I went to Kansas for the flour and came home with at least a 50 pound sack of ideas.
I flew into Kansas City, Missouri and drove right to St. Joseph, Missouri, where Aunt Jemima pancake flour was invented in 1889. Newspaper editor Chris Rutt saw an opportunity in a bankrupt flour mill, and his business partner took the title of a minstrel song as the product’s name.
The Pattee House museum, the old hotel where the Pony Express began is crowded with Western lore, and has 2 cases dedicated to Aunt Jemima. I didn’t think I would care for the Jesse James stuff, but the mythology of the mammy and the mythology of the frontier kind of go together, like peanut butter and jelly. And the pancake mix, born of an era when there was suddenly too much food, represents another myth, the myth of the land of plenty.
I also visited Kansas State University in Manhattan, Kansas, and met people from the Kansas Wheat Commission. Everyone was a little worn out from 11 days at the state fair, but they still gave me a wide-open tour of their work. I got to see the kitchen where they test recipes for promotions, and the seed vault, and greenhouses full of breeding projects. I learned that there is a celiac safe research project, which is just in the mapping stages, not plant breeding.
Mark Fowler from the International Grains Program took me on a tour of the K – state mill. I have very little affinity for roller mills, but I like flour so very much that I’m even excited about this kind of milling.
I met Mark at the Kneading Conference and he was very helpful as I wrote the book. At the university’s mill, students were working on a problem the instructors set up. Mark made sure I understood as much as I could in an hour, taking off caps from the sifters and lining up samples of the flow so I could see what a milling student would study. I tasted fresh wheat germ. The whole thing was a great treat.
The reason I took this trip was to go to the Prairie Festival. My friend and grain buddy Howard comes to this spot in Kansas the last weekend each September. Seems like the trip puts roots under his feet, deep roots connected to the Iowa farm where he grew up.
Roots are a good way to think about the Prairie Festival and the work of The Land Institute. Wes Jackson began to investigate re-perenializing grains nearly 40 years ago. He wanted food farming to mimic the interdependency of natural ecosystems. The tall grass prairie and its web of plants, microorganisms, and deep deep roots hold an answer for what he sees as the 10,000 year old mistake of annual agriculture.
The festival is described as an intellectual hootenanny, and brings together speakers to push forward progressive thinking. Attendees often camp on the prairie, as I did the first time I went. Oh how windy that was! I felt like I was levitating in my sleeping bag.
That night, I understood something about the prairie. Everything has to dig deep and hang on. The roots of perennial grasses can dig 35 feet down. This matters to me as a metaphor almost more than a real phenomenon. I guess this shows how much I like ideas.
This year, Zach Golper from Bien Cuit came to make bread from Kernza, the name for the perennial wheat under development. He made two kinds, one from Kernza grown in Kansas, and one grown in Illinois. He preferred the Kansas bread he made, because its taste reflected the deep subsoil.
The speakers planted great thoughts. Mary Evelyn Tucker spoke about Pope Francis’ encyclical as a gathering force, drawing together her colleagues at the Forum On Religion and Ecology at Yale. Ricardo Salvador from the Union of Concerned Scientists and Angus Wright both made me more curious about the agricultural history of America in the mid to late -1900s.
Wes Jackson closed the weekend with a talk that compared soil to oil. “We’re not realizing that soil is as much of a nonrenewable resource as oil,” he said. “It’s hard to understand, but soil’s foundations require geologic time, not human time, to happen.”