Baking for a Better World

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Three decades of living organically, locally, and sustainably has, after all, taught church elders the limits of individual experience and pushed them past backyard gardens and seasonal farmers’ markets to more complicated crops, like cattle and grain.

“I love a great tomato,” said Dr. Dowse, “but you can’t live on tomatoes and you can live on bread. Bread is central to our being. You plant it and you have to stay in one place, to mill it and store it and bake it, and that requires community and cooperation. Bread is the basis of civilization.”

A cardiac cell biologist at the University of Maine who has been baking rustic bread for nearly 40 years, Dr. Dowse was an early supporter of the Kneading Conference. He also wrote the grant for the copper-domed oven that Mr. Barden built. A self-described “old hippie,” Dowse worked as a truck stop cook and raised sheep before joining the faculty at the university. He sees the bread oven as an agent for social change. He calls the copper-topped model “an outreach oven.” He refers to the Kneading Conference and Artisanal Bread Fair as “an outreach event.”

Skowhegan, he says, is an example of a world that bread can save.

In the 1830s, the town produced enough grain to feed 100,000 people. As manufacturing mills moved in, grain production dipped. By the mid-1950s, when the railroad left and the town’s shoe and clothing manufacturers moved abroad, Skowhegan wasn’t raising enough grain to feed the 8,000 who continued to live there.

Locavorism, meet local economic crisis.

Along with other amateur bakers, Dr. Dowse began to study the more nutritious and better-tasting antique varieties of grains that never appear in the commodity markets. Soon, the Universities of Vermont and Maine began collaborating on a study to identify the grains best suited for growing conditions north of the 45th parallel. Dr. Dowse persuaded Mr. Barden to expand his heating business to include wood-fired cooking ovens. as well. Initially, the Kneading Conference showcased the ovens and created a forum for people to learn about grain growing and baking. And it worked its magic. Smitten by the emerging bread culture, Amber Lambke, a former speech language pathologist and Michael Scholz, a baker, set their sights on creating a local gristmill as an incentive to encourage wider-scale grain farming in the area. When the local Somerset jail was abandoned, they raised money from private investors and public grants to buy it. Six growers planted nearly 600 acres of grain to supply the mill. The Austrian-built, 5,800-pound beauty will begin crushing fine flour for their Somerset Grist Mill label in October.

“The mill could help create four jobs, help support about a dozen farms and a dozen additional food businesses, and add slightly more than a million dollars to the local economy,” said Ms. Lambke. Leaning close to the glowing mouth of Mr. Barden’s new oven, she closed her eyes, inhaled, and added, “That means we will be supplying the flour to make about 1,000,200 loaves of bread a year.”

Molly O’Neill is the author of seven books including Mostly True: A Memoir of Family, Food, and Baseball, The New York Cookbook, and One Big Table: A Portrait of American Cooking. Her e-book, This American Burger, the first in a series that documents individual dishes and the people who prepare them, was just published by New Word City.

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