I felt like I was going to meet the author of a book I loved. Would I like the writer as much as I liked the book? Or in this case, would I like the people as much as I liked the idea of what they were doing, which is, trying to change their community through agriculture.
This was the sixth conference, and for two days I ate breakfast, lunch and dinner with more than 200 people fascinated by bread, ovens and grains. I knew a handful of these people from other conferences about grains, who were here to talk about their work on this, their busman’s holidays. I was familiar with other people because I had interviewed them by phone, or heard of them, and I wanted to see them in action: earth oven builder Stu Silverstein, brick oven builder (and Masons on a Mission founder) Pat Manley, and organizers Amber Lambke and Albie Barden.
Stu and Pat had great, welcoming manners.
“Would you like to get your hands in, Amy?” Stu asked as I watched people put a mixture of clay, sand and water on top of a dome of sand.
Now that he mentioned it, yes, I would, and I did like pressing the dry-ish stuff up the mound, building an oven. The work was surprisingly gratifying. I do things with my hands all day, namely create wrist problems by hammer typing, but this was something else. Not just the lost time, kid kind of fun that comes from shaping sand at the beach. No, this tactile stuff was something else.
I think that working with your hands is probably why a lot of people have such a fondness for making bread. A lot of people at the conference are home bakers who relax – presumably from careers that ask less of their hands – by perfecting the baguette, or otherwise mastering bread. Sometimes, these people turn to bread as a profession, lured by the fact that bread is a lot more real than say, keystrokes.
This physicality surfaced as instructors in baking sessions passed balls and baskets of dough to demonstrate just what qualities people should be feeling at different points of mixing and rising.
These teachers hail from well-known places in the bread-loving world like King Arthur Flour and Johnson & Wales University. The amount of information on how to improve your baking is staggering, and I admired all the styles that delivered that info.
Michael Jubinsky, who runs Stone Turtle Baking and Cooking School in Maine with his wife Sandy, had a great conversational teaching style. Perhaps he developed this while doing demonstrations for King Arthur for 25 years, or maybe this was why he did those demos. Either way, he offered technical details in an informal fashion that was both casual and serious. Not that I absorbed everything he said – there is so much to the art of making bread that I don’t know I’ll ever master the material.
This is the way I feel about wheat in general. I’ve been studying how it grows and how it is milled for more than a year, and I can hardly keep any of these facts in my head. And the thing about this regional grain revival is that it about much more than just wheat.
Albie Barden, an oven builder who helped this conference come to life, is now interested in repatriating flint corns grown by Abenaki tribes. I ate some Johnnycakes, and brought home 2 pounds of the corn, Roy Calais, that made them. A pair of young farmers chose to grow corn because they can harvest it by hand, rather than machine. They’ll be having a corn festival this autumn, putting some ritual into the harvest.
Maine was the breadbasket for the Union Army. This fact, plus locavore interest in regional grains, got people in Skowhegan talking about making first the Kneading Conference, and then the Somerset Grist Mill.
The grist mill is coming along. One hundred and fifty acres of wheat and oats are under contract with the mill, which should be running soon.
Skowhegan is one of the places in Maine that mirrors the setting of Empire Falls, Richard Russo’s Pulitzer Prize winning novel about a little mill city limping along after industry flew south.
Visiting the Kneading Conference and the people who authored it – and are writing the mill, too, if you will, was a nourishing read. This community is revising the area through food. The former county jail where the mill sits is the pickup site for a multifarm CSA, and has a root cellar for area farmers. The Maine Grain Alliance hosts educational baking classes with their mobile oven. The weekly farmers market works with doctors to write prescriptions for vegetables: people get free produce and farmers get paid through a grant.
Can food change everything? Maybe, maybe not. But it is a fine place to start, and Skowhegan, Maine, is starting lots of things worth watching.