Unusually Clever People

Guest Rant: Don’t Fear the Reaper


52 loaves

Please welcome William Alexander, author of The $64 Tomato, back with a new book on–well, I'll let him tell you about it.  And yes, we're giving away a copy!  Bread.  Anything about bread.  Your bread fantasies.  Your fondest bread hopes and dreams.  Bread, and wheat, and–well, toasters.  Make a clever comment and you'll win a book.

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.”

I
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
Wheat 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
rice eaters. 

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
Wheat3 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.
Wheat2

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
Wheat4source, 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
Wheat5member 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
one request.

“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.

Posted by on June 17, 2010 at 1:06 pm, in the category Unusually Clever People.
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22 responses to “Guest Rant: Don’t Fear the Reaper”

  1. After all that work, the loaf of bread seems remarkably like a $64 tomato. Put the two together, and you’ve got locavore, gourmet, organic, knock-your-socks-off sandwich. Yum.

    Beautifully written blog that makes me want to read 52 loaves. Vivid mental pictures and good-natured humor are always appealing. Well done.

  2. Jennifer says:

    I laughed my way through the $64 Tomato and would love to read the new book.
    Is there anything more delicious than a slice of fresh homemade bread slathered in creamy butter and toped with black currant jam?

  3. 'nora says:

    Threshing by pounding with a mallet makes the construction and use of a Roman-style flail seem like a good idea.

  4. Katie says:

    Oh, I can’t wait to read the new book. I just LOVED the $64 Tomato!

    Bread fantasy? To have someone that is a live-in bread maker for me. Would make me fresh bread, croissants, you name the carb, he or she would make me the carb.

    And then, also, a trainer who visited for a brief and terrifying 30 minutes a day to help me work of the bread. He or she cannot live at my house because I’d probably kill him/her.

  5. Genevieve says:

    Oh gosh. I’d love to read this book and live vicariously through his bread adventure.

    As for me, I don’t make bread. Cupcakes? Yes. Quick breads, sure. Anything with yeast? H-to-the-ell-no!

    My last bread experience ten years ago was so traumatizing that I shall forever stick to buying the stuff. I am still getting teased!

    I made a “perfect, fool-proof” recipe from a friend, only – it never rose. Blame the Humboldt county winter, or dead yeast, but it didn’t rise despite my best efforts.

    I deluded myself into thinking maybe it had grown a bit and perhaps I’d just bake it now and it would rise more, and a delightful scent filled the house while it cooked.

    But it didn’t rise in the oven either.

    I took it out when it seemed all brown and decided I’d just have it in thin slices with some cheese. At least in thin slices I’d be able to get my teeth into it!

    About halfway into our first slices, my guest and I gave up and decided to chuck it off the fourth story of our apartment building to see if it would bounce. I believe excessive quantities of wine were involved in that decision.

    The worst thing? That damn loaf? Did not bounce. Hit the ground like a sack of rocks and stayed fully formed in its dense loaf shape. I figured I’d leave it till morning and let the birds peck at it.

    Later in the evening, we walked out to get a snack, since we were left so sadly breadless.

    Walking across the bridge where the bums hang out, we started seeing a breadcrumb trail… And finally we came across my poor, discarded loaf sitting disconsolately on the bridge. It even got rejected by bums.

    Never again! I shall read about and buy other people’s bread. I just don’t want to torture another loaf like that ever again.

  6. Mimi says:

    Looks like an interesting book. Not sure about growing wheat, that’s really hard core amazing!

    I haven’t read the $64 Tomato, I’ll have to look it up!

  7. William hails from my hometown and reading the $64 tomatoe – I pictured myself up on the ridge playing around his home (before he moved in). His wife, my dr. is the same down to earth type of person as William. I can’t wait to read his newest book.

  8. Erin says:

    Two more books for my reading list. I came to bread baking in my basement apartment while studying in University. Kneading is good physical therapy, the smell of it rising and baking is aroma therapy and the resulting bread is perfect for the carb craving that accompany the stress of exams.

  9. Laura Bell says:

    Read the book – loved it. Really illustrates the length to which gardeners will go for that homegrown bite of heaven.

    So did you calculate the per slice cost of the bread ? I’m betting it wasn’t $64 – but possibly only because most of the garden infrastructure costs were added to the first year’s production ? The labor alone though could make for a $5 slice. Make your own mayo – using homegrown eggs from free-range hens – and bacon and lettuce … Well, my friend, you could easily have the world’s first $100 BLT.

    And it might well be worth it, too.

  10. carpetbag_garden says:

    My first experience with bread was similar to Genevieve’s. It was supposed to be an easy recipe. I followed the directions to a T and used my mom’s high quality bread flour. Why didn’t it rise? Why did it resemble a Frisbee?

    A month later I found out that wasn’t bread flour–it was Cake flour! In my defense, mom hadn’t labeled the container.

    Learning how to make yeast breads has been on my New Years resolutions list for years. I have’t gotten any further than the NYTimes No Knead Bread. It’s always a hit at potlucks and works as a host’s gift.

    Based on personal experience, the yeast is the key to the bread. Never buy those packets at the store! They usually don’t work. Buy instant yeast. It costs more but, if you keep it in the freezer, it always performs beautifully.

