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The New Bread Basket

NewBreadBasket_frontcover copy

On the Fourth of July in 1817, the Erie Canal began. Important men scooped symbolic shovels of dirt at dawn. Someone understood the moment’s power, and captured it beautifully.

Of course the canal began far earlier, perhaps as soon as colonists started to explore. An inland waterway would allow access to bounty and land.

One of the Erie Canal’s most articulate supporters was a flour merchant. Jesse Hawley went broke shipping flour and grains to New York City. Sitting still in debtor’s prison, he had time to consider how to improve his situation, and fixed his mind on carving the land to best serve commercial interests. The Genesee Messenger printed his essays, which laid out a proposed route, and spelled out the specific benefits, pointing to the success of other canals as an example.

While the idea of a 350-mile man-and mule–made waterway seemed absurd to many people, Hawley’s writings helped DeWitt Clinton and others argue the case. On Independence Day in 1817, politicians launched this project at sunrise. Modern beginnings are so much less grand.

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I had a small beginning on Friday. I thought the day’s big event was going to be six kids drenching themselves with water guns at my son’s birthday party. Then the UPS truck pulled up.

I thought it might be a birthday present for Felix, but the small package had the return address of my publisher. I knew right away what it was, but I was still shocked. This book began in so many places, and since I’ve never published a book before, each of its milestones take me by surprise.

One place this book began was at the griddle. My dad was the weekend breakfast king, and when he made pancakes I begged to be involved. The day he handed me the spatula echoes each time I look at the rounds of batter, waiting for bubbles to break so I can flip the cakes.

I have been studying pancakes for most of my life, and a few years ago I began studying flour. My husband brought me a cookie made with freshly ground wheat flour, and freshly rolled oats. Those grains had flavor galore, standing strong with the very good butter and chocolate will.

I traced these ingredients back to the field and to the mill, and got to know the pioneers who are growing and using staple crops at a small scale. I wrote their stories for farming newspapers and locavore outlets, describing the challenges and work.

THE NEW BREAD BASKET: How the New Crop of Grain Growers, Plant Breeders, Millers, Maltsters, Bakers, Brewers, and Local Food Activists Are Redefining Our Daily Loaf will be in stores very soon. The birthday party got my copy a little wet pretty quick, but nothing dampens my enthusiasm for this project.

I have loved meeting the grains all-stars who are working to make bread and beer local products. I can’t wait for you to make their acquaintance in my book.

Tractor Cake

Thursday night, Felix and I made some cakes. Having him measure ingredients, I had such a fond feeling for when I was 11 and loved being in the kitchen.

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Boy at work.

By then I had assigned myself the job of being the family baker. I would survey my sisters and see what they wanted for snacks or lunches. I pretended to be taking care of them and their needs, but really I had a glue for the alchemy of baking. I loved to make oatmeal cookies especially, and kept playing with recipes. I have some index cards that say The Best, Amy’s Best, or The Best Best.

Felix doesn’t have the same affinity for the kitchen, but he likes learning how ingredients come together. Baking a tractor shaped cake was kind of the frosting on a project for school. He turned his love for Bruder farm toys into a research project, and wrote about the history of toys, and the history of farming toys in Germany and America.

I had fun reading to help him. I read the biography of the man who invented the erector set, and learned about his getting members of a congressional committee on their knees playing with toys. The committee was considering rationing toys, but A.C. Gilbert gave an impassioned speech asking that American boys who might be fighting soon be allowed to have Christmas and build childhood memories. This was during World War I, and a barge full of German-made toys sat in the ocean, barred from coming on shore.

The book reminded me of my erector set, and the bridge that I built. Playing with flour was more routine. I built myself in the kitchen, and that’s why it is so fun to watch my boys play with food. Francis is 17 and he has always loved cooking and eating. He has quite a taste compass, and I’m happy he’s home from boarding school to help guide our meals.

“Boy, making a cake is a lot of work! I thought it would be snip snap,” Felix said as he divided the frosting for his tractor cake into bowls and tried to get the colors right to match a particular tractor.

He got up early in the morning before the last day of school to decorate the cake. The result was pretty great for a first effort!

We brought it to a party at his friend’s house, and as thunder rumbled the kids came indoors from volleyball and soccer and finally cut into the tractor.

Who knows how much interest Felix will ever have in baking. But I am grateful that we had some time together with sugar and flour and each other.