Our relationship with our staple carbohydrates is celebrated in story, song, prayer, myth, family traditions and local recipes. Food is so intertwined with culture that it is impossible to discuss food without bringing up culture. What may be less obvious, surrounded by 1500 mile Caesar salads and take out Chinese food, is that the sacred carbohydrates are tightly attuned to place. The staple calorie crops define a region as much as the geography and weather. What can be grown, where and when, and with what efforts and inputs, give meaning to eating, create a cuisine, fill dog-eared notebooks with recipes. There are varieties of hill rice which will grow halfway up mountains, tall corn that grows in Georgia and takes nearly five months to mature, and Hopi corn, planted deeply at just the right time to be watered by the brief desert monsoon season. Tall, high protein hard spring wheat grows in the plains of Montana and the Dakotas. Around here, we have short wheat that will overwinter in the maritime Northwest and be ready for harvest in summer.
Wheat and barley are from the Middle East, potatoes are from Peru, rice is from Asia, cassava and sweet potatoes are from South America, millet is from arid Ethiopia in East Africa. Rye was a weed in wheat fields as wheat cultivation moved north in Europe. Hardy rye and oats proved better adapted to northern Europe than wheat. The indigenous staples of equatorial Africa are sorghum, tubers and starchy fruits, such as yam and plantain. Corn is from Mesoamerica and widely adapted to North America by the First Nations. Corn seed was widely traded and carefully selected, creating thousands of varieties.
Our indigenous local staples are camas bulbs and the wetland tuber wapato. The wapato is a threatened species, squeezed into a fragment of wetlands down by the Columbia River. Camas grows in prairies. Receding glaciers left a large natural prairie on Whidbey Island in the area around Ebey's Landing, a prairie of legendary fertility. A scrap of the prairie is maintained by a college as an ecological teaching center. Since the the college was my client, I was too polite to mention that maintaining a "natural" camas prairie without harvesting, selecting and replanting the camas using the techniques of the Lower Skagit Indians is about like trying to maintain the gardens of Colonial Williamsburg without human intervention. Most of the prairie is now part of Ebey's Landing Natural Reserve and still farmed. When it was first converted from camas to wheat and potatoes in the mid 19th century, Ebey's Landing set national records for harvests. Those Lower Skagit folks were better stewards of the land than they got credit for.
The Portuguese took African bananas to the Caribbean and South American cassava and sweet potatoes to Africa, a straight swap across equatorial regions. Camas and wapato never caught on with the Europeans in the Fourth Corner. Instead, traders brought potatoes and beans to the First Nations by the early 19th Century. By the second half of the 19th century, local farmers were producing a surplus to support the growing towns and feed the loggers and miners and fishermen.
Interesting question, a surplus of what? Dr. Steve Jones from the WSU Mt Vernon research station told us that they have recovered all but two of the heritage wheat varieties that were grown here. The popular heritage wheats were short, soft, white, winter varieties. Dr. Jones' advice is to plant winter wheat, and if that doesn't work, replant in spring. Winter wheats can be planted as spring wheat, but not the other way around. The high rainfall washes nitrogen out of the soil in winter. Even though we now have short hard winter wheat varieties that will grow here without falling over, it's hard to keep the protein content high enough for a bread wheat. Makes great organic chicken feed, though.
Corn, beans, flax, peas, oats, apples, squash, cabbages, leeks, and potatoes are mentioned in the brief historical blurbs easily available on the internet. Shannon Maris' family grew oats in Skagit County and barged them to Bellingham. Most of the oats must have been for the heavy horses working in agriculture, transportation, logging and mining.
From the aspect of regional cooking, the soft wheat is interesting. That's biscuits, pies, quick breads, crackers and pilot bread, otherwise known as hardtack or ship's biscuit, made on the top of a pot bellied wood stove. The corn is interesting, too. Seems the hardy New England flint corns do better around here than the soft, sweet flour corns from the Great Plains. The flour corns are overly beloved by bugs and fungus in our humid climate. Flint corn can be harvested even after fall rain and frost, and it keeps well. Flint corn is usually eaten as grits or hominy. Popcorn is a special miniature flint corn.
