Flour Power: California Revives Its Wheat-Growing Past
Jon Hammond leads me quickly past a vintage grain mill that’s been in his family since early last century. He’s showing me around his small farm in Tehachapi, Calif., walking past Hammond’s collection of vintage farm equipment parked picturesque barns, his happy Gloucestershire Old Spot hogs rooting and snorting in their pens for food, the mane of his white horse lazily waving in the breeze. I snap a picture of the grain mill, not yet completely understanding its importance. Next we go to another barn, assorted wagon wheels leaning against one of its faded red wooden walls. “And here’s where we repair our equipment,” he boasts. Old stuff in a barn? Snap. Finally, Hammond leads me to a large field of waving Sonora wheat. “Here it is,” he says proudly. And while I know this is why I drove three hours to be here, I admit I don’t quite yet appreciate the significance of what I’m looking at. I mean, it’s just a grain, right?
These days, however, there’s no such thing as just a grain. Our relationship with wheat is colored by a Madonna-whore complex, with the staple painted as either the staff of life or as the kernel of society’s health problems. And frankly, most of the time it skews toward the latter.
(Photo: Taylor Orci)
Thank the paleo diet and all the new gluten-free food at the store, thank the ephemeral gluten allergies, thank the newish awareness of very real allergies like celiac disease, but wheat appreciation isn’t really something that’s done out in the open. On the other (Madonna) hand, there are things like the fancy toast trend, which derives its price tag from the accoutrement slathered on the bread as much as (and maybe even more than) the structure and taste of the toast itself. But a third movement is taking shape, one that starts with the grain itself and stays right there, focused on the wheatiness of wheat.
“When I came to the U.S. to live in the '70s, I couldn't believe how terrible the bread tasted,” said Sonoko Sakai, a Japanese noodle maker and heritage grains advocate. Born in the United States, Sakai lived in Mexico and Japan before returning to the U.S. and finding, among other things, that the grains here were lacking compared to their counterparts overseas. “In the '70s and '80s, my mother would go back to Japan and bring literally a suitcase full of bread back for us.” This spurred a lifelong mission for Sakai that sounded deceptively simple: find quality flours in the states.
California grows a ton of wheat, boasting a total harvest of 33,900,000 bushels in 2013. However, nearly half of that grain goes to feed livestock. And the majority of the wheat that humans end up eating is commodity grain that’s milled from modern varieties grown with various chemical aids of industrial agriculture. So when Sakai’s search led her toward growing wheat, a problem arose: Who would do the farming?
She had the good fortune of getting seed donated by Glenn Roberts of Anson Mills in South Carolina. Roberts himself shared the desire to cultivate heritage grain varieties for cuisine close to his heart, only instead of soba noodles it was a type of antebellum cuisine called Carolina Rice Kitchen. The two saw eye-to-eye, but geography posed a problem.