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Grinding Grain

In the end, we purchased the grain mill. It arrived by UPS, the driver asking me to raise the garage door so he could ease the box off the back of the truck onto the garage floor instead of having to hump it up the porch stairs. The mill was larger than I expected, made of cast iron and painted forest green, and it weighed as much as a VW bug. It cost as much as one, too, at least as much at the rusted out ‘68 that I drove in college.

I ordered the grinder from Lehman’s catalog, which caters to the Amish, who maintain the old ways out of reverence, and to the Y2K types, who cling to their composting toilets and vacuum food storage bags with apocalyptic fear. I just wanted to feed my family something that had some life in it. I read a story once about archeologists discovering a handful of grains in the ruin of an ancient Anazazi storage room. Hidden away high on a dry cliff for thousands of years, those tiny seeds still sprouted when they were soaked in water.

That thought stayed with me and returned each time I walked down the produce aisle of our little IGA, smelling the green rot of the tired, overly misted lettuces.

The mill took its place in the kitchen, clamped to the far side of the counter. Too heavy to set up and put away each time, it became a permanent fixture, almost large enough to count as a piece of furniture. Supported by three graceful S-curved spokes, the flywheel was sixteen inches in diameter, offering maximum leverage. The handle was long enough to fit both hands side by side. This was necessary. Grinding grain by hand is not for the faint of heart, nor is it for the poorly manufactured. I had broken two other models made of lesser stuff than cast iron, one even made in Germany, before we invested in this one. There is a reason why grain can survive intact for thousands of years: its seed coating is tough stuff.

Hard red winter wheat was the workhorse in our house: glutinous and strong, high in protein, it provided the foundation for each loaf of bread. Several scoops went into the mill’s hopper every two or three days for the dough. The brittle winter wheat berries crackled when they met the rotating grinder plates. We used enough of it that I stored it in ten-gallon bins in the pantry closet. Another large bin held soft spring wheat, which ground up quietly and cooked up into tender pancakes and pastries.

For all of Montana’s association with livestock and cowboys, wheat is the mainstay of the state’s agriculture. The windswept high plains, snowy in winter and spring, dry in summer and fall, are ideal for growing wheat. The long trains that snake smoothly through the quiet canyons and valleys carry wheat as well as coal. Sometimes the wheat is planted in broad stripes, alternating with another grass. These fields always struck me as being painted—by giant, insect-like machines—to accentuate the dips and folds in the fields. Sometimes there is solely wheat, growing as far as you can see, the fields ducking under the horizon. The plants are a tender light green mirage against the dark turned soil at first, then a commanding deeper green, and finally a mature golden stand that billows as if buffeted by a sea-wind.

The greens and golds of oats are lighter, and an oat field doesn’t sway as if wavelets were skimming across the surface. Oats tremble. They aren’t generally planted in their own right, but instead, take a year’s turn in a newly plowed field to revive tired soil and prepare it for the more lucrative hay that will follow. Oats are a comfort crop, just as they are a comfort food. Soft and slightly fatty, they make almost no sound when ground, and they cook up warm and sweet and satisfying, as a thick porridge or in a dough, rolled up with butter and cinnamon and brown sugar.

I kept our oats in one of the tall mason jars that lined the counter beside the grinder. The other jars were filled with millet, rye and barley, spelt, kamut and golden corn.

It made a difference, the grinding did. For one, you get really strong. Turning the flywheel is like rowing crew. You have to put your shoulders into it, your legs and core, too. And the flavor of freshly ground grain is incomparable to the flour off the store shelf. Once you have tasted the real thing, you realize that the others are all in various stages of going rancid. The difference in the corn is the most glaring; its high fat content makes it the most vulnerable once its protective seed coat is cracked. Corn is also the most challenging to grind: it has to be run through twice, first to crack it and then another round to grind it into meal. It’s worth the effort, though. Eating freshly ground corn is like eating the sun.

But it was more than just the taste.

I thought of it as similar to the concept behind the VAT, the Value Added Tax. Raw logs, harvested from the forest and shipped off across the Pacific have value, just as a loaf of sliced bread will nourish those that eat it. But those raw logs milled into planks are worth even more, even though they are made out of the very same material. Same with a loaf of home made bread: the work of familiar hands turning the dough in the bowl, the yeasty smell of the dough as it rises, the warm aroma from the oven as it bakes—all of that makes a simple loaf of bread something more. And when those rough planks of wood are crafted into a piece of furniture, then the very same material is worth even more. The more touches put into something, the more value it has to offer back.

The grinding added another layer of handiwork, another step in the process during which we were present. We got to know those grains far beyond their use in a recipe. Each one has more than its own flavor; it has its own character, its own qualities and its own story. For most of the world, rice was so central that it was known simply as “food.” The ancient Maya revered corn, which they painstakingly engineered from tiny grass seeds to its recognizable robust size. They believed that the gods created humans out of corn after trying three other materials and being disappointed with the inferior results. Barley and wheat were the earliest grains to be cultivated in the Fertile Crescent. Barley has remained humble, while wheat has gone through many iterations, not all of them necessarily beneficial.

There is a life to grain—a life IN grain—beyond the calories it provides, beyond the place it occupies on our plates.

You crank that flywheel, around and around. The screw beneath the hopper draws the grain down and forces it between the grinding plates. The little mound of flour in the catch bowl can seem small at first, but it grows in concert with your effort, piling up and sometimes sending small avalanches of granules to slide down the slope to the base. When only a few grains pop loosely around the screw and the flywheel turns effortlessly, the weight of the handle enough to pull it around, you know you are done. In a few short moments, you will have measured out the flour that took you ten, twenty minutes, more, and no small amount of effort to grind.

Grinding by hand takes time, no doubt about it, but it didn’t slow us down. It stretched time. It opened up a little space in our day. A generous will to live can curl in the tiniest of spaces, waiting with tremendous patience for the right conditions.

Lea Page is currently working on a memoir about raising and homeschooling her two children in rural Montana. She is also working with Floris Books in the UK on a full-length parenting book.

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