Building a Food Story during Chicago Ideas Week

November 15, 2017

Introduction to thinking about our roles in a sustainable food system; hands-on learning from AGC members

– by Erin Meyer of Spence Farm Foundation

What is your food story? Everybody has one. When I close my eyes, I’m transported back to my Nona’s kitchen, where I’m dipping a piece of homemade bread into spaghetti sauce simmering on the stove. My senses explode at the aroma of warm bread, followed by the crackling sounds of the crust. I marvel at the beautifully caramelized loaf, and treasure the taste of the bread and sauce. I revel in knowing this is one of my many influential food experiences that will be with me forever.

We, at the Artisan Grain Collaborative (AGC), want to help you create a new food story to add to the many that you have logged into your memories. A collective of bakers, chefs, nonprofits, farmers, millers, distributors, agriculture researchers, educators, and school nutrition experts, AGC seeks to effect agrarian change by building a market for local grains across the Midwest and promoting a more sustainable approach to agriculture to build healthier soil. Our goal is to improve our watersheds, build economic vitality in rural farming communities, and grow more delicious, nutrient rich grains.

During AGC’s Chicago Ideas Week event, Artisan Grain in Action, a handful of AGC members – Baker Miller, Publican Quality Bread, and Spence Farm Foundation – introduced attendees to our food story, and we invited them to create their own experiences by getting involved in the baking process. I had the pleasure of opening the event on behalf of Spence Farm Foundation, whose mission is cultivating a healthy food system through education. I shared the story of how the AGC came together, and I challenged attendees to think about their purpose and responsibility in moving forward a more sustainable food system.

Dave Miller of Baker Miller followed the introduction by sharing his story of what it takes to own a bakery, mill whole grains on site, and teach classes to a growing group of grain connoisseurs. Baker Miller has an open kitchen, which allows onlookers to see the entire grain process from mill to plate. Dave even fired up the in-house mill, demonstrating how a grain goes from kernel to flour.

Attendees were then treated to a hands-on baking session by co-owner Megan Miller. Freshly milled oat flour was the main ingredient in Megan’s famous thumbprint “jammer” cookies. Fun fact: the thumbprint cookies can be made with a variety of flours (whole wheat, buckwheat, oat, or a combo). Check out the recipe book from the event to try making these delicious cookies at home along with some other grain-centric recipes.

In an inspiring baking demo, Greg Wade of Publican Quality Bread closed out the event by demonstrating the powers of fermentation and sourdough bread. The three tools that you need: 1. your hands, 2. a cast iron stock pot with lid, and 3. a hot oven. The main ingredient: high-quality whole grain. Greg’s process is based around natural leavening. The long fermentation process allows the starches and proteins to breakdown making digestion easier, not to mention creating a delicious product. While Greg had his hands in the dough he shared his personal food story which centers around the relationship between baker and farmer. Greg works side by side with Spence Farm discussing everything from soil health, nutrition, grain variety selection, and its use in the bake shop.

Our food stories are a piece of our culture, who we are, and where we come from. It’s been said that America doesn’t have a food culture, but I don’t believe that. Families who came to America from countries all over the world brought their culture with them by growing their own food, building social wealth and economic viability, and stewarding the environment. Today we are creating a new food culture that is being built by farmers, chefs, bakers, and eaters who are weaving new stories together.

Through events like our Chicago Ideas Week Grain Lab, we at AGC are working to revitalize that food story, bringing diverse partners to the table, and working to build relationships with the people who are growing our food.

Interested in getting involved in the artisan grain movement? Here are a few ways to get started:

  1. Try your hand at baking a grain-centric item with our Rotational Recipe Book: http://bit.ly/CIWRecipeBook
  2. Learn where you can buy local artisan grain products, take a class with a partner, or get involved in the collaborative: http://graincollaborative.com/members
  3. Learn about this growing movement by reading Amy Halloran’s book, the New Bread Basket: http://www.chelseagreen.com/the-new-bread-basket
  4. Watch Peter Reinhart’s TED Talk, https://www.ted.com/talks/peter_reinhart_on_bread/up-next
  5. Contact your US Representative and encourage them to co- sponsor the new Local Food and Regional Market Supply Act, a precursor to the 2018 Farm Bill: http://sustainableagriculture.net/blog/local-farms-act/
  6. Learn more about artisan grains and the latest innovations by attending FamilyFarmed’s Good Food Expo, March 23rd and 24th: http://www.goodfoodfestivals.com/

Chicago Ideas Week’s mantra is that “When a broad spectrum of thinkers and instigators share ideas, we have the power to transform our world.” We like to think the same applies to our food system!

-Written by Erin Meyer. Photos by Jasmin Shah.