The Grain Gathering (GG) 2016 came and went like a whirlwind. A glorious one. Although I have been back home for a few days, my head is still spinning.
There has been a Grain Gathering every year in the West since 2011. Even though it was called the Kneading Conference West through 2013, for all intents and purposes this one was the sixth. The name was changed in 2014 to better reflect the fact that it attracts not only bakers (both professional and serious home bakers) but also seed breeders, farmers, millers, maltsters, brewers, distillers, and any other grain end user interested in the revival of local grain economies.
This year again the GG was mobbed: sold out months before the date, it attracted two hundred and fifty participants from nine countries (including Australia) and twenty-five states, plus scores of instructors, scientists, students, and volunteers.
And again I find it a challenge to report on it without repeating myself. After all, the setting hasn’t changed: there is still a dreamy garden cared for by retired master gardeners…
…a bountiful orchard…
…amber waves of grain (the event had been moved from August to July so that we could actually see the fields before the harvest)…
…seductively rustic food (I won’t go into pizza porn this year. In fact I mostly kept my camera away from the wood-fired oven where pizza wizard Marc Doxtader of Tastebud was busy creating dozens and dozens of marvelous wholegrain pies.)
There were pre-sunrise walks (I didn’t wake up in time but my friend Meeghen did and kindly shared her pictures)…
…jolly pre-dinner local beer-
guzzling tastings and luscious Skagit Valley cheese-sampling sessions…
… and of course during working hours a plethora of classes, workshops, talks and panels on all kinds of grain-related subjects. As in previous years, most of the classes were held outside under big white tents and because this was July the weather was perfect.
None of this was surprising. In fact, the Grain Gathering was pretty much everything that I had been expecting or hoping for and I wasn’t disappointed.
What I hadn’t foreseen however is that this year the tone of the event would become powerfully personal. And by “personal” I don’t mean tailored to the individual. Since all participants have always been free to attend any class or workshop they liked, we have always gone home with different experiences and memories. But this year it went beyond that. Many of us left deeply touched and personally empowered. And as the first keynote speaker, Chris Bianco of Pizzeria Bianco in Phoenix, Arizona, is largely the one to thank for that.
Stephen Jones, the Director of the Bread Lab, had introduced Chris as “an incredible chef and person” for whom “sometimes less is already too much,” and when Chris reached the pulpit and took over the mike, he could hardly get any words out.
When he managed to speak, he described himself as a high school dropout who had ended up in Arizona because he ran out of money on his way to California. The Italian pizza makers he knew growing up back in New York didn’t have access to good ingredients. What they had was the technique. And plenty of it and they put it to good use. In fact to the best use they could. Learning to make pizza gave the young Chris a sense of worth. Jokingly, he says he has been looking for a real job ever since.
Over the years, he found his relevance by being as transparent as possible. A far cry from the old days when pizza chefs hid their trade secrets, ripping the labels off tomato cans before putting them in the trash and refusing to reveal their brand of flour. Describing himself as “someone with zero plans who has been searching,” he said he was bowled over by the possibilities that the Grain Gathering afforded: so many connections to make, so much to learn, so many ways to become part of the solution. Most of all he said, “don’t be too busy to do the things that matter” and learn to put balance in your life. Nowadays there seems to be a fervor to do everything and own everything. But, at the end of the day, you can’t make rain, can you? Set yourself limits. Working for seventeen hours a day will wear you out. Understand what makes good things good. Focus on doing your best.
Learn to empower people. Bread-baking is about appropriation and understanding. Asking for help is perfectly fine. Chris himself came to the Grain Gathering to engage with and receive from smart people because the world changes when smart people get involved.
How can we make better even things that we are familiar with? Whatever it is you make should be something you can succeed at. Find the grain varietal that will work for you. Do your diligence and make it about people too. Starting where we are is very powerful.
“Making a community better than we found it. I can’t ask for more than that for myself and my family.”
My path didn’t cross with Chris’s for the rest of the GG and I didn’t have an opportunity to talk to him. Hopefully one day I’ll make it to Arizona and if he has a minute, I’ll be honored to shake his hand and tell him his message struck a powerful note with me. And I am not the only one.
A baker I talked to later told me he was considering driving hours to Phoenix to visit Chris’s restaurant in the hope of maybe talking to him again. Another baker posted this moving tribute on Instagram. Maybe you’ll find it over the top. Maybe the unleashing of all this emotion makes you uncomfortable. But see, this is not about personality cult and if I made it sound that way, then I missed the mark.
The way I see it, the reason Chris’s words found such resonance in many of us is that he summed up beautifully the spirit of the Grain Gathering: “Kind people sharing good things.”
Maybe there isn’t a world-renowned pizzeria in all of our futures but if we stick to doing what we know and doing it well and spreading our skills and knowledge and always, always learning, we will have found our calling.
Baking may be lonely work. We might be mixing, shaping and baking while the rest of the world sleeps. Or sleeping when everyone else is out and about. But see how far we have come already since 2011. Each of us fuels a collective passion and together we make change happen.
It takes a village. And the village is us.
When Chris met Steve Jones shortly before leaving, he told him: “I have never felt more exhausted or more awake or more alive.”
I think many of us could have said the same.
Not to drag you back down to earth abruptly but you’ll find below a list of the workshops/events I attended this year at the GG. My plan is to report on all of them (in various degrees of details because some of it was clearly above my serious home baker’s head). Nevertheless if you are interested in any of these topics, please stay tuned!
- Sweet dough and lamination with whole grains (Jeff Yankelow and Jonathan Bethony)
- Second keynote address (with Dawn Woodward)
- Culinary malting (with Pat Hayes, Brigid Meints and Andrew Ross)
- Pasta (with Marc Vetri): only the first hour because I next went to:
- Scale (How to manage it, use it, etc.) (a panel with Stephen Jones as moderator)
- Sprouted Wheat Flour (with Melina Kelson)
I may also post a few more pictures of the garden here and there. Not only because I might not be able to resist but also because the next GG will take place in a very different setting: The Bread Lab is moving to new and much larger premises a few miles away. It will be next door to the spanking new King Arthur Baking Education Center West (the other KA Education Center is in Vermont) and it will be much better equipped for teaching. For all its professional efficiency and creature comfort though, what it might not have in buckets is bucolic appeal. But we’ll see, won’t we?