Becoming the Grain Lady
I have worn and continue to wear many hats in my life - photographer, gardener, homeschool teacher, mother, artist, knitter, pianist, drummer, traveler, baker and all-around lover of food. When I think of my life I think about diving into things - I am curious, quick to learn and incredibly passionate about what I am involved in. One might see that as being all over the place and you know the expression “jack of all trades, master of none”. I have said to myself, “Why can’t you just pick one thing and become an expert in that one thing?” But I have come to see that that is not who I am- and all my loves and experiences flow together and have led me to who I am and where I am today. I prefer to see myself as a Renaissance woman - after all my middle name is Lisa - or better yet an urban contemporary Laura Ingalls Wilder replete with backyard chickens and all!
I think of some of the experiences that have brought me to where I am today. I spent many years in the wine world and was fortunate enough to gain passage into some of the greatest cellars and vineyards in the world. But it was at the table that I really got my first glimpse into how food and wine and the everyday ritual of gathering around a table builds and strengthens community. I remember lunches during grape harvest on a small family vineyard in rural France that I visited and worked on every year. I was a part of preparing elaborate meals for lunch break during harvest, the time of day when everyone came together. There was no distinction between social classes, the owners sitting next to the pickers and housekeepers, babies and children next to the great grandparents. I understood for the first time the value that was placed on relationships, rituals, coming together and bonding over food and wine grown in that small town for centuries. It was a living example of the vibrant connection from farm to table and how a community is built around food.
It was at that very table that I made the connection that wine makers are farmers! Much like the day I realized that the flour could be the most compelling component in bread and have its own story to tell and I had completely overlooked it, I had that same aha moment around grapes and wine. I started connecting the dots about where it all starts- the seed, the grower, the soil, the place, the season all have an impact on the final product- they all contribute to that elusive quality of terroir. So when I started paying attention to flour and wheat I began to draw many of the same parallels with grapes and wine. Wheat could have a sense of place - it could have complex flavors based on who grew it, how it was grown and where. This opened up a whole new world of seeing wheat as a varietal with its own personality. The wheat had a story to tell and I became uniquely poised to tell that story and share my knowledge and experience through food- my favorite edible story!
This all became real for me when I couldn’t get my hands on those varietals! It was all rather selfish - I wanted to bake with these varietals and explore the different flavors and have access to whole grain nutrition. This was the beginning of my mission to restore these heritage and ancient varieties to my own community and to jump start a local grain revolution. It all started with the seed- sourcing varietals, getting enough of them to seed an acre or more and getting that seed into the hands of local farmers! I dove in head first researching, reading anything I could get my hands on and talking to some of the luminaries in the seed world like Glenn Roberts from Anson Mills. I soaked up every word they said! But that was only the beginning and the easy part compared to what would come next! To get the seed from the farm to your table involves many steps along the way - I became what I like to call a “connectress”- building relationships with and between farmers, millers, bakers, chefs, distillers, brewers, educators, and home cooks. We ran up against many challenges in re-creating the infrastructure or “grain chain” necessary to support a small scale local grain economy but I can say that 2 years later we are well on our way to establishing a local grain economy replete with seed cleaners, mills and marketplace interest and demand. I can now find locally grown heritage grains at my farmers’ market - alongside the heirloom tomatoes there are now heirloom grains!
I grew up in Brooklyn, my mother grew up on her grandparents’ farm in Italy. Less than 100 years have passed since my mother was running around catching chickens. On their farm they grew wheat, harvested it, milled it and made bread. It’s in my blood - I have a story to tell.