Nutrition

Comparing Old and New Grain Varieties

This post will highlight some of the points I have presented at recent gatherings like the Spokane Farm & Food Expo and the WSU Grain Gathering at The Bread Lab in Mt. Vernon.

Richard and WSU/Mt. Vernon Agronomist Steve Lyon leading heritage grains field trip tour; Mt. Vernon, Washington (August 2017)

Richard and WSU/Mt. Vernon Agronomist Steve Lyon leading heritage grains field trip tour; Mt. Vernon, Washington (August 2017)

This past June my wife, Lois, and I led a tour of the Baltic countries which provided an opportunity to see first-hand American and European farming systems and to meet agronomists from abroad. Of course agriculture in any single nation is an exceedingly diverse enterprise, so meaningful comparisons invariably require considerable explanation and generalization. At the same time, trends in nutrition and crop production are evident in important studies conducted in places like the Swedish University of Agricultural Sciences in Alarp. 

Savijäri Organic Grain and Livestock Farm Porvoo, Finland (2017)

Savijäri Organic Grain and Livestock Farm
Porvoo, Finland (2017)

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Cereal researchers there conducted chemical analysis using plasma spectrometry on several hundred spring and winter wheats. In order to determine nutritional variations among the genotypes, these were divided into groups including primitive “pre-wheats” like emmer, landrace “heritage” grains like we raise at Palouse Colony Farm, old cultivars (1900-1960s releases/hybrids), and new cultivars (varieties released since 1970). The grains were grown at several locations in Sweden and under organic conditions in order to provide comparative results without influence of synthetic soil amendments, herbicides, or other chemical inputs. Results of the study were published in “Mineral Composition of Organically Grown Wheat Genotypes” in the International Journal of Environmental Research and Public Health (September 2010) and indicate substantial variation among the various groups. 

Primitive and landrace grains were found to have the highest concentrations of the most minerals with selections highest in manganese, phosphorus, and selenium. Landrace wheats showed the highest concentration of calcium and high levels of boron and iron. Spelts were highest in sulfur and high in copper. The Alnarp researchers suggest that the negative correlation between recent cultivars and mineral density indicated in their study and similar investigations elsewhere is likely due to a dilution effect given the increased yield of most modern varieties. In other words, available minerals are dispersed more widely so require higher amounts of food to receive similar amounts. Another factor may be the deeper root systems of pre-wheats and landrace grains which enable the plant to tap minerals available at greater depth. 

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These studies indicate that mineral levels in whole grain kernels depend on absorption in the soil by the plant’s roots and subsequent redistribution to the kernels through vegetative tissues that are also influenced by photosynthesis. Higher chlorophyll content, for example, is positively correlated to iron concentration, as is availability of nitrogen which facilitates photosynthesis. The Alnarp study also indicates that grain type is more influential than location for mineral content in primitive grains. Finally, growing environments significantly contribute to variations for others, and high organic matter and increased soil pH also favor mineral concentration. 

Research by cereal chemists and soil scientists are contributing to new understandings of the complex biological systems that contribute to healthy crops and people. We at Palouse Heritage look forward to sharing news with you about this vital work and doing our part to promote health, heritage, and rural renewal.  

The Bread Lab, WSU/Mt. Vernon

The Bread Lab, WSU/Mt. Vernon

Bill Gates visiting the Bread Lab

Bill Gates visiting the Bread Lab

Heritage Grain Friends (l to r): German Miller Wolfgang Mock, San Francisco Episcopal Agrarian Chaplain Elizabeth DeRuff, Richard, WSU Agronomist Steve Lyon, New York Artist Katherine Nelson, OSU Cereal Chemist Andrew Ross

Heritage Grain Friends (l to r): German Miller Wolfgang Mock, San Francisco Episcopal Agrarian Chaplain Elizabeth DeRuff, Richard, WSU Agronomist Steve Lyon, New York Artist Katherine Nelson, OSU Cereal Chemist Andrew Ross

