The Pioneers of Grains
With chefs and bakers, millers and maltsters all getting into local, whole grains, it’s easy to forget that there was a time, recently, when whole grains weren’t so in. Some food folks, though, are long-time fans. Here are five early adopters, all of whom continue to push the trend.
The Miller: Bob Moore
“I owe everything to my wife, Charlee” says Bob Moore. “Back when we were just starting our family in the 1950s, she got some books by Adelle Davis, Gayelord Hauser, J.I. Rodale, Jethro Kloss”—mid-century America’s health and nutrition writers—and she got into whole grains. Moore was not a health nut; he was a smoker. “But I didn’t argue with wife about the wonderful bread she was baking.”
From there, the couple’s whole-grain habit snowballed. Moore picked up a book at the library: John Goffe’s Mill, by George Woodbury, which chronicles the restoration of an old gristmill.
“If this guy could do it,” said Moore, “so could I.”
So he started hunting around and, in 1982, he shipped a pair of 200-year-old millstones from Fayetteville, North Carolina, to Redding, California, and opened Moore’s Flour Mill. Moore’s sons still run that mill, but today, the company is far larger. At the main facility at Bob’s Red Mill in Milwaukie, Oregon, 400 employees run 22 stone mills 24 hours a day.
But, although that might seem like industrial production, there are crucial distinctions between Bob’s process and that of conventional flour mills. “First off, stone milling is very slow. We get 500 pounds an hour versus 5,000 with large roller mills, where they’re separating the bran and germ. And when we put our grain through the mill, the temperature is the same when the flour comes out, with the oils and the germ intact.” Cold milling, which keeps the oils from oxidizing, extends the flour’s shelf life and retains the grains’ flavors and nutrients—which makes the flour more digestible.
“It’s a blessing to your diet and your assimilation of the product itself,” says Bob.
Over the decades, Bob’s offerings—which number more than 400—have kept expanding: organic stone-milled flours, ancient whole grains like kamut and teff, fascinating legumes like the palomino-dappled Orca beans, soup mixes and pancake mixes, you name it. They are sold in more than 80 countries.
For many people, given the brand’s supermarket presence, Bob’s Red Mill is the entry to whole grains. How did Moore do it? By believing—and proselytizing. It’s part of his ethos of living: Slow down; take the time to cook real foods.
“When I first started this thing, I went to every church talk I could and told them, ‘If you’re gonna eat healthy, you’re gonna eat whole grains. Start being patient with yourself, and know that things take longer.’”
Moore himself is Bob’s Red Mill’s best advertisement. Though he turned ownership of his company over to employees in 2010, his face still graces every package, and he still acts as spokesperson. Robust at 86 years old, he’s a convincing case for the healthfulness of a whole-grains diet.
“I have hardly ever been sick,” says Moore. “Start every day with bowl of oatmeal, and you will be amazed at how easily the morning slips by and you don’t want donuts or whatever else people indulge in, and you don’t over-eat lunch. Whole grains slowly build blood sugar levels up, and the sense of satisfaction and euphoria lasts. For long life, my secret is to start every day with a bowl of hot cereal.”
The Scientist: Monica Spiller
“They call her ‘the mother of wheat’,” says soba expert Sonoko Sakai. It sounds like an honorific for a goddess, but Monica Spiller is a scientist. Forty years ago, the Brit-turned–Bay Area resident fell in love over whole grains.
“I met my husband in 1975,” she recalls. “He was about to publish a book on dietary fiber.”
Though that might not turn everyone on, Spiller, a pharmacologist, was smitten. She and Gene Spiller were both taken with research from Africa that showed people who swapped traditional whole grains for European white flour became prone to hitherto unheard of illnesses: diabetes, obesity, colon cancer, heart disease.
“Dietary fiber is what’s missing, so why on earth is white flour our mainstay?” says Spiller. “I thought we had forgotten how to make whole grain bread. People didn’t like it because wasn’t nice. So what were we doing wrong?”
To answer that question, Spiller began baking—like a scientist. She studied bacteriology. (She holds two patents related to sourdough starter.) With her late husband, she published the charmingly titled book, What’s With Fiber? And she farmed ancient wheats—drought-resistant Sonora, Indian jammu, durum, Ethiopian emmer—each pre-dating modern, all-purpose flour. For a dozen years, she sold seeds to organic farmers in California and beyond, providing over 100 of them—Full Belly Farm, Tule Farm, the Mendocino Grain Project—with the means to grow wheats meant for delicious stone-milled, whole-grain breads.
Today, in her 70s, Spiller continues to experiment, consulting with farmers, millers, and bakers throughout the west; refining her baking methods; and posting new recipes and advice on her Whole Grain Connection website. How a pinch of rosehips and a drizzle of olive oil helps dough to rise; why sprouted wheat is good for a starter; which type of water to use—she elucidates it all in splendid detail.
