Monday, July 23, 2012

What Did We Do Before Wonder Bread? - Part 1

By: Adrienna Maxwell, Farm Programs Intern
Here at The Farmers’ Museum, we recently finished up our busy school programs season. Museum Quest, our school program during May and June, is an adventure of sorts with a variety of learning stations set up throughout the Fenimore Art Museum and The Farmers’ Museum. Topics range from trading and bartering goods to making small bean necklaces to take home. I ran the Farm Chores station for most of May and June and you would be amazed at how many of the children started shouting and cheering when asked if they want to be put to work like they would have been in the 1840s! The activity at this station varied from day to day and week to week, depending on what we needed done around the farmstead. On our busiest June days we had the children grinding wheat kernels into flour.
The line went right out the wood shed door of Lippitt Farmhouse! Look at all of our eager workers!
If we had not wanted to grind our flour by hand, other options would have been available to us in the 1840s. By the 1830s, Otsego County alone had 70 gristmills where local farmers could send their grain to be milled. However, most of the flour used in the 1840s was purchased from the local stores, which would have imported their flour from none other than “Flour City” (Rochester, NY) by sending ox-cart men to meet barges at their stops along the Erie Canal as they passed through on their way to Albany.
I held the mechanical corn grinder in place as all of the kids took turns trying their hand at grinding. It’s harder than it looks! This was our way of simulating the process that steam or water-powered mills of the time would have used to grind wheat into flour.
It is important to mention that there are differences between the type of flour we are making in these pictures and the kind of flour that goes into bread that you might purchase from a grocery store today. The recipe for making bread flour began to change sometime in the early 1800s, primarily due to a cultural shift. Flour made from the whole kernel was used primarily by those of the lower classes who could not afford something better; oftentimes it was mixed in with other grain such as rye or cornmeal. The more affluent preferred more refined “whiter” flour for their baking needs, and there were varying degrees of fineness to select from. To make the flour white it was bolted, a process that separated the bran from the rest of the flour and would produce a whiter flour that would also keep much longer than flour with bran left in it. During the 1840s, millers were still unable to separate all of the germ from the endosperm, but over time the technology of mills improved to the point where this was possible as well.
It took over 700 children to grind up enough flour for just a couple of loaves of bread, which our Lippitt House staff baked the following Saturday on the designated weekly baking day. We think we should have worked the students harder to get more flour – the bread was delicious!
Today, we make white flour from only the endosperm of the wheat kernel, which is the white starchy part with the lowest level of nutrition in the whole kernel. The other two parts of the kernel, the germ and the bran, are very nutrient rich and are often neglected in modern day production of flour. We actually feed those parts of the kernel to our livestock to meet their nutritional needs! Even what we consider to be whole wheat bread today is made of flour with only a small amount of bran and germ put back into the flour after it has been processed.

Although social implications played a significant role in this switch, part of the reason that today’s flour manufacturers only use the endosperm could be because the released oils and nutrients of the processed bran and the germ can cause the flour to go bad in less than a week if not refrigerated or frozen.

Modern day flours and breads compensate for the decrease in nutritional value by enrichment with added vitamins and minerals. It would appear that we have come full circle in our wheat and flour production, or at least attempted to, and in quite a strange way!

Come back later this month for more food for thought and read part two, which will focus on the historical production of wheat in New York State.

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