The seventh annual July 27-29 “Grain Gathering” sponsored by Washington State University’s Bread Lab at Mt. Vernon/Burlington in northwestern Washington State once again brought together a vast throng of folks interested in farming, baking, nutrition, and heritage. Representing 23 states and 7 countries, some 350 attendees heard presentations on a variety of topics including whole grain baking, bagel rolling, and barley teas! Huge thanks to Stephen Jones, Steve Lyon, Wendy Hebb, Kim Binczewski, and army of Bread Lab volunteers. The three-day event is a remarkable opportunity to meet others who share interests in restoring healthy local grain cultures and rural economies, and also serves as a grain reunion with fun and fellowship shared around delicious breads, brews, and other regionally sourced products. Newly featured this year were German muesli with fresh milled oats supplied by Wolfgang Mock who came from Germany, San Francisco baker Josey Baker’s sprouted, flaked breads, and a range of satisfying barley teas shared by Dr. Andrew Ross of Oregon State University. Andrew comes his interest in barley tea naturally; seems that this flavorful restorative beverage is popular throughout his native Australia and that brands like Robinson’s are said to be the secret of Queen Elizabeth’s beautiful complexion.
Speaking of beauty, you may recall from some past references in this forum how striking the view (and flavor) of the landrace soft red wheat English Squarehead, also known long ago here in the Northwest as Walla Walla Red. I still it’s pretty awesome and will include a view of it again here, but also compare it to a new contender recently raised in the Mt. Vernon heritage grain nursery—White Odessa, a soft white wheat from Ukraine. I took this photo during the conference and Steve Lyon reported it has been seeded late in the spring, so is still pretty green, but certainly a beautiful grain. Perhaps in a few weeks we’ll have some baked goods to sample!
“Food ethnographer” June Jo Lee opened this year’s Grain Gathering with an informative if sobering keynote regarding American dietary habits and related health issues. Among other points she made was that demographic data gathered for 2015 showed the first decline in US life expectancy since the Civil War! She noted heavy reliance on commodity foods like industrial flour that has been sifted and bleached in ways that remove nutritious germ and bran, as well as an increase in chemical additives to food and agricultural production methods. But she also noted reasons to hope for healthy alternatives: “Emerging regional food systems are critical expressions that bring together geographic, relational, and cultural dimensions. Change from dominant ‘big systems’ will be incremental but represent a viable alternative for those who care about their own health and that of the land.”
The following day’s keynote speaker was Dr. James Scott, scholar of agrarian studies and peasant societies at Yale University, and author of The Moral Economy of the Peasant and numerous other books and articles. His presentation was titled “How Grain Made the Ancient State,” so as one ever interested in both history and politics I was pleased the conference featured information on a topic like this. I scribbled notes as fast as I could and most of what appears below is verbatim; should you find these matters of special interest I commend to you Dr. Scott’s many published works.
Wheat is the foundational grain of Western civilization, and my object is to offer some provocative reflection on that significant fact. It is extraordinary that in our day about half of human caloric intake is from cereal grains—wheat, rice, barley, maize, and others. Agriculture, therefore, has sustained world culture, and made possible for us to settle down in one place. But the traditional narrative may be misleading in some basic assumptions about how that all took place.
Cultivation of grains took place at least 4,000 years before any widespread settling down ten to twelve thousand years ago. It was resisted likely because it required considerably more work and planning than hunting and gathering. “Flood retreat” agriculture was likely the first approach to farming since annual flooding of the great rivers of Mesopotamia provided renewable soil for populations that lived along the wetlands. So why and how did the transition take place? It was by no means a rapid process as some have suggested. There are several theories to consider including the killing off of big game by hunters, or perhaps a cold snap in the weather that made life away from the wetlands more difficult. Whatever the reason, and there may have been several contributing influences, it appears we were forced into agriculture.
Hunting and gathering appears to have been widespread throughout the Middle East for several thousand years after the emergence of the “domos complex,” or Neolithic camps with houses, gardens, and domesticated animals. This was an entirely new phenomenon in human history, and the concentration of people, plants, and animals led to the first infectious diseases. These all came from animals as mutated forms of contagion came to infect humans living in close proximity to animals, a situation that continues to foster disease in many parts of the world today. The same is true of crops when plant populations of single varieties are crowded closely together.