Palouse Heritage Featured at Spokane’s Farm & Food Expo

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Spokane’s second Farm & Food Expo was held November 3-4, 2017, at Spokane Community College where we had gathered last year for what we hope will become an annual affair. Exhibitor booths filled the main hall and sponsors shared a wealth of information on topics ranging from bee culture and wool production to irrigation systems. Having done my stint in the Air Force back in the 1970s and with son Karl a major in the Air National Guard, I couldn’t help but notice the “Vets on the Farm” booth and learned about the Spokane organization’s good work transitioning returning members of the armed forces back into civilian life through opportunities in farming and ranching. And since a discount was available to vets for their bright red flag-embossed hats, I just had to pick one up.

Brother Don Scheuerman and I had been invited to participate on Saturday by book-ending the day’s activities with a morning session devoted to “Growing Heritage and Landrace Grains,” and closing out the program with a final session titled “Soil Biome and Gut Biome: The Restorative Powers of Heritage Grains.” Because it was snowing to beat the band by 4:00 p.m. and getting dark, I wasn’t expecting much of a crowd so was pleased to find standing-room only. Our morning session covered basic information on terminology, agronomy, and marketing of specialty grains. We pointed out that “heritage” and “heirloom” have become a kind of catch-all word for “old,” but that the USDA uses the term to mean any variety that was raised before the 1950s. Since grain hybridization was introduced in the late 1800s, that means many hybridized varieties would be considered heritage by that definition. (In the book Harvest Heritage: Agricultural Origins and Heirloom Crops of the Pacific Northwest [WSU Press, 2013] I coauthored with Alex McGregor, we describe the contributions of legendary plant geneticist William Spillman who essentially founded the science of plant hybridization at WSC/WSU in the 1890s.) 

Landrace varieties, however, are what I sometimes call “Grain as God Intended,” since they are pre-hybridized plants that adapted to particular locales by the thousands throughout most of Eurasia before coming to the New World in the 16th century Age of Discovery. Our work these past several years with Palouse Heritage Mercantile & Grain Mill involves the cultivation, milling, and marketing exclusively of landrace grains like Sonoran Gold, Crimson Turkey, Purple Egyptian, and Yellow Breton.

Legendary Spokane Baker-Chef Shaun Thompson-Duffy and his Culture Bread Treasures

Legendary Spokane Baker-Chef Shaun Thompson-Duffy and his Culture Bread Treasures

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The Farm & Food Expo program included presentations by a host of other folks dedicated to local and sustainable food production including our good Spokane friends Joel Williamson, maltster at Palouse Pint (“Rebirth of the Local Malthouse”); Teddy Benson of Palouse Heritage / Grain Shed Brewing (“Brewing with Heritage Grains”); and Shaun Thompson-Duffy of Culture Breads (Old World Breads: From Millstone to Hearth”). Don and I attended all three of these sessions and were reminded why we have long been so impressed by these fellows. The very names of their topics indicate the stirring sea change that is underway in culinary circles across the country, and Joel, Teddy, and Shaun have joined with other prime movers in the region to establish viable connections with local growers of grains and other crops who are interested in stewardship of the land, rural economic renewal, and human health and heritage. 

In our closing session on restorative biomes to improve health and soil, we shared information gleaned from studies in the United States and Europe on heritage grain nutrition. Worth noting are summaries comparing primitive “pre-wheats” like emmer and spelt, landrace varieties like we grow at Palouse Heritage, and modern hybrids. This is a big topic, so stay tuned for the next post!

The Great American Grain Gathering 2017

Bread and Cracker Making in WSU/Mt. Vernon’s New Bread Lab

Bread and Cracker Making in WSU/Mt. Vernon’s New Bread Lab

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!

White Odessa soft white wheat (2017)

White Odessa soft white wheat (2017)

English Squarehead soft red wheat, with Grandpa Scheuerman’s Palouse Colony helpers Zachary and Micah (2016)

English Squarehead soft red wheat, with Grandpa Scheuerman’s Palouse Colony helpers Zachary and Micah (2016)

“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.

