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An Open Letter to Bakers
Dawn Woodward is an acclaimed whole-grain baker and co-owner of Evelyn’s Crackers in Toronto.
Consider a slice of whole-grain Amber wheat brioche, where years of work by Shelley Spruit (@againstthegrainfarm)go into growing out a handful of seed to establish a commercially viable crop. Her bread represents so much more than the alchemy of flour, water, and salt. It represents autonomy for farmers. It represents the fight against corporations trying to co-opt and control our seeds and food systems through patents and centralization.
Her bread is disruptive, change-making. I eat it and think: If you’re not actively seeking out regional grains, grown by organic/regenerative farmers, then I’m not interested. If you’re not supporting a way to make regional whole grains more accessible by forging bonds with farmers, millers, and breeders, then I’m not interested. If you are bringing flour from far away because the regional grain isn’t suitable for baguettes or large-holed hearth loaves, I’m not interested. If you’re using non-organic and commodity grains, then you are supporting corporate agri-businesses that use pesticides, fungicides, and other destructive inputs while taking away our autonomy through centralization, commodification, and lack of choice, and while destroying our environment. I’m not interested.
We all need to try to be more than bakers achieving the familiar. We need to be grain activists and honor all the work that goes into producing local, vital food. We need to listen to the grain. Let’s go beyond achieving the familiar and create our own visions and possibilities.
Johnson’s Mill in Johnson, Arkansas first spun in the 1830s. Behind the mill, a spring still fills the millpond, waiting to run the sluice, hoping to turn the water wheel and stones. Inside the building, a millstone heart beats when it meets a new season of grain. There, in the dark space, the work of the farmer begins its transformation: grain into flour, flour into the baker’s hands, the baker’s skill, and the heat of the oven sending loaves to our tables.
I grew up going to Johnson’s. If I close my eyes, I can see the hand-hewn beams and dusty light cutting warped panes to shine on a white powder coat of flour. The wrinkled miller in his blue work shirt and striped overalls filling my mother’s sack with flour straight off the stones; pancakes, bread, biscuits…opportunity in a bag.
It’s no wonder that I became a baker. Today, making — the transformation of grain into food — is at the center of what I do. Before I’m done, maybe I’ll become the mill itself. My heart, granite, and spinning; my arms and legs, support for the runner and stone; my head, a place for grain to go. I can only hope to be so useful.
There was a time when all of us were mills. As makers, we were linked to tangible trades with physical connections to food and making. We’ve strayed from that place. Vermont, a state which formerly had 200 mills, has a fraction of that today. But this isn’t a sad story, we have more than we did 10 years ago. And by next year I bet the number will have grown again through the work of New American Stone Mills in Elmore. Yes, we can turn again.
Across the country, Farmer’s Markets and Community Supported Agricultural models are thriving. Many communities have bakers and our value for delicious, handmade loaves is on the rise. More and more of us know the name of a farmer or maybe even a miller or a baker.
And we can do more. I encourage you to search for your own place of providence. Find a miller, meet a farmer, or bake a loaf to share with those around you. Through these connections which nurture and restore our communities, we ourselves can again become the field, the mill, and the source of our own sustenance, one loaf at a time.
Martin Philip is a baker and author.
His book, Breaking Bread: A Baker’s Journey Home in 75 Recipes (HarperCollins, 2017) is a Wall Street Journal Best Seller and was awarded the best cookbook of 2018 by the New York Book Industry Guild and the 2018 Vermont Book Award. A native of the Arkansas Ozarks, Martinheis a sought-after voice in the world of bread and baking. He is a MacDowell Fellow and a graduate of Oberlin Conservatory of Music. Martin lives in Vermont with his wife Julie Ness and their three children where he has worked for the King Arthur Baking Company since 2006.