Food & Drink » Food & Drink Feature

The key to reviving authentic midwestern cuisine may lie in a forgotten strain of wheat

Farmer Andy Hazzard and baker Ellen King conduct the great Midwestern Bread Experiment.


THE FOOD ISSUE: An exploration of midwestern cuisine

Midwestern Cuisine

The Marquis wheat harvest begins at Hazzard Free Farm. - JEFFREY MARINI
  • Jeffrey Marini
  • The Marquis wheat harvest begins at Hazzard Free Farm.

The Hazzard family have been farming in northeastern Illinois since they arrived in this country in 1847; for the past few generations, they've settled in Pecatonica, a small village just west of Rockford. During the first half of the 20th century, Marquis wheat was one of the most popular varietals of the grain in the midwest and Canada. So it's entirely likely that Andy Hazzard is not the first Hazzard to grow Marquis wheat. But whoever Hazzard's most recent wheat-growing forbearer was, he or she was not kind enough to leave written instructions or advice or even a description of what Marquis wheat tastes like when it's baked into bread.

"We'll figure it out," Hazzard says cheerfully. "We always do."

This past April, Hazzard planted one kilo, or 2.2 pounds, of Marquis wheat on the plot of her farm, the Hazzard Free Farm, that she reserves for experiments, mostly with ancient grains. The long, wet spring gave way to a hot, dry summer, which as it happens is the perfect environment for Marquis wheat. Now, in mid-August, the wheat stands about three feet tall, if not in amber waves then at least a 175-foot-long amber ripple in the middle of a sea of green fields of corn and barley. It hasn't rained in Pecatonica for a month; the grain is dry and brittle like straw. It's exactly the right time for harvesting.

"I'm psyched!" says Ellen King, who today is one of Hazzard's farmhands but in regular life is the co-owner and chief baker at Hewn Bakery in Evanston and Hazzard's partner in the Marquis wheat-growing enterprise, which they have taken to calling the Midwestern Bread Experiment, an attempt to resurrect the last truly authentic midwestern bread. The entire six-member staff of Hewn, plus Tracy Leman, who's married to Justin, the lead baker; Dan Cole, who Hazzard jokingly calls her partner in life; and Harvey Dessler, a self-described ancient-grains enthusiast from Chicago, have come to Pecatonica to help with this year's harvest, which will yield not flour—not yet—but the seeds for next year. If all goes well, in two years they'll have the first loaf of Marquis bread since World War II. They hope that, like the revival of Carolina Gold rice and other heirloom southern staple crops, the resurrection of Marquis wheat will be the beginning of a reestablishment of an authentic midwestern cuisine.

Farmer Andy Hazzard and baker Ellen King, the masterminds of the Midwestern Bread Experiment - JEFFREY MARINI
  • Jeffrey Marini
  • Farmer Andy Hazzard and baker Ellen King, the masterminds of the Midwestern Bread Experiment

First, though, the harvest, done by hand, as in days of yore. Well, sort of. Instead of scythes, Hazzard distributes scissors to the work crew and demonstrates how to trim the wheat from the stalks.

Hazzard's original stash of Marquis wheat seeds was contaminated, it turns out, with spelt, which has sprouted up beside the wheat. "I don't mind spelt," King says. "It's natural." "Yeah," Hazzard agrees. "No one else's will taste like ours." Nonetheless, a few of the crew members go ahead to despelt the rows, and the rest follow behind with plastic buckets to hold the harvested wheat.

"It's sort of like blueberry picking," King says optimistically. "Is this how you really harvest, Andy?"

Hazzard laughs. "No." Like everything else in this experiment, they're making it up as they go along.

Hazzard and King first met two years ago at the Good Food Festival in Chicago, where Hazzard was on a panel discussing the heritage grains she'd just started growing and milling and selling to local chefs. King had recently opened Hewn, where she makes all the bread by hand using organic flour and natural fermentation. "I tell people Andy's like a unicorn," King says. "You never get to meet the person growing your wheat."

The two women hit it off immediately. Before long, King was visiting the farm and they were having long conversations about their shared fascination with agricultural history and what Hazzard calls "our love affair with grains." They were particularly concerned about the effects of genetically modified wheat on both the environment and human bodies; they believed things had not necessarily changed for the better when during the "Green Revolution" of the mid-20th-century farmers began growing commodity wheat, fast-growing, high-yield varietals that were immune to pesticides, such as Monsanto's Roundup Ready. Bread changed too. People lost their taste for heavy, hearty, whole-wheat breads in favor of soft, white, fluffy bread; in order to satisfy that demand, bakers began adding vital wheat gluten to their dough.

