a nice space for me to meet this generous woman, and for her to introduce people to sourdough. The class made sweet potato dinner rolls, spiced with coriander, cinnamon, cloves and allspice.

Afterward, we talked, and I loved hearing about the bridges she is building with bread, through her classes and plans. I loved knowing more about the bread bridges she has built, like when she started selling sourdough breads through a CSA.

Greenwood Heights CSA asked her to use 60% local flour in her loaves, and so she used Wild Hive and Farmer Ground flours. This required some committed logistics. Miller Don Lewis delivered her flour, and she used a bike trailer to haul Farmer Ground Flour home from the Greenmarket at Grand Army Plaza. A bicycle!

I am but a kid in bread land, and so happy to have Sarah’s instructions guiding me, in person and in her book.

screen-shot-2016-11-20-at-5-14-37-pmI love her broad interest in taste. I forget that other foods exist besides grains. Her background in gardening really shines in her approach to food. She reminds me that food is a bridge to the land – not just grain kernel to loaf, but from the land to every leaf, fruit and every other thing we eat.

I gave her a Flour Ambassador sticker, because she one. A terrific voice and educator, she’s helping people gain baking skills and look at bread from another direction. I’ll send her one of the embroidered patches I’m getting made, too.

The patches are part of a holiday baking campaign to highlight fresh flours and wholegrain baking. Local grains, whole grains, alternative grains – these ingredients are bridges to better food and better farming. Using them, and bragging about it on social media, makes you a Flour Ambassador.

Would you like to be a Flour Ambassador? Please salute grain diversity by tagging your baked goods #flourambassador. Extra credit for naming the farm or mill that hides inside your loaf or pie. In thanks, I’ll send you a badge. Just send your name and address to flourambassador@gmail.com.

 

Palouse

I am home. The leaves on the trees are yellow, and not yet ready to let go of the branches. I’m glowing too, and hanging on to a journey that has me shining.

I got to see the Palouse in Eastern Washington. This is wheat country. Barley, too.

The Palouse hills were green with fall planted grains, or stippled tan with a 5 o’clock shadow of stalk stubble. The land looks muscular, and also at rest, like boneless sleeping giants collapsed on each other after a roaring party.

15039465_1582315118460616_6639609631232968770_o
Jenny! Thanks for the picture Don.

Every few miles huge elevators and bins are full of wheat and barley. The grain projects I write about are a drop in the bucket compared to this scale of production.

But tucked inside the big is what got me here. Dick and Don Scheuerman from the Palouse Colony Farm invited me to their hometown of Endicott. I made pancakes at Jenny’s store, on an electric griddle as people helped themselves to coffee, sat down with their mugs at paper-covered tables. Beyond this room people came and got breakfast sandwiches, bought other stuff at the general store. We used a recipe Dick traced to Martha Washington, with my favorite pancake flour, White Llammas, plus Scot’s bere barley, and cornmeal.

After breakfast, I sat with some growers and shared stories. The idea was to offer tales of alternatives to these 4th and 5th generation wheat farmers. I only got a hint of the challenges these growers face if they want to change course in grains.

I wish I could tell you all about the people I met, but I feel at a loss for description. We had a morning together. That’s not enough to get beyond first impressions, and I can’t wrap generalizations around people anymore. They’re like old bandaids on wet skin.

Dick Scheuerman has been a student of this area and its peoples his whole life. He’s written about the Russian German history, and the first nations’ histories in the Northwest. I landed just at the right time, to see a celebration of Palouse Regional Studies at Washington State University in Pullman. (I also managed to see a Troy friend who is working in a desert wheat research lab!)

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Shaun wins his Pancake King Crown!

That would have been enough for a trip, but it was just the beginning. Then I had a full weekend in Spokane, where I spoke at the Farm and Food Expo, and listened to Steve Lyons from the WSU Mount Vernon Station, who spoke with Dick Scheuerman about grain varieties. Other grain folk spoke too: baker Shaun Thompson Duffy of Culture Breads, and maltster Joel Williamson of Palouse Pint.

These people are very excited about using the unusual grains from Endicott. Shaun made bread from Turkey red and Sonora. He made me pancakes from Turkey Red and Abyssinian barley, with a touch of Purple Egyptian malt. (On a little backyard woodfired griddle!!!)

These grains have histories. They’ll have a future, in a brewery and a bakery, both businesses known as The Grain Shed.

Joel Williamson, me & baby beauty, and Don Scheuerman.
Joel Williamson, me & baby beauty, and Don Scheuerman.

I am just getting to know these people, the newly minted maltster and the chef-turned baker, the 4th & 5th generation farmers on the Palouse. Like grains, these people have names. I am just making their acquaintance.

What a privilege that the Scheuerman clan welcomed me to their world.

 

 

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.