Like the ineluctable course of a grist-mill water wheel, the profession of milling wheat is coming full circle. My new book on the history of food processing in the United States starts with the story of Oliver Evans, a brilliant inventor hobbled by his humble roots. Evans, a fussy sort of precisionist, reviled the rancid, rock-strewn, maggoty flour that his local Delaware Valley grist mills cranked out. Perhaps even worse to this pioneering process engineer were the product waste and labor inefficiencies endemic to state-of-the-art flour milling in the late 18th century.
Evans built a better mill. As a huge unintended consequence, he launched the U.S. Industrial Revolution with a template for uniform, automated processing (used by Henry Ford and others a century later). He also (along with Cyrus McCormick and Cadwallader Washburn -- more on these innovators later) made white bread cheap.
The story of bread in America follows byzantine branches of socio-economic history, including the ascendency of Wonder Bread and the subsequent vilification of all things "white bread." The homogenous, airy, bleached loaf was replaced by a fraudster that began to call itself "whole-wheat bread," and was nothing of the kind, with only a smidgen of wheat bran added back into nutritionally valueless flour.
Today, crusty, yeasty, air-pocked, chewy loaves exude earthy and grassy aromas.
These designer breads are made to be purchased fresh off the shelves of the baker who a few days earlier milled the grain that made the flour. It sounds like a return to simpler and -- we like to think -- better times. But serious science is afoot to bring wholesome bread to our tables -- and it's nothing like the smelly crap with embedded pebbles on which Oliver Evans might have broken a tooth.
The geneticists, plant breeders, bakers, and chefs who gather at Washington State University's Bread Lab to develop flours from nutrient-dense, regional grains. One of their objectives is to make such bread accessible to great numbers of people, meaning the renaissance of artisan bread made with truly whole-grain, nutritious flour will reach as many people as the mass-produced nutritionally void slices most Americans today accept as the norm for what our daily bread should be.