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.
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.
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.