Industrial production destroyed both the taste and the nutritional value of wheat. One scientist believes he can undo the damage.
On the morning of July 13, like most mornings, Stephen Jones’s laboratory in Mount Vernon, Wash., was suffused with the thick warm smell of baking bread. Jones walked me around the floor, explaining the layout. A long counter split the space down the middle. To the right was what Jones called ‘‘the science part,’’ a cluster of high-tech equipment designed to evaluate grain, flour and dough. Jones, who is 58 and stands a daunting 6 foot 5, calls to mind a lovably geeky high-school teacher. He wore dungarees, a plaid shirt, a baseball cap and a warm, slightly goofy smile. Two pairs of eyeglasses dangling from his neck jostled gently as he gesticulated, describing the esoteric gadgetry surrounding us. The 600-square-foot room, known as the Bread Lab, serves as a headquarters for Jones’s project to reinvent the most important food in history.
Jones pointed to a sleek red machine, roughly the length of three toasters. ‘‘This one’s an alveograph,’’ he said, smirking. ‘‘It blows bubbles.’’ If a globe of dough inflates to the size of a baseball without bursting, that means it has enough elasticity and extensibility to make a baguette or a rustic loaf. ‘‘But if it just goes fffft, it’s probably going to be at best a scone or cookie,’’ Jones said. Nearby was a squat device that looked like a photocopier — a farinograph, which assesses the strength of dough as it is mixed — and a cylindrical machine that tests raw grain for adequate levels of starch.
‘‘You put all three of those together, and you get a very good idea of what type of product that’s going to bake,’’ Jones said. ‘‘Then you come over here’’ — we moved to the left side of the room — ‘‘and you have everything that a craft baker would be familiar with.’’ There was a wooden baker’s bench, wicker nests for rising dough, a steam-injected hearth oven full of crispening boules, an assortment of hand-operated mills. And there was flour: flour piled in bowls, flour coating every available surface, flour kicked up into the air as we walked by.
What most people picture when they think of flour — that anonymous chalk-white powder from the supermarket — is anathema to Jones. Before the advent of industrial agriculture, Americans enjoyed a wide range of regional flours milled from equally diverse wheats, which in turn could be used to make breads that were astonishingly flavorful and nutritious. For nearly a century, however, America has grown wheat tailored to an industrial system designed to produce nutrient-poor flour and insipid, spongy breads soaked in preservatives. For the sake of profit and expediency, we forfeited pleasure and health. The Bread Lab’s mission is to make regional grain farming viable once more, by creating entirely new kinds of wheat that unite the taste and wholesomeness of their ancestors with the robustness of their modern counterparts.
Although regional grain economies have developed in California, North Carolina, Arizona and elsewhere, there are few people who match Jones’s fervor for wheat and none with an equally grand vision for its future. His lab was founded just three years ago, but it has already earned the respect of the country’s most celebrated bakers, like Chad Robertson of Tartine and Jeffrey Hamelman, the director of King Arthur Bakery. Dan Barber teamed up with Jones to develop ‘‘Barber wheat’’ for his restaurant Blue Hill at Stone Barns, which is ensconced in a working farm. Bread Lab breads have even made their way to the kitchens of the White House.In recent months, the lab’s newfound popularity has caused a bit of an identity crisis. Its latest collaborator is the fast-casual Mexican chain Chipotle, which wants to use one of the lab’s regional wheats in its tortillas. Chipotle serves 800,000 tortillas around the country every day. ‘‘There are definitely issues of scale,’’ Jones says. ‘‘If you have Chipotle come in, how big does it get, and how quickly? Do we end up with a commodity by any other name?’’Jones and wheat first met when he was a child. While learning to make bagels and marbled rye from his grandmother, Jones listened to tales of the wheat farms that her family had worked on in Poland. While studying agronomy at Chico State University in the late 1970s, Jones grew a modest five acres of wheat on a campus farm. ‘‘I fell in love with it as a crop,’’ he says. He would gaze upon his wheat every day, especially before sunrise and after sunset. ‘‘I don’t know if ‘spiritual’ is the right word, but it was very moving,’’ Jones says. ‘‘I would hear voices.’’ Around that time, he saw Terrence Malick’s 1978 film ‘‘Days of Heaven,’’ which is saturated with unhurried, sunset-lit shots of oceanic wheat fields in the Texas panhandle. ‘‘That did it for me,’’ he says.A few years after college, Jones apprenticed with an Idaho wheat breeder named D.W. Sunderman, who taught him the craft of breeding: selectively cross-pollinating plants in order to create entirely new varieties. A head of wheat contains up to a hundred hermaphroditic flowers that usually pollinate themselves. Jones would choose a head on one wheat plant and pluck out all its pollen-producing anthers with tweezers, preventing self-pollination. Then, using plastic tubing or gauze, he would bind the neutered head to an intact one on a second wheat plant. Because wheat produces so many flowers, and has a gargantuan genome many times larger than our own, a single cross can yield a carnival of wildly different offspring. ‘‘He taught me how beautiful plant breeding could be,’’ Jones says of Sunderman, ‘‘and also the notion that if I wanted his job, I would have to get a Ph.D.’’In 1991, Jones completed his doctorate in genetics at the University of California, Davis, and the U.S.D.A. hired him to study the wheat genome at Washington State University’s main campus in Pullman. Three years later, Jones landed a job as one of W.S.U.’s chief wheat breeders. At first, he was ecstatic, but disillusionment soon followed. The essence of plant breeding is innovation — the prospect of creating something truly novel. Yet in his first official role as a wheat breeder, Jones felt stifled. He was tasked with improving the yield and disease-resistance of wheat cultivars that had been designed for industrial milling. Prioritizing qualities the food industry considered superfluous was discouraged. When he tried breeding wheat with higher levels of nourishing minerals, like iron, zinc and magnesium, he was told those characteristics were unimportant. When he proposed working with a healthier wheat that still made excellent bread flour — albeit of a somewhat yellow tint — the university expressed no interest, he says.Commodity wheats are defined in just three ways: hard (high in protein, which is good for bread) or soft (better for pastries); red (dark color and strong flavor) or white (pale and more delicate-tasting); and winter or spring, depending on when they are planted. ‘‘Hard red spring,’’ for example, is often used for bread; ‘‘soft white winter’’ is better for pastries. A vast majority of America’s 56 million acres of wheat grow in a belt stretching more than 1,000 miles from the Canadian border to Central Texas. Around half of the crop is exported, and most of what remains is funneled to feedlots for cattle or to giant mills and bread factories, which churn out all those bags of generic white flour and limp sandwich bread sleeved twice in plastic. This industrial system forces plant breeders to prioritize wheat kernels of highly specific sizes, colors and hardness.By 2007, Jones had spent more than a decade begrudgingly breeding wheats for the commodities market. His opinion of industrial agriculture was no secret, however. As tensions mounted between Jones and the university, he made a bold decision: In order to escape the commodities system, he would give up wheat altogether. In 2008, he moved to W.S.U.’s western campus to become director of the W.S.U.-Mount Vernon Research Center, which helps small- and mid-scale farmers in the surrounding Skagit Valley, halfway between Seattle and Vancouver, grow about 80 different kinds of fruits, vegetables and flowers.While preparing for the move, Jones thought he would end up working on cabbage for sauerkraut or cucumbers for pickling; he didn’t have a spiritual connection with those crops, but he liked them well enough. Driving around the area, however, he was startled to discover one wheat field after another. Farmers told him it was crucial for crop rotations, which disrupt disease cycles and return nutrients to the soil. They harvested and sold the grain, but only to lose less money. There was no sense in trying to compete with giant growers in the nation’s wheat belt. What would happen, Jones wondered, if he developed unique varieties of wheat adapted to the Skagit’s cool, wet climate and extremely fertile soil? What if he could interest local millers and bakers in dealing primarily with Washington wheat? What if wheat, like wine, had terroir? After all, it used to.The giant band of wheat that stripes the center of America is a byproduct of the industrial age. From the 18th century to the early 19th century, wheat was grown mainly near the coasts. During this time, immigrants and American emissaries introduced numerous varieties — Mediterranean, Purple Straw, Java, China, Pacific Bluestem — which breeders tinkered with, adapting them to various soils. All that preindustrial wheat was a living library of flavors: vanilla, honeysuckle, black pepper. Agricultural journals of the time noted the idiosyncrasies of wheat kernels — whether they were red and bearded, velvety or ‘‘plump, round, of a coffeelike form’’ — and distinguished wheats that produced ‘‘excellent’’ and ‘‘well-flavored’’ bread from those that yielded ‘‘inferior’’ loaves. Two wheats in particular, Red Fife and Turkey Red, became immensely popular in part because of their robust nuttiness.As wheat spread from the coasts inward, so did flour mills. By 1840, 23,000 of them were scattered throughout the country. (Today there are around 200.)....MUCH MORE