Grain Gathering Reunionizing (l to r): Wolfgang Mock, German miller and entrepreneur; Elizabeth DeRuff, San Francisco area Episcopal Grain Chaplain and Bishop’s Ranch director; Steve Lyon, WSU/Mt. Vernon Senior Agronomist; Richard Scheuerman; Katherine Nelson, Washington, D. C. agarian artist; Andrew Ross, OSU cereal chemist, barley tea brewmaster, and Australian surfer!

Grain Gathering Reunionizing (l to r): Wolfgang Mock, German miller and entrepreneur; Elizabeth DeRuff, San Francisco area Episcopal Grain Chaplain and Bishop’s Ranch director; Steve Lyon, WSU/Mt. Vernon Senior Agronomist; Richard Scheuerman; Katherine Nelson, Washington, D. C. agarian artist; Andrew Ross, OSU cereal chemist, barley tea brewmaster, and Australian surfer!

“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!     

Grain Gathering Landrace Grains Nursery Tour, Mt. Vernon

Grain Gathering Landrace Grains Nursery Tour, Mt. Vernon

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!

 

 

 

Ancient Grains & Harvests (Part 1)

This blog post is part of a series that I (Richard) am writing about grain and agricultural themes in classic art. The research I am sharing here will contribute to a new book that will soon be published under the title Hallowed Harvests. You can read other posts in this series here.


The advent of grain foods cannot be dated with precision, but archaeological evidence indicates humans in eastern Africa mixed crushed grain with water to form gruel as early as 100,000 years ago. Cooking on heated stones, with embers, and by other primitive means enabled the roasting and toasting of grains to enhance flavors, but the revolutionary advent of fire-resistant earthenware pots in the Middle East by the eighth millennium BC fostered a significant advancement in human nutrition, culture, and population growth. Grains boiled in water made possible a savory array of pottages, soups, and stews, with the softened food especially benefiting the very young and elderly. No culinary advance since the invention of earthenware has had such a salutary effect on cooking methods.

Enduring methods of gathering crops from the Neolithic past to relatively modern times involved use of sickles to cut stands of wheat, barley, and other grains that were harvested at least 10,000 years ago in the Karaca Dağ region of southern Turkey and throughout Mesopotamia. The oldest extant complete sickle, fashioned with sharpened flints about 9,000 years ago and found in the Nahal Hemar Cavenear the Dead Sea in the Jordan Valley, is held by the Israel Museum in Jerusalem. First made of flints embedded into animal jawbones with cypress resin and honey, cast metal sickles began to appear during the Middle Bronze Age about 2,000 BC. The advent of this revolutionary tool helped spur humanity’s agricultural revolution that gave rise to civilizations by providing reliable food supplies and facilitating city life.

Cultivation of cereal grains has been integral to humanity’s advance since time immemorial. Cereals, named for the Roman goddess of fertility, Ceres, are not only nutritious but also adaptable to a wide range of climates and soil conditions. The ancestral range of modern cereal grains stretched along the Fertile Crescent from the Anatolian slopes of southeastern Turkey—where locals believe Adam first tilled the ground, eastward across the Transcaucasus and Mesopotamia to Kashmir and south to Ethiopia. This vast region is notable for long, hot summers and mild, moist winters which was ideal for the emergence of large-seeded cereals that became the principal foods sources that fueled human expansion throughout the world. The advent of grain cultivation coincided with animal husbandry as villagers sought to prevent creatures of horn and hoof from damaging grain fields by domesticating them. These developments spurred the Neolithic Revolution in Upper Mesopotamia approximately 9000 BC and represented the key breakthrough in civilization leading to food surpluses and the rise of settled, urban populations.

