Sunday, September 18, 2011

Kneading Conference West 2011

I am lucky enough to have spent the last three days immersed in local flavors and bread talk at the Kneading Conference West, held at the Northwestern Washington Research and Extension Center of Washington State University in Mt Vernon, Washington. The Conference was an extraordinary opportunity to encounter world-known researchers and bakers and to meet with bread people of all kinds:
There were also several hands-on workshops: the basics of artisan bread, sourdough bread at home, pizza baking in a wood-fired oven, malting, earth-oven construction, baking with fresh-milled grains, baking with barley, preferments, etc., as well as presentations and panel discussions.
Located in the Skagit Valley and set against the misty blue background of the Cascade mountains, the Center is surrounded by fields, gardens, meadows and orchards. The Conference took place partly in the main building and partly under the big white tents which dotted the meadow. The food was local, healthful and delicious. We had an opportunity to taste magnificent cheeses, hard ciders and beers, not to mention breads and pastries which were so good they defy description.
And we were kept busy from morning to night. Steve Jones, Director of the Research and Extension Center, showed maps illustrating the centralization of wheat growing in the Midwest over the past 100 years for reasons that had to do with economies of scale and big business, not the quality of the soil. He said that the renewed focus on local has as much to do with flavor and terroir as with helping farmers make a living wage in our communities. He showcased Ebey's Prairie on nearby Whidbey Island, a farm which produced 119 bushels an acre on its land 100 years ago (a world record) to be compared with the current Midwestern yield of 45 bushels an acre. He explained that the main challenge today for the local farmer was the lack of infrastructure: combines, mills, silos (he showed us a picture of the local silo, now a café) and money for research: for instance the Perennial Grain Project is no longer funded at the federal level.
George DePasquale (The Essential Baking Company) remembered visiting the ruins of Pompeii near Naples on a trip to reconnect with his family roots in Southern Italy: looking at the ancient bakery, he felt he was standing in a river of history and tradition and suddenly understood that his responsibility as a baker was to keep this river moving forward.
Jeffrey Hamelman (King Arthur Flour Company) had everybody laughing when he recounted his beginnings as a bumbling baker in Massachusetts but held the audience's rapt attention when he read an excerpt from The Nature and Art of Workmanship by David Pye: the author distinguishes between the workmanship of certainty and the workmanship of risk. For Hamelman, bakers (and farmers) are very involved in the workmanship of risk. The concept is central to how they organize their life since they can't possibly make identical products time after time. Yet they perform fundamental work for society by providing its nutritional foundation. They are public servants (although not in the same sense as the ones in Washington).
Quoting Pablo Neruda's Nobel lecture, Hamelman concluded: "I have often maintained that the best poet is he who prepares our daily bread: the nearest baker who does not imagine himself to be a god. He does his majestic and unpretentious work of kneading the dough, consigning it to the oven, baking it in golden colours and handing us our daily bread as a duty of fellowship. And, if the poet succeeds in achieving this simple consciousness, this too will be transformed into an element in an immense activity, in a simple or complicated structure which constitutes the building of a community, the changing of the conditions which surround mankind, the handing over of mankind's products: bread, truth, wine, dreams."
Like the original Kneading Conference held every summer in Maine, the Kneading Conference West constituted one more step towards changing the conditions in which we live, work and dream. And that, my friends, was its whole purpose.


  1. Hi MC,

    Meeghen is so lucky to meet you in person. You had great fun at the conference, I think Naomi Duguid is going to be there 2012 and hopefully I can make it next year. Thanks again for the great info.


  2. MC,
    What a wonderful post about Kneading Conference West! And your photos, so beautifully framed!
    It was such a pleasure to meet you and so many others, and to attend such interesting seminars.
    The company, and food, were outstanding.
    Thank you so very much for your kind mention in this post - I'm incredibly honored!
    :^)from breadsong

  3. What a hard act to follow! I must blog about it soon as well. The highlight for me was meeting other bakers I only knew online before, it was great to meet you!! There were so many fun things to do and see and eat and watch! Take care MC, Teresa

  4. Kim, we missed you at the Conference. You must come next year. Meanwhile I am greatly looking forward to meeting you next month in Vermont!
    Breadsong, the pleasure and honor were all mine, believe me!
    Teresa, maybe we can make a date and bake together. I'd love to have you over.



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