Here’s one way to get the attention (if not necessarily the affection) of a bookstore audience in Portland, Oregon. “I know you’re proud — and justly so — of your local food movement here,” I began. “But I don’t want to hear any ‘locovare’ nonsense from anyone tonight. I can out-loco any locovore in this room.”
was referring to the fact that when I baked a loaf of bread from scratch, I
really meant from scratch — starting
with planting the wheat. Surprisingly, growing
wheat (organic wheat, at
that) is rather easy — much easier than, say, growing
tomatoes (doubters, see The $64 Tomato).
But read on before you rush out to plant your own waves of amber grain, for it’s
turning that wheat into flour that’s the hard part. In fact, I’m convinced that
if we all had to do this ourselves in order to eat bread, we’d be a nation of
But more on that later. I planted my crop (four garden beds) of winter wheat in October. In its early stages it resembled nothing as much as crabgrass, going dormant after the first hard frost (along with my crabgrass). Months later, as I write in 52 Loaves, “in the first days of spring, despite looking deader than a bale of straw on a Halloween hayride, it had reawakened the very same week as its swanky suburban cousin ryegrass, and by late spring it had grown to a straight, strong, three-foot-high stalk.”
Of grass, though, not wheat. The wait for it to form seed heads and turn from green to something even remotely resembling wheat seemed endless, but watching it blow in the wind made it worthwhile. Then, suddenly, it was wheat. The seed heads, just a few days earlier so proud and upright, turned to the earth in a graceful arc , a biological mechanism that protects them from rain, which might cause the seeds to sprout uselessly on the stalk.
It seemed a touching gesture, the swollen seed head bending over to face the very earth it had sprung from, bowing as if offering its head in sacrifice. But sentimentality quickly yielded to the blade, and all was well until the next step, the process of freeing the wheat berries (the seeds) from the seed head — threshing. Having no idea how to approach this, I turned to a venerable source, Pliny the Elder, who, writing in 77 AD, described several methods in favor at the time, including using a team of oxen to trample the wheat and beating with a flail — two heavy wooden rods connected by a short, heavy chain. Well, my oxen had wandered off (again!) and a flail looked like something more likely to be found smacking the buttocks of a member of Parliament in a London S and M den than used in the preparation of food. So, after the wheat had defeated an old broom and the back of shovel , my wife, Anne, and I resorted to pounding the seed heads on a chopping block, with a small wooden mallet a handful at a time, for hours on end.
You can watch a video here and read more
details in 52 Loaves, but Anne said
it best when, after a full day of threshing, she flopped onto the lawn,
sunburned, exhausted, and looking every bit as threshed as the wheat, with just
“Promise me next year you won’t grow cotton.”
Visit the 52 loaves gallery for a photo and video album of planting, growing, threshing, winnowing, and — yes — grinding wheat by hand.