On the hard work of grains

Our Little (Rhode Island) Red hen Verloe

The story of The Little Red Hen tends to be told for its communitarian values:  by helping in the growth, harvest, winnowing and milling of the wheat, all could have enjoyed the ensuing bread.  As it was, industrious Hen shared it only with her family.  If one looks more specifically at the labor involved in that bread’s beginnings, one finds a deeper story, and a lost virtue.

Industrial agriculture, like anything humans do, has good and bad points.  One bad point:  the average person has been separated from the process of how things grow, and how things are processed into food, and have lost the knowledge of even the most basic of human foodstuffs.  Let’s take cereal grains (cereal is from Ceres, the Roman goddess of farming) as an example.

Ethnobotanists and archaeologists pin the start of agriculture to around 9500BCE.  (That’s about 3500 years before the world began according to Governor Palin; she also thought dinosaurs lived with humans at this same time. An interesting aside, goshdarnit.) Agriculture, as defined, meant the intentional growing of multiple foodstuffs normally found in the wild, with emmer, chickpeas and peas being three crucial first crops.

Michael Pollan has done a fabulous job in his books of pointing out the very narrow slice of botanical life upon which modern agriculture (and thus our way of life) is based:  it’s mostly soy, wheat, rice, and corn, the biggest of which is corn.  Indeed, it is especially hard to escape the latter, as it’s everywhere, even where you think it wouldn’t be.  Relying only on this handful has made our culinary lives less rich, I would argue.  Less rich, and less prone to experiment even in our own kitchens.  It’s certainly caused a boatload of other problems, from soil depletion to nitrogen runoff to childhood obesity to Type II diabetes.  Oh, and it’s aided in the warming of this earth.

So, back to cereal grains.  Industrial ag and, goshdarnit, the loss of small-scale family farming have separated us from the meat of our wheat.  “Separating the wheat from the chaff” sounds today like a trite colloquialism, when in actuality it’s hard work!  Try it sometime: growth, harvest, threshing, winnowing.  The process of removing the inedible chaff (husk) that surrounds any cereal grain (the bran, endosperm, or seed) that is eaten is laborious.  I tend to kvetch about having to shell my peas and beans, but it’s got nothing on the preparation required to make our grains edible.  Machines, or hand tools, certainly help in this process. I am quite certain the need for better and faster agricultural tools led us to have the big brains we have.  Other than spearpoints, they qualify as our first true tools.

What would it mean if we were to become a nation of gardeners, of chicken-ranchers, grain-growers and apple-harvesters?  What would it mean if we cut off our addiction to fast food, to microwave meals?  What would it mean if any American could supplement their egg and garden bounty with fresh bread from locally-grown grains, or cartons of locally-made butter and cream?  I would argue we would become a lot more healthy, a lot more food secure, a lot more culinarily rich.

I wanted to give you something to chew on.  Tomorrow I’ll cite my luck making posole/hominy.

7 responses to “On the hard work of grains

  1. Yeah, I saw that Pollan article, it was uncommonly good. Shame that food policy will probably be near the bottom of President Obama’s to do list, there’s just so much else to do that’s considered more important. (I don’t even want to think about a McCain Presidency….)
    A sensible agriculture policy would be a hard sell right now (like a sensible drug policy). Reading the article made me think of that scene in “Idiocracy” where Luke Wilson’s character had to explain to the Cabinet that if you put water (instead of the Gatorade-like “Brawndo”) on plants they’ll grow… he finally had to resort to telling people he could magically talk to plants and they told him that they wanted water.
    Any idea on how to start a “Draft Michael Pollan for Secretary of Agriculture” initiative?

    Oh, and thanks for all the great writing. Going on over a year now yours is the only blog I still regularly read. Others have lasted for a couple weeks or months in my reader, but I always get tired of them.

  2. I’m currently reading “Omnivore’s Dilemma”….and I thought I knew what was going on. I had no idea it went so deep. SIGH…

    But I want to hear more of your thoughts on grains. What you don’t eat and why, and what you do eat. As much as I think I know about our food sources, etc I’m always eager to learn more.

  3. I haven’t read the article by Pollan, but I LOVED his Cornification of Food presentation on NPR. Here is the AR site that makes the broadcast available for download for $5 if anyone is interested.

  4. Thanks for the uplifting report. Just when I was feeling crummy about — it all… — you reminded me that it’s kind of neat to be a human after all.

    I can’t WAIT to hear about your hominy. You limed (nixtamalized) your corn! Off the freakin’ grid!

  5. I have an idea on how to raise these issues to a higher rung on soon-to-be President Obama’s list of priorities. I say, put a Slow Food/Local Food chef in the White House. The food will speak for itself & Obama will be won over. End of story!

  6. I want to add to that Joan Gussow’s very strong suggestion that we just eat food. Even my high fructose addicted step kids are starting to get it about the difference between that stuff at the supermarket and, well, food.


  7. Aw thanks Rob. [And I wonder what’s the secret of the appeal of the blog. I guess it’s because I don’t get too personal in the blog posts? You know, they’re rants or observations but not too cutesy/homey/personal, maybe. I figure I can tee off in the comments 🙂 ] Yes, I do agree that ag policy is surely not going to change any time soon in this country. It’s got too many giant farms with too many hands in the till. In 1984, New Zealand did away with farm subsidies altogether, and saw the number of farms increase, not decrease. Wouldn’t that be amazing to see here! Talk about the impetus needed to go with more organic or “specialty crops” like VEGETABLES and FRUIT.

    Kathy, yeah, I thought I was fairly hep before I read TOD too. I’d been a fan of Marion Nestle and her book on Food Politics had really opened my eyes to the mess we’re in. But as to grains, yeah, I will go over the 3 we readily have available (with some looking of course because that’s what it takes in this world of grocery stores and industrial food) in the next few posts.

    Jennifer, it’s a good article. Thanks for the link: I might have to listen in.

    CC: you will see I wimped out and only used baking soda. I do have lye though and hey I have about an acre of hardwood trees so maybe one day I will actually go ahead and boil my own. So, not off the grid yet…baby steps…

    Laurene, I have thought about that too. I would elect Dan Barber of Blue Hill at Stone Barns: he’s as close as our nation gets to Hugh Fearnley-Whittingstall of RiverCottage in the UK. Dan’s not quite such a…character as Hugh, but his commitment to local, seasonal food is genuine. And he ain’t so highfalutin a chef (which is saying something).

    Alecto, I loved your tale of how the boys did in their Weekend Without Processed Foods. There’s hope in the children, yes there is. Like most things it’s exposure. Even if it’s a limited exposure, they will remember it and know it’s at least an option. Too many kids grow up thinking food only comes out of a box or a can.

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