By 5000 BC these primitive self-pollinating plants—capable of evolving more rapidly than any other known organism, had spread along the Mediterranean coast to the Iberian Peninsula and north of the Caucasus Mountains. Some two thousand years later wheat reached the British Isles. Dispersion of cereal grains by wind, animals, and other natural processes was inexorable if slow—perhaps a thousand yards per year on average. Successive plant selections by early farmers led to earlier maturing stands. These native landrace wheats gained a foothold in central Europe and Scandinavia by about 3000 BC via the Danube, Rhine, and Dnieper river valleys. Humanity’s original farmers were most likely women of Neolithic times who tended hearth, home, and hoe while men ranged widely to hunt diminishing herds, first selected grains for kernel size and heads that were less susceptible to normal shattering.

These prehistoric stands of grain were cut by early agriculturalists yielding bone sickles embedded with obsidian blades sharper than later serrated metal versions that date to at least 2000 BC in the Middle Bronze Age. Agricultural folklorist and artist Eric Sloan considered the crescent-shaped sickle to be “the most aesthetically designed implement to have evolved from a thousand subtle variations” over millennia. Anthropologist Loren Eiseley imagines a proto-agrarian scene—likely one of many, when immense prehistoric creatures of horn and hoof still roamed the Levantine valleys, Anatolian highlands, and beyond: “[T]he hand that grasped the stone by the river long ago would pluck a handful of grass seed and hold it contemplatively. In that moment, the golden towers of man, his swarming millions, his turning wheels, the vast learning of his packed libraries, would glimmer dimly there in the ancestor of wheat, a few seeds held in a muddy hand.”

Novelist James Michener personifies the experience, surely rediscovered separately innumerable times throughout the prehistoric Middle East, in The Source, which opens along a Galilean wadi near the Mediterranean coast in the early tenth century BC. The Family of Ur is one of six in a clan that separates in the fall for the men’s annual boar hunt while the women remain near their makeshift fictional village of Makor. Here Ur’s wife considers their recent conversation about the wild wheat that has long supplemented their diet: “By holding back some of the harvest and keeping it dry in a pouch of deerskin, the grains could be planted purposefully in the spring and the wheat could be made to grow exactly where and when it was needed, and with this discovery the family of Ur moved close to the beginnings of a self-sufficient society. They did not know it, but if a food supply could be insured, the speed of change would be almost unbelievable: within a few thousand years cities would be feasible and civilizations too.”

Through the woman’s revolutionary experience, Michener further ponders the profound ramifications of these events for world religion, social structure, and the environment. He then turns to Ur’s apprehension of his wife’s prescient labors: “In his new apotheosis as [land]owner Ur began to bring new fields into cultivation…. Men of the Family of Ur had always possessed an intuitive sense of the land, and now it was the reluctant farmer who discovered one of the essential mysteries of the earth on which all subsequent agriculture would depend….” The family’s primitive agrarian endeavors soon lead by trial and error to awareness of the grain’s need for adequate water and fertile soil. These experiences laid the foundation of an agrarian savvy that would be carried down for several hundred generations until the nineteenth century’s Industrial Revolution and population expansion presented farmers with unprecedented new conditions of challenge and opportunity.

These first farmers also came to prefer “free-threshing” stands that better enabled separation of kernels from their “hooded” husks.  Among several dozen other ancient plant candidates for cultivation, these transitional grain species offered other significant benefits including flavor and nutrition, availability, storage, and portability. In these ways, wheat genotypes gradually came to grow more uniformly around early settlements from Egypt and the Jordan River Valley to Mesopotamia and across the Eurasian steppe to Manchuria. Grains grew for millennia across these landscapes amidst a mélange of irregular “off-types,” wildflowers, grasses, and other plants. Yields improved significantly following the advent of the plow about two thousand years ago, and varieties that descended from these ancient grains have come today to supply nearly one-third of humanity’s nutritional needs. Earliest examples of Sumerian cuneiform dating to c. 3000 BC at tells in Iraq show pictographs that eventually led to written language. Many of these baked clay tablets are inventories related to grain harvests, storage, and transactions. Procurement and trade in cereal grains were key factors in the growth of ancient empires and the organization of Mesopotamian and Egyptian political institutions.

