The local food movement has made it easier to find fresh veggies and fruit farmed nearby. But grains? Not so much. Most of the bread New Englanders break is made with flour from industrial, Midwestern farms. That’s changing, though, as farmers, millers and chefs rally to reinvent a lost regional “grain economy.”
Michael Morway is one of them.
At the Trillium Brewing Company in Boston, he flipped a yellow, square-shaped chunk of cornbread in a pan sizzling with melted butter. The chef said the recipe is standard — the cornmeal is not.
“This is Eight Row corn,” he explained, pointing, “you can see the little bits in it, blue, red, orange.”
The color-flecked bread is a staple on Morway’s menu. He plates it with local burrata cheese, cured meat and seasonal fruit. The Eight Row cornmeal is from around here, too, and for Morway it makes the dish sing. He first tasted it about six years ago and recalled how it blew his mind.
“It tastes like corn — number one — which cornmeal doesn't taste like corn if you buy it at Stop & Shop,” he said. “It’s more savory, like you’re eating a cob of corn. It’s bizarre.”
Native Americans grew this ancient, Eight Row corn strain for centuries before the Pilgrims arrived. Morway started using the meal at Nosh, his former restaurant in Plymouth, after a miller from the Plimoth Plantation Grist Mill gave him a fresh bag to try. The chef has been making bread and polenta with their product ever since.
“I have one and 50 pounds of cornmeal in my car right now,” he said, laughing. “I had to drive to Plymouth for it.”
Morway carted those heavy bags of white cap flint cornmeal back to Boston for the brewers at Trillium to use in a corn lager. He was the Plimoth Mill’s first commercial client. He's gone on to introduce the organic, heritage cornmeal to other Boston bakers and chefs. Clover Food Lab has used it for grits and blueberry muffins.
It’s hard to go back once you try it, Morway said. He laments how mass production mills strip flavor, fat and nutrients from grains — including genetically modified corn — grown in the bread basket of America.
“They've messed with it so much — just to grow faster, grow taller, grow thicker, make more money. It's nothing like it used to be,” Morway said, “and then it makes you wonder what we did wrong. So I know where this came from. I know the farmer. I know the person that milled it.”
That person is Kim VanWormer. Wearing a T-shirt that reads, "Where there's a mill there's a way." VanWormer recently prepared to grind corn the pre-industrial way for a group of curious visitors at the mill.
A waterwheel outside powers two massive, circular grinding stones inside a building reconstructed after the original mill burned down in 1837. Throughout the process, VanWormer adjusts the coarseness of the meal to get it just right. This small-scale process is a far cry from the modern, behemoth mills that make most of the country's flour.
Before 1900, there were more than 25,000 grist mills across the U.S. Advances in technology and transportation lured New England grain farmers and millers west. Now VanWormer is gratified to be part of an artisan movement that’s rebooting a “local grain economy” in the Northeast.
“It's something that you can trace,” she said, “not only can you know the farmer that grew your tomato, you can know the farmer that grew your wheat, or know the farmer that grew the malted barley that's in the beer that you're drinking.”
About six years ago, VanWormer and her former milling partner Matt Tavares decided to sell cornmeal they produced for demonstration at the Plimoth Grist Mill. Now she works with a half-dozen Rhode Island and Massachusetts farmers who are passionate about raising indigenous maize that’s labor-intensive and expensive to grow. She's not alone in believing the region needs more of them, along with additional mills to process local corn and other grains for the rising ranks of bakers, brewers and chefs fueling a revival.
“We also have a lot of activists who are working behind the scenes trying to create the market and get people educated,” author Amy Halloran said. She traces the foundations of America’s grain industry to the current renaissance in her book, "The New Bread Basket: How the New Crop of Grain Growers, Plant Breeders, Millers, Maltsters, Bakers, Brewers, and Local Food Activists Are Redefining Our Daily Loaf."
Halloran said grain has been slow to catch up to the larger local food movement for a variety of reasons. Growing and processing it requires forgotten knowledge, specialized skills and critical infrastructure lost after small mills shuttered in the late 19th and early 20th centuries.
“It was a part of our life to have a mill nearby, and now it's uncommon, but that is really changing,” Halloran said.
Much of the movement’s impetus originated through the organization GrowNYC, after farmers who were required to sell local produce requested the same of bakers at farmer’s markets. The bakers were game, Halloran said, but they needed access to local flour not normally available on most store shelves. And it has been growing from there to New England and beyond.
Halloran points to a new crop of “micro-mills," kind of like microbreweries, in New York, Connecticut, Rhode Island and Vermont. The Maine Grain Alliance turned an old prison into a state-of-the-art mill to, in part, supply Boston and New York bakers who’ve fallen for Northeast flour (Maine Grains products are also available in Whole Foods). A Lynn bakery cutely named One Mighty Mill grinds Maine wheat on site for bagels, pretzels and flour customers can take home.
Halloran said bread festivals, bread conferences and bread clubs are exposing more people to the joys of local grains. She’s encouraged by the momentum, but said government incentives and wider consumer support would help get more grains in the ground.
“We are never going to grow all of our grain in the Northeast, in New England,” she said, “but there's a lot of energy to try to restore and to be able to taste fresh flour and fresh malt again.”
Halloran's gateway taste was an oatmeal bar made with wheat grown and milled in New York state, where she lives. One bite and she was hooked. She hopes more of us will consider what could be different the next time we make a sandwich.
To fulfill my reporting duties, I purchased bags of Eight Row and white cap flint Rhode Island cornmeal at the Plimoth Grist Mill gift shop. (You can, too!) So far, I’ve made polenta and skillet corn bread. All I can say is: yum.
This segment aired on September 10, 2019.