Monday, May 28, 2007


Small grain -- not corn -- occupies my thoughts quite a lot, which is part of the reason I wrote “Demeter and her Daughters.” (See but that’s not surprising considering that I’m living in prime small-grain country. “Hard” wheat for bread grows all around Valier, as well as malting barley. I don’t know anyone who grows oats on purpose, but “wild oats” is not just a phrase and they’re never completely eliminated in spite of ferocious weed chemical weed killers (one of the dark sides of living here).

I didn’t really register until I began reading the local “ag rags” just how much variety there is within kinds of grain. Some grow tall and some grow short; some have solid stems and some have hollow “straws” for stems; some have long and some have short “beards” and some have black beards, which some people think is “against nature.” The genome seems relatively plastic, even if one isn’t making alterations in a lab but simply through cross-pollenizing. Of course, our modern grains were prehistorically created by hybridizers and selectors working with wild grasses. In the process over the centuries sometimes qualities are lost. Breads from one wheat can taste quite different from breads made of another line.

Grain is the keystone of urban culture -- a food that can be stored and that is concentrated enough that a few people (they say only 3 or 4% of the population these days) can raise enough to feed everyone else so that we have time to write books, split atoms, direct traffic or whatever. Those who constantly break into Egyptian pyramids and bring out seeds have told us for a long time that those seeds are often still viable and will grow.

Now I’m quoting from the “Prairie Star,” once published from Valier but sold to Great Falls. “In 1949, U.S. Airman Earl Deadman received 36 kernels of grain from a friend claiming they were from a stone box in an Egyptian tomb.” He sent the seeds to his father in Big Sandy, a grain farmer who planted the seeds and grew 1,500 bushels of the grain. The proper name for this ancient durum wheat is Kamut (Ka-moot), sometimes called “giant wheat” because the kernels are twice as big as modern wheat. Deadman grew the wheat for ten years, feeding it to his cows. Now and then he’d try to develop it as a novelty.

But it was as an organic wheat that it caught on finally. The Kamut Association of North America was formed in 1990 and the European version was organized in 1994. It’s a summer wheat, grows well in this area -- in fact, does better if not fertilized and if the summer is relatively dry. Growers rotate the wheat crop with pulse crops (peas) and the like so as to break any disease cycles. People who are allergic to modern wheat can often tolerate Kamut wheat, but those who are allergic to gluten will still be allergic to Kamut.

Montana and North Dakota farmers mill their Kamut in Fort Benton where it is sold mostly for American whole wheat cereals. Kamut grown in Alberta is milled in Calgary and goes to Canadian markets. Saskatchewan Kamut is milled in Radville, Saskatchewan, and goes mostly to the European Union. Italy loves using it for pasta. There’s a website: There are recipes. Sometimes I wish I had a milling machine -- if it’s good to have freshly ground coffee, shouldn’t it be good to have freshly milled flour?

One of the persisting images in my head is the “Gladiator” walking through his fields and brushing his hands against the heads of his grains. I suppose not many people have done that these days, felt that soft near-fur of wheat beards or rolled a few heads in their palms to crush off the husks and then chewed the kernels for a while. My paternal family grew more potatoes and my maternal family cultivated small fruits and orchards, but our family best ceremonial china was decorated with wheat. I always cut a handful to stick into a stoneware pitcher in season.

I really ought to begin baking bread. I thought my mother’s Triple-Rich Co-op Bread recipe had been lost forever, but I found it online at Cornell University, so I COULD do that. I have soy powder and wheat germ. But maybe I need a sack of Kamut flour.


Norma said...

Nice writing. Don't forget the fresh grown and ground corn meal and corn flower. It's the BEST.

Whisky Prajer said...

Kamut flour is usually finer and thus easier to use than most organic flour. The same goes for spelt flour, too - in fact, spelt is what I use for paper-thin crepes. I've no idea why that should be the case or if that was the case when my grandmother was baking bread for her family, but organic flour is off-puttingly heavy, sometimes moreso than whole wheat flour.


Mary said...

How funny! I thought, "Oh, I'll write something calm and agricultural and no one will even notice." And here come the comments!

Can't grow corn here except in sheltered valleys. Dunno about spelt.

Prairie Mary

Peter said...

One of my more pleasant childhood memories is getting wheat kernels to chew upon while on a grade-school field trip to Old Sturbridge Village in Massachusetts. What a wonderful flavor!

It was also practically the only good thing about O.S.V. (a restored 1800's town, a field-trip destination for generations of New England schoolchildren), which even as an eight-year-old I could tell was totally artificial and hokey. But that's another story for another time :)

Carlan said...

Liked the article Mary, I too can remember plucking heads of grain on the prairie in Kansas when I was younger and even here in Washington later. Thinking about growing some Kamut and Corn for flower but don't know if we have a long enough season for the corn.