The advent of agriculture also led to a narrowing of the diet, so we ask why every great civilization came to rest upon grain production—rice in southeast Asia, millet in China, wheat in Egypt, barley in Mesopotamia, and maize in the New World. So why not roots and tubers like potatoes, cassava, and sweet potatoes? Very possibly because (1) grains have the advantage of growing above the ground so are more easily found, (2) stands tend to ripen at about the same time, (3) can be easily dried and stored, and (4) have high unit nutritional value. So grain was the ideal commodity for government taxation and appropriation which formed the economic basis of statehood. Pastoralism keeps you out of state control. So grains came to mark superior cultures of specialized labor that formed cities.
I took part in this year’s Grain Gathering event as part of the “Heritage Grain Production and Marketing” panel including Steve, acclaimed San Francisco baker Josey Baker, and Dan Abbott, proprietor of The George Washington Inn near Sequim on the Olympic Peninsula. You may recall that landrace grains are pre-hybridized varieties of wheat, barley, oats, rye, and other cereal “races” that adapted over thousands to particular regional “land” environments. In this way they developed flavors, shapes, colors, and other characteristics that distinguished them from those that grew in other parts of the world. The terms “ancient,” “heritage,” and “heirloom” are a bit squishy, but relate to a few relevant considerations. Many experts consider “ancient” wheats to be plant species that are genetically different and more primitive than true wheats, so these would include grains like einkorn, emmer, and spelt that retain their indigestible hulls even when threshed, which requires a dehulling operation in order to process them for consumption.
“Landraces” are true threshable wheats many thousands of years old so are also considered “heirloom” and “heritage” varieties in the general sense of the term. However, USDA publications sometimes reference any grain over fifty years old as an “heirloom,” which I suppose is fine if you have in mind things like Grandma’s quilt and favorite cookie recipe. However, with the advent of plant hybridization in the 1890s, it became possible for grain breeders to combine the traits of landraces to create new varieties in order to boost production, even if flavor and nutrition were less of a consideration. (Many of our family elders, for example, told us that their parents held on to landrace grains like Turkey Red because they made breads and other baked goods that tasted so great, while marketing their modern hybrids.) So here at Palouse Colony Farm & Mercantile we typically use the term “heritage” to mean pre-hybridized landraces—“Grains the way God made them” so to speak, and while their cultural associations across North America and throughout the world are fascinating, we especially appreciate that numerous studies have shown why they are important for crop disease resistence and genetic diversity in our age of monocultures, and have healthy whole grain goodness with rich varietal flavors, rather like fine wines!
As part of our Grain Gathering panel on heritage grains, Steve Lyon and I also led a tour of the experimental plots Steve has carefully tended on properties adjacent to the WSU/Mt. Vernon Extension & Research Center. Two busloads of participants joined us for the short drive from The Bread Lab where were dropped into a marvelous time machine that transported us back to ages past in one of the largest landrace grain nurseries anywhere in the country. We could actually see varieties raised in Early America by George and Martha Washington at Mt. Vernon, and others with colorful names that harken back to medieval times and beyond—Talavera Bellevue, Bordeaux Blue, Red Marvel, Afghan Black-Awned, Orange Devon, and one of the first raised in the Northwest, Pacific Bluestem.
The conference’s Friday afternoon keynote was presented by Nathan Myhrvold, co-founder with Bill Gates of Intellectual Ventures, a research and venture capital think tank headquartered in Bellevue, Washington, which is also home to world renown Modernist Cuisine. The many culinary projects championed by Myhrvold and his team at MC have included a best-selling multi-volume book series that describes with masterful illustrations how modern technologies can explain and enhance time-honored methods of food preparation. Myhrvold, who also served for many years as chief technology officer at Microsoft, has completed among his many other accomplishments post-doctoral studies in astrophysics at Cambridge (!), so we’re delighted he has turned his broad interests to grains and baking.
He found time to make a trip recently over to the Palouse Country with a team to take pictures of summer harvest and capture some beautiful images that will appear in the long-awaited MC sequel, five-volume Modernist Bread of 2,600 pages, scheduled for release this coming November. At $640 for the complete set, I probably won’t be sending out too many for Christmas presents. My modest contribution was cultural information on heritage grains and a summary of research on their nutritional benefits. Consistent with his passion for the subject, Nathan is a rather animated presenter who informed us that the series has a total of 2,642 pages, 5,689 illustrations, and over a million words!