The earliest pictorial expressions of harvest are from Egypt’s Old Kingdom (c. 2700-2100 BC) when unification of Upper and Lower Egypt led to a flowering of culture and architecture in grand monuments like the mortuary complexes at Thebes and Memphis in the fertile Nile Valley. The necropolis of Saqqara near the kingdom’s capital at Memphis contains the exceptionally well-preserved Fifth Dynasty mastaba of Ty, an official of the royal household, whose tomb contains an exquisitely decorated chapel. The room’s north wall contains ten rows of detailed paintings with accompanying hieroglyphics that depict the sequence of the harvest season (Shemu) from March to May of flax, barley, and wheat, and subsequent grain threshing, winnowing, and storage.

“Cutting and Carrying the Harvest” (Egyptian Old Kingdom Paintings, c. 2400 BC), Henri Faucher-Gudin (after a photograph by Johannes Dümichen), Gaston Maspero, History of Egypt, Chaldea, Syria, Babylonia, and Assyria (London, 1903)

“Cutting and Carrying the Harvest” (Egyptian Old Kingdom Paintings, c. 2400 BC), Henri Faucher-Gudin (after a photograph by Johannes Dümichen), Gaston Maspero, History of Egypt, Chaldea, Syria, Babylonia, and Assyria (London, 1903)

The spectacular images of Egyptian harvests are significant for their literal depictions of ancient Nile harvests and grain processing, and for the more profound religious meanings represented in such art. In the case of Ty’s mastaba reliefs, which show evidence in style and colors as the work of a master, viewers can appreciate the complexity of ancient farming operations that reveal various field operations and the division of labor required to bring them to completion. In the opening barley harvest panel, eight men wield broad-bladed sickles in their right hands while clasping the stems with their left, and a worker follows to gather and stack the cuttings. The next scene more clearly shows the characteristic lighter shade and shorter stalks of barley that attest to the artist’s attention to botanical authenticity. A flutist and cantor are also seen accompanying the reapers in order to provide rhythm and pace to such strenuous labor. The hieroglyph of an upright bearded grain spike appears in the next panel of workers and sheaves to indicate harvest of emmer wheat, the most valuable Egyptian crops for making bread. The next row shows men under the watchful eye of an overseer placing the stacks of sheaves into netted bags for transport to nearby threshing floors by donkey—a beast of burden widely used in the Egyptian countryside to this day.

The brief hieroglyphic interjections that accompany these images may be the work of the artist, but may well be by another artisan. The symbols conjure thoughts of commotion and shouting more than any measured routine accompanied by clapping and music. The terms used include “beat,” “hurry,” and “drive them.” The next threshing floor scene seems chaotic as men struggle to lead separate teams of oxen and donkeys around the circle to trample out the precious grain from the mass of stalks. Coordinating the animals’ variable pace and distances, cleaning up behind them, and recurrent removal of threshed cuttings to maximize efficiency required substantial coordination and stamina. Women appear in the subsequent winnowing scene to clean the grain by tossing the threshings into the wind, while other workers scoop the kernels into bags for transport to storage silos. Most of the men are lightly clad in loincloths though some have kilt-like garments, while the women use scarves to tie up their hair and wear loincloths and transparent dresses held up by shoulder straps. The tools of harvest shown in the panels are similar to those that would be widely used throughout the world until the twentieth century—sickles, rakes, and pitchforks to reap and thresh, and sieves, brooms, and scoops to clean and store.

In a metaphoric sense, such magnificent art that decorated tombs, monuments, and public buildings in ancient Egypt also bore profound cosmological significance since the primal association between human existence and agrarian experience harkens back to the dawn of civilization. Ideas about life and eternity found expression in priestly ceremonies and sacred writings like Egypt’s agricultural Coffin Texts and book The Coming Forth by Day (also known as the Book of the Dead). The implements of cultivation, tools for harvest, and means of transport variously found in tombs at places like Memphis represent the mystical course undertaken through just living and proper burial. These stages honored since time immemorial include birth (seeding and germination), growth (hoeing and weeding), and death (reaping and threshing) to afterlife in the underworld’s flax and grain Fields of Hotep (boats to the place of “contentment”).