They grew barley for beer here, and hops became a major export crop. That's just brilliant. Hops are light, valuable and squish down into compact bricks for transport. I grew a two row awnless malting barley in the garden last summer, with seed from Walter Haugen at F.A. Farm. The stuff is bulletproof. The barley burst up past the spring wheat planted the same day, set heavily and matured a month earlier. And it shrugged off the wheat stripe leaf fungus that was all over the country last summer. I haven't tried to eat it yet. Dan Borman warned me that malting barleys are bulletproof because the hull adheres tightly to the seed, making them less suitable for porridge than hulless barley. Not a problem. I'll just malt it and drink it.
The New Englanders and Dutch, Scandinavian and Irish settlers came to rest here in a maritime climate at much the same latitude as they started out. They brought with them seeds already adapted to short seasons and food traditions to prepare them.
If you have deep roots in the area, or a fondness for historical research, you might want to try to dig past "corn", "wheat", "barley", etc. and try to find out what that means. What did it look like? Where was it from? When was it planted? Were specific varieties mentioned, and did they do well, or badly? How was it used? No doubt some of you have older family members you can ask, or a passion to dig through local histories and diaries for clues about exactly what people grew and how they prepared it.
The first step to recovering our sacred carbohydrates, our foods of place, our regional cooking, our local connection with the earth's bounty, is to notice that we actually have quite a few calorie crops that grow here. The next step is to cook with them.
I usually cook without recipes, so feel free to tweak this.
2 cups whole wheat flour
2 tablespoons butter or shortening
1 teaspoon baking powder
1 tablespoon sugar
about a cup of milk or water
small amount of corn grits for the baking pan
Preheat the oven to 375 degrees F. Rub the shortening into the flour until it takes on the consistency of fine cracker crumbs. Add everything except the milk or water and mix. Add the liquid, a small amount at a time, working the dough until it sticks together. You'll see the consistency change when it gets to the point where it can be rolled out. This is where the grannies say to stop mixing, to avoid overworking the dough and producing tough biscuits. I'm just here to tell you, don't sweat it. Homemade biscuits fresh out of the oven are so superior to what you can buy that few folks will notice if you get them on the chewy side.
Liberally flour a board. Pat the dough flat and roll into a 1/2" thick slab, flouring it generously so you can handle it. Cut out biscuits with a water glass or cookie cutters. Squish the scraps together to make another slab, until you run out of scraps and form the last biscuit by hand. Sprinkle a baking pan with corn grits and arrange biscuits. Bake about 20 minutes.
This recipe comes to us from Civil War reeneactor Jaque Fifer. At its most basic, pilot bread is a thin hard cracker of flour, water and salt, made much the same way as the biscuits above, but rolled thinner and baked at 400 degrees F. The point of pilot bread was to make a dense, compact, easily transported cracker.
To approximate the handling qualities of low protein wheat, try 1 cup unbleached flour, 1/2 cup whole wheat fine bread flour and 1/2 cup whole wheat pastry flour.
3/4 teaspoon salt
1 tablespoon shortening
1/4 teaspoon bicarbonate of soda
3/4 of a cup water
Rub the dry ingredients with the shortening and slowly add the water. Knead longer than biscuits, intentionally developing the gluten. As you work it, it will form a ball and come away from the sides of the bowl. Let it rest for a half hour, then roll it out about 1/4" thick on a generously floured board and cut into squares about 4" on a side. Poke holes all the way through with a chopstick or blunted nail. Otherwise, they puff up like miniature pita bread. After baking for 20 minutes, you have something resembling a Saltine cracker. Not bad, particularly if you have dusted the top with salt and pressed it in before baking. Pilot bread was eaten just like that in the winter in Alaska, when it was too cold inside rough cabins to make sourdough.
To make pilot bread keep a long time, it was cured in a kiln for several hours. Fifer suggests stacking the crackers loosely in the oven and baking at 175 degrees F, with the door cracked open, for 2-4 hours. The resultant hard tack had to be soaked in coffee or grease before it was soft enough to eat. Make your own disaster rations, eh?