On July 28 and 29 I spent a highly entertaining and educational couple of days at the 2016 Kneading Conference in Skowhegan, ME in the company of 250 folks, most of whom were professional bakers or food educators. Skowhegan is a small but robust town in the heart of what was once Maine’s wheat belt, and part of the story is the mill that outgoing conference director Amber Lambke cofounded in the town’s former jail. It’s now running at capacity as regional farmers rediscover the commercial potential of locally grown grains.
The sessions were mostly workshops where the presenter demonstrated techniques and shared recipes along with a running commentary and answers to questions from the audience. There was quite a bit of tasting involved. There was also excellent grain-focused food from two local caterers, The Bankery and Radici Cucina. Three hands-on tracks (serious home baking, building a masonry oven, and production cooking in a wood fired oven) were offered but with advance registration required. (If these interest you, get on the email list so you can jump on the 2017 conference when registration opens next March.)
Keynote speaker Amy Halloran had us pledge to support wheat and gave us all “Flour Ambassador” stickers to wear but most of presenters focused on more exotic grain varieties. Ciril Hitz baked breads and pastries with spelt and einkorn. Richard Miscovich shared a recipe for Election Bread* inspired by colonial recipes in the culinary museum at Johnson & Wales University where he teaches, and made with high-extraction flour from Amber Lambke’s mill. Masonry oven evangelist Albie Barden sent us away with pouches of rare Darwin John corn kernels to propagate and, as a bonus, tobacco seed pods found in a 1200 year old native American grave. I also departed with 60 pounds of mostly locally-milled flours and whole grains from the busy conference store, as well as many tips and friendships garnered over lunch or while standing in line.
I have never met a baker I didn’t like, or at least find interesting. There are good reasons for this. Bakers are realists. Like potters and carpenters, they work with their hands all day long. Fingers don’t lie. Second, they like food and by extension the greater pleasures of life or they would have chosen a different profession. Third, they need to be good storytellers in order to make the public enjoy and pay for what they make. If you have the opportunity, marry a baker. Failing that (or if you are looking for a mate), make plans to attend next year’s event.
P.S. There’s also a Saturday Bread Fair the day after the conference, where many of the excellent loaves from the wood fired production track were up for sale (get there early before they sell out!) and mini-workshops were offered. Unlike the conference, it’s free to the public. It was also a great way to extend the glow of the previous two days—and eat more bread.
*In post-revolutionary days, when voting was a new concept, folks were given small cakes as a reward for casting their ballot. This recipe attempts to recreate the Election Cake using spices that were popular at that time. Richard Miscovich and colleagues want to spread it far and wide so we can “Make America Cake Again” to celebrate the 2016 election. The final recipe is available here.