Death was celebrated as the ultimate “harvest of life” symbolized in ancient times by a reaper’s sickle. At the pinnacle of the kingdom’s highly stratified society, the pharaoh represented the vital pulse of this cosmic consciousness in each generation and honored throughout the seasons in agrarian-based religious rituals. Cultural patterns and religious understandings are evident in similar ways in Mesopotamia and in Greek and Roman religious traditions. Yet these ancient societies existed without proscribed moral obligations for the ruling class and landowners to care for the poor by permitting practices like field gleaning. To be sure, agricultural workers were valued for the essential labor they provided, but not in the Hebrew sense that, “The earth is the Lord’s and the fullness thereof” (Psalm 24:1), and the Levitical code affirming the right to glean not only to the people of Israel, but to the “sojourner” (i. e., foreigners) as well.    

A Special Visit from America's Pancake Queen

Recent days have witnessed a number of special events related to Palouse Colony Farm and regional heritage. New York culinary writer Amy Halloran, author of The New Bread Basket: Redefining Our Daily Loaf (Chelsea Green, 2015), was our guest at the farm last month. Popularly known as “America’s Pancake Queen,” Amy says she has wanted to devote her life to the fine art of pancake-making since grade school, and has a picture of the note she wrote to her fourth grade teacher to prove it.

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Amy Halloran & Friends with “Founding Farmer” Pancakes, Endicott Food Center

Amy Halloran & Friends with “Founding Farmer” Pancakes, Endicott Food Center

Amy has worked with us since last year to document authentic recipes of breads and pancakes from America’s colonial and pioneer era, and formulated an authentic “thirded” blend of heritage English White Lammas wheat, Yellow Dent corn, and Scots Bere barley flours based on recipes used by “Founding Farmers” George and Mary Washington at Mt. Vernon. Amy hosted a group of Palouse Colony Farm friends for a pancake breakfast at Jenny Meyer’s Endicott Food Center, and presented with Richard on regional food networks at Spokane’s Farm & Food Expo on November 5. Culinary writer Samuel Fromartz writes of The New Bread Basket: “If you’re curious about the future of bread, beer, or even the locavore movement itself, this is the place to start.”

You can read more about Amy's visit on her blog here.

2016 Spokane Food and Farm Expo

Palouse Heritage had the opportunity to present at the 2016 Food & Farm Expo in Spokane. Our co-founders, Richard and Don Scheuerman, participated in the event along with several of our friends and partners who have joined us in the effort to raise awareness about the benefits of landrace grains. 

Richard taught one of the classes at the event, titled:

Heritage and Landrace Grains:  Restoring the soil, our health and flavor with heritage and Landrace Grains

You can watch his lecture below. The accompanying PowerPoint slide deck is available by clicking here.

Barley & Potato Soup (Volga German)

This wholesome soup and related variations have been winter mainstays in homes like ours across the Pacific Northwest for generations. The presence of allspice is a nod to American influence as the Old World flavorings most commonly used for this dish in the were dill, parsley, and pepper. The recipe is from Evelyn Reich of Colfax, a lifelong Palouse Country resident.


Barley & Potato Soup (Volga German Gashta-Katofel Sopa

  • 2 quarts vegetable stock
  • 4 whole allspice
  • 1 bay leaf
  • 3 garlic cloves minced
  • 1 teaspoon salt
  • sour cream
  • 1 cup pearl barley
  • 3 medium potatoes peeled and diced
  • 2 celery stalks diced
  • 1 large onion diced
  • 1 carrot grated
  • 4 strips bacon, beef soup bone, or ham hock

 

Boil barley and spices in water for two hours. Add 4 cubed potatoes, celery, onion, and carrot, and simmer an additional hour until vegetables and barley are tender. Fry bacon until crisp and add with drippings to the soup, or add soup bone to mixture. Place a dollop of sour cream to each bowl just before serving.