Her main rule of thumb? “No refined flour, refined sugar, hydrogenated fat, and commercial yeast: Those four things don’t belong in our basic food.”
The Noodle Maker: Sonoko Sakai
“Buckwheat is a complete protein,” says Sonoko Sakai. “It has all of the eight amino acids. On long meditative journeys in the highlands of China, Buddhist monks put it in their kimono sleeves. They could mix it with water and eat it. It’s a fruit seed; it has no gluten, so you won’t get indigestion. You can make a porridge easily or pancakes.”
What Sakai concentrates on is noodles. In 2011, the food writer and former film producer launched Common Grains, and started teaching soba making. She had interned with a buckwheat miller in Japan where, ideally, “you harvest it, mill it, and eat it right away.” Wanting to bring that freshness to her students in Los Angeles, she contacted Anson Mills’ Glenn Roberts, who gave her some heirloom seeds and told her, “Find some farmers. See if they’ll plant wheat. If you have wheat, you can have buckwheat as rotation crop.”
Thus was born the Southern California Heritage Grain Project, a collaboration between Sakai and a handful of farmers—Alex Weiser, who helped found the Santa Monica Farmers Market; Jon Hammond, who dry-farmed his wheat successfully during the drought; Nathan Siemens of the Lompoc-based Fat Uncle Farms—to create a local, sustainable SoCal grains economy. This year, they’ll have their second harvest. Currently on Sakai’s wish list? Pricy equipment for processing buckwheat. She’s started a pop-up brunch to help fund the project.
“Common Grains became a link between the seeds and farmers, and the seeds and cooks, and the scope became larger. I didn’t realize I was getting myself into that, but here I am,” says Sakai. “And I feel so inspired.”
The Baker: Dave Miller
“You have the orator in the village. That’s Chad [Robertson],” says Jonathan Bethony, formerly of The Bread Lab. “And you have the ascetic on the mountain. That’s Dave Miller.”
For an aesthetic, the man behind Miller’s Bake House sure is popular. Both Bethony and Monica Spiller name the Chico, California baker as a mentor. Robertson lists him among “the finest miller friends I know.” But despite his influence in the whole-grains world, Dave Miller keeps things simple. He bakes out of his home, selling only on Saturdays at the Chico Farmers Market, where his breads—einkorn, seeded sesame wheat, “Wunder Grain” (kamut with soaked quinoa, amaranth, and flax), dark rye, and others—are a hit.
If you ask him, Miller, who’s been making bread like this since the mid-1980s, will elucidate the tenets of a process that has earned him his many admirers: a) Work with whole grain flours to capture all of the flavor and nourishment. b) Allow as little time as possible to pass between the milling of the flour and the mixing of the dough—“Freshly milled flour has a fluffy, light consistency and a bouquet that is really pleasing,” he says. c) Hydrate the doughs well so that the absorbent whole-grain flour cooks properly. d) Ferment with a natural starter, which will contain not just yeast, but beneficial bacteria. e) Bake at a higher-than-normal temperature so that the dough cooks through and rises well.
Miller’s methods yield incomparable results. “I'm happiest when the bread I make has a crumb that is almost cake-like, moist to the touch,” he says.
But his best advice is less technical. “I remember taking an advanced sourdough course years ago, and the instructor went down a long list of what you couldn't do with whole grain flours: ‘You can't get this kind of crust, you won't get this kind of volume, you won't get this kind of flavor, etc.’ No wonder it has taken so long for whole grain breads to get some traction!” recalls Miller, who counters such naysaying. “My best advice for home bakers who are interested in baking with whole grains is to have high expectations.”
The Farmer: Jack Lazor
It’s taken nearly four decades for the rest of the country to start catching up to Jack Lazor. In 1976, he and his wife, Anne, started Butterworks, a dairy farm in Vermont’s Northeast Kingdom. They were organic from the start. And nearly self-sufficient. This meant growing organic wheat, for the family’s bread and the cows’ straw. They grew their first crop using Amish-style equipment and harvesting their wheat into the types of bundles you’d see in a Breugel painting.
“The old-timers hadn’t seen it done like this for 40 years,” says Lazor. The only problem was, “nobody wanted to buy flour from us. We ground a bunch, took it down to the local seed co-op, and almost laughed out of there.”
Everyone thought of flour as a Midwestern commodity crop—except for the Lazors, who didn’t give up. In 1989, Jack built what he calls “my little church”: a granary whose grain elevator is hidden within a monastic-style tower. Today, along with the yogurts—and organic farming advice—that have made him a legend in Vermont, Lazor distributes whole and stone-ground grains throughout the state: wheat, spelt, rye, and the barley that goes to local maltsters.
A history buff, he’s a sucker for heritage breeds, like long, skinny flint corn, with its super-sweet kernels. It’s the same corn that Squanto shared with the Pilgrims, a story Lazor tells in the book he authored last year, The Organic Grain Grower. At 430 pages, it’s a seminal treatment of the subject that he calls “a hobby that totally possessed me.”