This blog entry, like all that will follow, provides an educational structure from which outsiders to the food industry, in New Orleans and the region, can better understand the architecture of taste. Our task, as craftsman, is to elucidate tradition and interpret the future….Bellegarde is a wholesale bakery, but we have always sought to maintain a fluid relationship with the people who eat our bread. We interact with chefs and the public at the Tuesday and Saturday Crescent City Farmers Market (CCFM) to receive their input, opinions, and ideas. After many months of baking predominately white breads, our new breads (Community Coffee Rye, Durum Sesame, Sprouted Wheat) are composed of a majority of stone-milled, whole grain flours.
It is an unfortunate state of affairs, we have always realized, that the public—both in commercial and residential kitchens—demands and responds best to white breads. The evolution of Bellegarde has always been towards the desire of stone-milling our own flour: as we begin to produce flour for our own use (sprouted wheat, oat, brown rice, blue corn, Louisiana-grown wheat, durum, chickpea) we are building the foundation for a stone-milled bakery. In order to tether that structure, we must develop a solid foundation on the grounds of consistently delicious breads made with commercially milled white flour; but those breads (our ciabatta, country, and baguette) will always contain a portion of stone milled, whole grain flour.
Bellegarde exists here, in New Orleans, in a vector. We run against the grain of process, style, flavor, ingredients, attitude—the entire composition of our bakery is an aberration from what is found in New Orleans and throughout the region. Bakers in New Orleans, just as other artisans or craftspeople, never knew principles beyond patience and thoroughness. All of the Manichean diptychs—conventional versus organic, white versus wheat, grain fed versus grass fed, hand made versus machine made, ad nauseum—were completely absent a hundred years ago. There was only, simply, gracefully, one way: to make food, by hand, with minimal equipment, fresh ingredients, and respect. The course of American history, along with the globalization of agriculture and the mechanization of daily life, altered not only the composition of bakeries, but also the bakers themselves. Unfortunately, the entire quilt of bakeries—rich in colors, flavors, textures, and styles—that was woven into the social, cultural, and economic fabric of New Orleans eroded into the white, cotton mess that is the “Po’Boy Loaf”.
It is immensely unfortunate for us, as bakers in Louisiana, the most culturally rich state in the Union, to have that bread represent all that we are and all that we do. Because, in fact, Po’Boy bread is a nascent piece of history, a nubile virgin in the pantry of New Orleans. That bread’s life, despite the origin myths that inexplicably surround it, came about in the late 1920’s. The Roaring Twenties produced Henry Ford, who perfected the manufacture of his automobiles; F. Scott Fitzgerald chiseled his Gatsby; the Babe swung south to New York…It was also when a litany of processed, machine-made, “affordable” foods—manufactured by what are now gigantic, multi-national corporations—became commercially available; Popsicles, Wonderbread, Hostess Cakes, Velveeta Cheese, Kool-Aid, and Peter Pan peanut butter were born in that raucous decade.
Model T Fords and Po Boy Bread…help me chase this thread and you will understand the stitching. Ante-Bellum America saw bakeries become increasing mechanized. (The first bakery in New Orleans to install an electric mixer machine was D. Poiney and Co. Bakery, in 1855. Not only were machines becoming affordable and ubiquitous, performing such ceremonial and primordial tasks as mixing, dividing, shaping, slicing, loading, and packing, but flour was becoming whiter and whiter.
Beginning in Budapest in the mid 19th century, a certain type of flour milling, now called roller milling, was invented. Roller milling, as opposed to stone milling (examples of which, called querns by archeologists, have been found to be tens of thousands of years old) merely chaffs the wheat berry as it passes through the mill. In a roller mill, two opposing bars (which look like stacked rolling pins with a small gap between them) blanch the grain as it passes through a series of moving pins. The result, as opposed to the single pass of the grain between two wheels of stone, is an infinite whittling of the grain to its most starchy, nutritionally vacuous form: white flour. (In that rich irony of American policy, “Enriched Flour” is the only lawful flour of bread. Beginning in the 1970s, State Legislatures and governing bodies around the country and world began to mandate the use of enriched white flour. Enrichment is the addition, to roller milled white flour, of manufactured vitamins and nutrients (iron, folic acid, riboflavin, niacin, and thiamine); all of which are naturally present in stone-milled, whole wheat flour. As if one were to say that ice cubes had to contain water that was previously frozen).
Factor in the distended gestation of mechanized life, liquid-easy credit, and the public demand for more “convenient” food in the 1920s and you understand the birth of Po’Boy bread: born entirely of treated and snowy white, roller milled flour; pumped full of commercial yeast and other dough “enhancers” (chemicals which mock the attendance of natural fermentation); mixed to an absolute pulp by a machine; shaped by another machine; transferred to metal trays which, instead of human hands, “form” the loaves; sweated in a hot box to catalyze the already breakneck proofing; baked in close proximity in a relatively cold, mechanized oven; then spat out the maw of another machine; spirited down a conveyor belt to be counted, sorted, packaged, tossed into a truck and anonymously driven off into the night at 3am…That is not craft, that is not cooking, that is not food—the same process, the same formula, and the same pillars of manufacturing go into the production of disposable razors and alarm clocks. Effectively, the human being who once participated, much like clergy, is entirely absent except for the roles which the machine cannot fulfill: even if the machines of the modern bakery had opposable thumbs, there is not one aspect of the creation of manufactured bread that could be dialed in any further or be any more devoid of the initiative, choice, or skill of a trained baker. The staff of life, crucified on a mechanical cross. Broad, broad strokes on an insipid canvas.
Flour, like any vegetable or fruit, is a living ingredient. And bread, the result of flour and water, is a living food. Much like a fish or a cucumber, grain (wheat, spelt, rye, barley, kamut, durum), which when made into flour in turn makes bread, is a component in the ceremony of creation. But bakers, for whatever reason, have been absent from the trend of farm to table/locavore cooking. However, much more so than any other culinary discipline, bread bakers are and have been the vanguard of creating food—food, which is the transformation of non-human, living components into a coherent, edible, consistent conduit of nutrition. Bread baking is a secular trans-substantiation where that which was once living, like grain in a moist field, is imbued with life, nutrition, and value by a human being who understands the compulsion, the variables, and the difference of choice that contributes towards creation. So why is the paragon of commercial food manufacture—white bread—the crucible of New Orleans’ bakeries?
Bakers, more than any other cast-member, participate in the living tradition of this city’s edible landscape. We sleep, we breathe, we bleed, and we drink just as any other member of the community. But, as the homes of America begin to recoil against the vacuity of packaged and ready-made foods, so too are the kitchens of America pushing back from the prepared and insipid ingredients of wholesalers and chain groceries. Unfortunately, as usual, bread baking lags behind. Not even behind, but not even considered.
White, roller milled flour offers as much depth and opportunity as a primary color—its true greatness lies in the potential of fracture; to push, to balance, to poise, and to be a platform for other tastes, textures, flavors, and structures. The true test of a baker is their ability and courage to approach and understand the whole grain. And the whole grain cannot be better understood than when it is stone-milled, fresh, by the person will use it. This is not manipulation; this is the desire of patience. Bread baking begin with grains grown and stone-milled for their particular baking qualities and capabilities: now, convening full circle, this desire for terroir is being embraced by true bakers. The past and the future betrothed in a moment that is not quite now, not quite today, but is palpably close, inexorably present.