“Wheat is my favorite storyteller,” Amy Halloran writes in her book, The New Bread Basket, published this summer, and I find myself nodding in agreement: no matter what modern naysayers have against the grain, what no one can deny is that wheat’s history is the history of our culture. Throughout the history of humankind, agriculture, wheat, bread, and fermentation built our civilizations.
We don’t even have to look all that far back in history to see that many basic things that we take as granted, such as children’s summer vacations, were first developed for the needs of farming.
Then, industrialization happened, and we lost that age-old connection to the land that feeds us.
Wheat became a commodity, and as Halloran writes, we “amputated the social limb of farming from the body of our country, relegating agriculture to an unimportant rank, tucking the work out of sight and largely out of mind.” Most of us became unaware of even the most basic ideas regarding the grain. In the book, Halloran pointedly asks: “How come we don’t know the first thing about the flour that makes our bread?”
When we look at it this way, it’s no wonder that quality is not what most of the bread buying customers care about–or that so many are so quick to demonize gluten, without really understanding the science behind it at all.
For Amy Halloran, the journey into the world of flour started with an oatmeal ganache bar her husband brought her from a business trip. The fresh, regional flours used in the cookie were so good that she says she could taste them “even against a backdrop of good butter and chocolate.” She was hooked.
But the wheat renaissance Halloran writes about is about more than just taste. It’s also about the place the grain has in our society–one could say even about the survival of our cultural inheritance. Maybe it’s possible for us to become civilized once again?
Luckily, some of this is already happening. The New Bread Basket presents us with an inspiring group of farmers, millers, bakers, and beer brewers who are hard at work making their communities better understand wheat–and their work with it–and bringing wheat back to its rightful place in the northeastern United States.
There is something powerful in seeing a community stand together to say: “This is our bread, made with local flour, made from our local wheat.”
To learn more about the book and Amy Halloran’s thoughts on the young but ongoing bread and wheat revolution, I asked her a few questions. Here’s what she told me.
Let’s start with the typical question: Why did you decide to write The New Bread Basket? With just one recipe (for your famous pancakes), it’s clearly not a recipe book. Who should read the book, and what do you hope to achieve with it?
As soon as I tasted fresh our, I knew I had to know more about it. As soon as I met the people making this food, I started joking about writing a book about them. These grain pioneers are so engaging! Their stories really caught me, just like that flavorful our I tasted in an oatmeal ganache cookie.
I think the book is for people who are curious about food, and I do see it as a cookbook of sorts, full of recipes for change. I want to show people what is possible, not so they can go out and become farmers or millers, but so they can understand more about the work that goes into our daily beer and bread.
Storytelling is a tool.
The stories we hear and read inform the choices that we make throughout the day. I wanted to show people what I saw so that we can all see more small-scale grain projects happening.
In your book, you explain how we have lost connection to where wheat and flour (and thus also bread) come from. Wheat has become a commodity that is mostly out of sight and out of our minds. Why do you think it’s important to change this and make it all visible to the consumer once again?
I used to run a farmers market, and I was in love with the USDA bumper sticker campaign “KNOW YOUR FARMER.” That phrase is a good starting place, but we need to know more–about farming and the intermediate steps that are required to get food into our hands.
This used to be common knowledge!