Updated Sept. 25
Two long tables were packed shoulder to shoulder, family-style, at State Road Restaurant in West Tisbury last Friday, Sept. 14. Some of the region’s most attentive foodies were at the tables to talk local grains and nutrition. The event was hosted by Island Grown Initiative in collaboration with Glenn Roberts and Kay Rentschler, owners of Anson Mills, a South Carolina–based heirloom organic grain mill that also grows grains at Thimble Farm. The group was gathered for a conversation about the baking and growing of heirloom grains.
Over the chimes of metal forks scraping clean dishes served by State Road executive chef Gus Paquet-Whall and his staff, all 50 or so guests in the room introduced themselves. There were members and friends of IGI, local bread bakers, pastry chefs, farmers, growers, and some off-Island visitors. Four graduate students from the Tufts University food lab and program developer Wendy Hebb attended. Jonathan Bethony, the owner of Seylou Bakery in Washington, D.C., was another featured guest. There was love in the air — for local, sustainable, nutritious, and environmentally conscious food and its systems.
“Whole grain, to me, means the whole character — the whole picture,” Bethony said to the group. Bethony bakes using exclusively whole grains. He talked about his work, and how he got there.
“I went to college and studied music and religious studies,” he said. “My focus was composition. I don’t play music anymore, and my mother actually gives me a really hard time about why I stopped. But I just tell her, I’m the same musician, I just have another medium.”
Bethony completed his baking training in San Francisco before working with Hebb in research at the food lab. He spent three years exploring what it means to breed wheat outside the commodity system. Eventually, he and his wife took their acquired knowledge and opened Seylou Mill and Bakery in Washington, D.C. Bethony’s muse changed from music to bread, and his composition is weaving food systems together.
“What’s the best product I can make?” Bethony asked. “Who are the farmers, and where is it coming from? How is our fate tied together?”
Bethony talked about the links between producers, bakers, sellers, and consumers. “This is how we create a sustainable future,” he said. “We have to have a close link and an open line of feedback between producers, farmers, and producers.”
The way to facilitate this is through patience and building a trusting relationship with farmers and growers: “We’re not trying to screw each other over. His success is my success, and our success is the success of all of us.”
In addition to partnerships, Bethony said guest education and flavor are most important. “I designed [the bakery] to be as transparent as possible,” Bethony said. “Guests coming in can immediately see what’s going on. They can see the grains, where it’s sourced, separated, and who our farmers are. They see the stone mill. They see the oven. And they see me baking.”
And on flavor: “If it doesn’t taste good, then it’s not convincing. Flavor is the most visceral motivator that touches our instincts,” Bethony said. “If you can convince with flavor, it’s the most powerful and transformative way to reach the public.”
Hebb stood up and introduced the work being done at the food lab at Tufts.
“The idea was to reach across disciplines,” she said. “To reach beyond the university. To reach stakeholders, students, faculty, and anyone with a deep interest in food systems to collaborate on agriculture and culinary arts.”
Culinary arts is a novel idea.
“To go off what Jonathan said, you can translate nutrition, food, agriculture, and an entire system of how we feed ourselves through deliciousness,” Hebb said.
The goal is to take whole grain baking and make it more popular and widespread. “We want to work with bakers who want to learn how to convert from conventional grain baking to whole grain baking,” Hebb said. “We might come up with a model for all the bakers out there who want to convert. We’re trying to find ways to take all this knowledge and data and translate it to the everyday reality of how people live, eat, and cook.”
Graduate students Claire Loudis and Tetyana Pecherska spoke to their interests and projects. “I’m currently working a project that uses GIS software to map seed breeding and where it’s happening for different types of varieties of vegetables, as well as grains across North America,” Loudis said. “We’re looking at different soil qualities, types, precipitation, and predicted precipitation changes, and we’re using that to target where seed breeding efforts could be determined, and which communities might be good candidates for certain varieties.”
“I’m personally really interested in regional economies,” Pecherska said. “How can helping the farmer and baker be a mutually beneficial goal? It’s the sum of parts. One plus one actually equals three.”
When it comes to agriculture, Pecherska thinks New England needs all the help it can get.
“[Agriculture is] a sector that continues to struggle,” she said. “We want to see a resurgence of mills and whole grains, and farmers to grow grains not just as animal feed or cover crop.”
Updated to correct Wendy Hebb’s title at the Tufts Food Lab, and to clarify that the Tufts’ project is a food lab, not a bread lab.