- Bloggers/accomplished home bakers such as Meeghen from Breadsong (who posted about the Conference here) or Teresa from Northwest Sourdough (whose post on the Conference you can read here);
- Master bakers such as George DePasquale from The Essential Baking Company in Seattle, Jeffrey Hamelman from the King Arthur Flour Company (whose book Bread: A Baker's Book of Techniques and Recipes is a bible for bakers), Leslie Mackie from Macrina Bakery in Seattle, Scott Mangold from the BreadFarm in nearby Bow/Edison, to name only a few;
- Scientist/bakers working on developing demand for local grains, such as Andrew Ross from Oregon State University, and many others.
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.