  11. Tibs says:

    Never have any trouble with the packets of yeast from the store. They work fine for me. Don’t make as much bread as I use to because I just eat it with loads of butter and that is not good for my more and more matronly figure. My bread mistake was making Challah bread as rolls for the first Family/Clan Thanksgiving with my soon-to-be husband. They were a hit. So upteen years later I make rolls for every holiday. I don’t think I would be allowed in the door without them.

  12. Meghan says:

    Oh man, my bread fantasy? Bread baking without the clean-up. So I’d like to picture myself enjoying a nice cup of coffee in the sun, when my doughboy (yes, I know the slang refers to something else, but I’ve decided I’m turning the term into a job title) appears with a liberally floured lap desk and a lump of rising dough. After I give it a good knead, I’ll relax while all the miniscule bits of dough that always get under my fingernails are manicured away. Once the bread has been baked, it will be formally presented for me to slice it, marvel at its flawless crumb, and then toast it on one of those Victorian long toasting forks in the fire while I enjoy coffee number two. Ooh, or maybe gimlet number one–I think maybe Truc had the right idea with *her* contest entry. A tea set filled with gin, and liberally buttered toast. I’m all in.

  13. Lisa C says:

    My bread fantasy? I lived it once – in the Peace Corps in Turkmenistan a lady came by in the mornings with hot chorek, round flatish loaves fresh from the clay oven, slightly smokey and crunch on the outside, chewy inside. She was followed by the milk lady, who also sold honey. Breakfast was served.

    I want to build a tamdyr, a Turkmen bread oven, in my suburban backyard, and have Mr. Alexander lend me some of that flour.

  14. Deirdre says:

    My brother in law tried that. He grew the wheat, and modified a leaf shredder/chipper into a thresher. My sister made good bread out of it.

  15. CindyP says:

    My 90 yr old mil is the bread maker in our family. She makes sweet bread from a recipe of her mothers. While all 5 of her sisters use the same recipe, everyone says hers is the best. She begins making it in the evening, and sets her alarm to get up twice during the night to punch it down. When she arises for good in the morning it goes into pans and is baked before most peoples days are even started. For our annual Church festival the woman makes at least 2 batches, donating 12 or more loaves of bread. Her bread is so popular we tag it with her name and people come every year and ask for it. You are a lucky person if you score one of Virginia’s loaves.
    I don’t know which is more amazing, the bread or the woman herself. Thankfully dh has spent a lot of time learning to make her bread, measuring the ingredients, feeling the texture, writing down precise instructions and practicing, practicing, practicing. Hopefully when she is gone her bread will live on.

  16. lauren scheuer says:

    ( just a technical note. The jpeg of the book that you posted didn’t work right because it was a CMYK file. if you switch it to a RGB file and save it as a jpg, you’ll get the correct colors )
    :)

  17. Virginia W says:

    I heard Mr. Alexander interviewed on NPR. His tale of getting sourdough through airport security makes you wish you had him along every time you travel. Even though I neither bake nor eat bread, his talent for storytelling makes me want to read 52 Loaves.

  18. Elizabeth Stump says:

    Okay, is growing amaranth any easier? Any threshing involved there?

  19. nancy7@gmail.com says:

    Wow, I thought I had some great experiences. I have ground my own wheat and rye and rice and made really delicious bread and cereal. But no, I never grew nothing, not any of it.

  20. Teri A says:

    A lovely post, competition aside I will definitely be finding a way to get a copy of this book.

    As for my bread hopes and dreams? Well allow me to tell you a story.

    I am you might say culinarily challenged, but a short while ago I decided I was going to make bread! But not wanting to do it the “cheater way” (packaged yeast), I decided to go out and make a wild yeast starter. The goal being to make me some traditional bread so that one day I could learn to make bread, as Mr. Alexander said, from scratch, real scratch.

    Needless to say since I had never made bread before or even seen a wild yeast starter, the process was slow and painful. After making 2 batches of flour water goo vs starter and nearly a month of working on the project, I successfully made two loaves of bread, that were inedible. And then a week later managed to make 2 more that my husband kindly ate with out grimacing too much.

    I will keep working at it, one day I do hope that I will make some thing that I’m willing to show to a friend. That is my bread dream.

  21. sara says:

    I am so afraid to try growing wheat. I am having enough fits just with corn and teosinte, although, this year it’s not cost me anything other than kernels to plant, because the cultivator was purchased last year, it earned its keep in produce accordingly, and this year I had enough compost and mulch for the back corner.

    Bread… bah! Been there, tried that :)

  22. Bladerunner says:

    I’ve been working on my Little House on the Prairie (or some such) fantasy the last year or two. I’ve been making all my jam for a little over a year or so now, my own butter (from storebought cream, till I can at least find a Farmer’s Market vendor) for the last several months, and the last four months or so I’ve been learning to make yeast bread. So far, I’ve been making all my own toast & sandwich breads, and enough other fun stuff to give to & trade with friends. I’ve been working on the fruit & veg garden for a couple of years now – and planning for chickens soon too. No plans for wheat yet though… so far.

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