What Is American Bread?
The hidden heritage of American wheats.
Julia Child once said, “How can a nation be great if its bread tastes like Kleenex?” The French have delicious, crusty baguettes and boules, sweet brioches. The Italians have tender, toothsome ciabattas and focaccias.
But what do we have?
When I think of American bread, my mind goes straight to that sliced, store-bought loaf in the plastic white bag (the one with the primary-colored polka dots on it), and the way it lasts forever on the kitchen counter and makes for terrible bread pudding. Only recently has the artisan bread movement taken flight in America, thanks to bakers like Ellen King who are bringing heritage grains back into their loaves.
“When we started looking at wheat as a commodity, we stripped away the characteristics that made it so unique and regional,” King laments.
The plastic white bread our generation grew up with is a lasting reminder of the industrialization that swept this country at the turn of the century and ruined wheat by forcing high yields through genetic engineering, synthetic fertilizers and pesticides. Working to revitalize the grain economy in the Midwest, King has teamed up with local farmers to bring back older varieties of wheat crops — the heritage, or historical, varieties — which precede the bleached white wheat most Americans are used to buying.
Most recently, partnering with farmer Andy Hazzard, King has baked the very first loaf using the almost-extinct Marquis wheat, a varietal that the Midwest hasn’t produced in 100 years.
The trouble with these heritage wheats, however, is that there hasn’t been an easy way to sell them. Though the organic and slow food movements have certainly made things easier, it takes grassroots bakeries like Hewn to build close relationships with local farmers to incentivize them to produce such niche grains at all.
“To bring back wheat as a crop that people can make a living [off of] is something I’m passionate about. I’d love more people to be as committed to buying their wheat locally as they are to buying their produce,” King says.
It’s a noble mission, to prove once and for all that there’s a profitable, emerging market for organic wheat, and that eating locally is not only a benefit to one’s community, but also to one’s health. King has found, for instance, that loaves made with heritage and ancient grains can be eaten by those with gluten sensitivities.
“Oh here, look, I brought some,” she says, reaching into her bag and pulling out 10 or so vials of these old grains, each gorgeous and disparately hued. She goes through each one in the past tense.
The Turkey Red was grown predominately in Kansas in the early 1900s. The Rouge de Bordeaux was grown all over France until the government forced farmers to adopt high-yield wheat due to food shortages during WWII. The White Sonora, from Sonora, Mexico, has a beige color that intimates its softness and therefore its use for baked goods like cookies. Each vial has a story, a lasting relevance.
Her reverence is evident.
“What’s great about our country is that we really do take all different cultures and bring out the best of each region. We have access to the best wheat in the world.”
King’s passion for wheat sparks in me an important realization that American bread may be neither sliced nor white. It’s varietal and naturally fermented, dark and flavorsome. It’s got irregular holes. It’s a little wet, but the crust is phonically crunchy and tears perfectly.
“And the crumbs scatter all over,” she adds, smiling.
The greatest thing about this nation’s bread is that it’s a classic immigrant story: inspired by the past, but never hindered by tradition. There’s nothing more American than that.