King has been experimenting with flour milled from Turkey Red, a rare heirloom wheat she gets from Lonesome Stone Milling in Lone Rock, Wisconsin. It makes a hearty, earthy-tasting bread, she discovered, and whenever she bakes with it, she sells out even though, because of its rarity, it's triple the cost of her regular organic flour. This is because it has a far lower gluten content than modern wheat; customers who are gluten intolerant can eat it. "People love the Turkey Red bread," she says. "Because they had gluten problems, they were off bread, so it tastes really good to them." She began to wonder if modern wheat and bread making were the cause of the national epidemic of gluten intolerance. It seemed illogical to her that humans could evolve so quickly.

  • Jeffrey Marini

Hazzard is more skeptical. As she's grown older, she's developed problems digesting gluten, though she's noticed she's less bothered by ancient grains. "It doesn't matter what science says," she says. "If I eat something and I don't feel good, I don't eat it." Still, she was game to experiment with forgotten grains that no one had grown in decades. "I like puzzles. Farming with modern crops, I get bored easily." Also, from a business standpoint, she felt it was important, as a small specialty farmer, to offer products unavailable elsewhere.

King consulted with Stephen Jones, the geneticist who runs Washington State University's Bread Lab and is one of the nation's leading experts on wheat, and began looking through old seed catalogs to see which kinds of wheat were being grown in northeastern Illinois in the 19th and early 20th centuries. Hazzard, in turn, consulted with members of the Seed Savers Exchange, a nonprofit in Decorah, Iowa, that works to preserve heirloom plants, to determine which seeds were available. And thus they came up with Marquis.

According to the old journals King had read, bread made from Marquis wheat has a great crumb and texture. But no one bothered to report what sorts of pests it attracted or how it typically grew. Someone else, they heard, was growing Marquis at Washington State, but was no further along in the process. Fortunately, this year had been a good growing season; the wet spring had prevented pests from moving in. It was a lucky start.

As the wheat harvest continues, the workers grow quiet. The sun is hot. The three rows seem to be getting longer. Hazzard's father, Ken, wanders out to see how things are progressing. He grows more conventional crops, mostly corn, and he's both amazed and amused that people in Evanston will pay $6 for a loaf of Hewn bread. He's also amused by the sight of the bakery workers bent over cutting stalks of wheat with scissors.

"There are easier ways to do this," he informs Hazzard. "Your ancestors used a scythe and a flail."

The flail, two sticks attached by a rope, was used to thresh the wheat and break the individual kernels apart. (Wheat kernels grow in ears, like corn, only much smaller.) Hazzard collects and uses antique farm equipment but doesn't happen to own a flail. She asks if he has any ideas for a substitute.

"How about a goat-powered threshing machine?" he suggests, deadpan.

  • Jeffrey Marini

But after thinking for a few minutes, he relents and suggests a dehuller machine, and then he lets King and her business partner, Julie Matthei, steer a tractor in a slow circuit around the field, much to their delight.

It takes an hour and half to finish the harvest, and afterward, when everyone is sitting in the shade by the creek, sipping beer and eating Hewn bread and pastry, it doesn't seem so bad. "Hopefully we won't have to hand-harvest quite this much again," Hazzard says.

Hazzard estimates that the harvest yielded between 10 and 20 pounds of seeds, enough to plant one-tenth to one-fifth of an acre next spring. After another growing cycle, she'll be able to mill some of the wheat and King can begin experimenting with the flour and selling Marquis bread at Hewn. She thinks it'll be tough going at first. Bakers a century ago didn't use as much sugar and salt as modern bakers do, and the finished product was hearty and dense, not soft and springy like today's sandwich bread. "But you adjust your palate," she says. "It's like dark chocolate, how we got used to it after years of milk chocolate. Heritage [grain] varieties are like 72 percent [cacao] chocolate."

But Hazzard feels that she and King have far more to teach the world than just how to appreciate old-fashioned bread. "We're laying the groundwork for a modern, sustainable food system," she says. "The work I'm doing might not show a benefit to society for 20 years. But the thing about farmers is that anyone who does repetitive work in quiet has a chance to think. It gives you a clarity about being human. Connections are meaningful. Ellen's bread tastes different. It's how people used to say to me, 'Your carrots taste different,' and I'd say, 'It's love.' You use the same seeds on the same land, but the difference, I think, is love—and intention. What Ellen does and I do is about intention, because we love it. We're totally smitten. I want people to understand how and why we do what we do." She pauses and looks over her fields. "I think it's magical."  v

Comments (2)

Showing 1-2 of 2

Add a comment

Add a comment