100 lbs is a lot. A lot of anything. Depending on your interests and experiences, you’ve probably struggled at one time or another to lift and move about 100 lbs. Ever try to carry two heavy bags of cement or garden soil as you work around your house? If you’re a parent, that’s like lifting two 7-year olds or one 13-year old. 100lbs of $1 bills would be about $45,000 (I wish I had to move that around more often). I remember hearing about an episode of Oprah, where she wheeled in a wagon with 100 lbs of animal fat to show how much weight she had lost, and it was quite the visual metaphor.
Those thoughts were on my mind last Sunday, as my wife and I struggled through the foggy parking lot, carrying the box filled with 100 lbs of whole, unmilled local grain. A lot healthier than Oprah’s wagon of fat, no doubt, but it still felt pretty dramatic to us. This was the 2nd year picking up our grain CSA from Pioneer Valley in Massachusetts.
We discovered the CSA online, during a search for local flour. The big guys in the castle up in Vermont make a fine flour, and it’s conveniently placed in every supermarket in the state. But it’s not actually from Vermont, it’s trucked in from the midwest and Canada, and we’d much rather support farmers here in New England and save the food miles. I had yet to find local flour or grain at a farmer’s market, so we turned to the web for help.
The CSA was founded by the owners of Wheatberry bakery in Amherst Massachusetts. At first they were simply looking for local farmers to grow grain for the bakery, but once the sourcing was established they expanded into a CSA. Many of the varieties they grow, the wheat and the corn, are historic heirlooms. We were sold.
I really knew we were all-in when the mill arrived. The box was heavy. Not quite 100 lbs heavy, but two stone grinding wheels better have a certain heft if they’re going to be any good. Our CSA contained beans, corn, wheat, and other whole grains like spelt and farro. But these were whole grains, not whole grain flour. If we wanted some bread instead of just wheat berry salads, we’d need a mill.
Brand new mills don’t come cheap, but thankfully eBay had a strong selection. We picked out one made in Idaho in the 1970s, but despite nearly 40 years it hadn’t lost any power, quickly grinding my store-bought test grain into a beautiful flour – soft, fragrant, and with just a touch of warmth from the friction of the stones.
Our first pickup was an experience in itself, waiting in line with like-minded food lovers and dreaming of what we would cook. Just like when I talk with folks at our Slow Food events, everyone brings unique history and experiences to the conversation, and we left with some great new baking ideas. I also bought my wife a whole grains cookbook for Christmas, and that year we sat around the tree making our cooking plans.
One cold winter night, shortly after the pickup, I came home and Renee had made polenta for dinner with fresh ground corn. I love polenta, or grits, especially as a vehicle for cups and cups of cream and melted cheese. This polenta was the best I had ever had, at home or a restaurant, rich and creamy and satisfying. I couldn’t tell what type of cheese she had used though, so I asked, and the answer absolutely floored me. None. No cheese. No cream, no milk, no dairy of any kind. With simply water and very freshly ground cornmeal, she had created a deliciously creamy polenta, but with a depth of flavor I had never had before.
It was theme that echoed itself as we began baking whole wheat bread, turning out moister, and lighter, and yet somehow more flavorful loaves than we’d ever baked before. We also noticed an interesting effect, related to our food choices. Simply having such a large volume of high quality components on hand, we thought more about cooking with them. We focused on cooking healthier foods.
Becoming a home miller is an investment and a commitment, no doubt. But if you have an inkling to give it a try, I’d highly encourage it. At the pickup this year I spoke to founder Ben Lester about their experience, and he’s excited for its success for many of the same reasons we’re excited about Slow Food. The CSA creates a market, and gives local farmers confidence to invest in equipment and plant crops. At 160 shares, they’re growing steady, with customers driving from Boston, Martha’s Vineyard, and (obviously) the Connecticut shoreline.
Before we left for the pickup, we pulled our remaining grain from storage, to see how much of last year’s pickup we had left. 35 lbs remained, so we used 65 lbs last year. That was OK, we had decided to split this year’s pickup with family anyway. 100 lbs is a lot of whole grain, but I have a feeling 50 will be just right.