Skowhegan kneading conference

2011 Kneading Conference, Skowhegan, Maine

What is it about bread baking that brings out hairy men? These are some, just a few, of the beards and long hair on display in Skowhegan last weekend. But there were many more, and even more extravagant–a phenomenon to ponder.


Not to detract from the display, however, these were talented and thoughtful people who pondered everything from the construction of ovens to natural spontaneous leavens to flatbreads to the revival of locally grown grains–which promises to be the Next Big Thing in the locavore movement. But here are a few more, just so you don’t think I’m exaggerating (did I spell that right?):


One of the least hairy of the hairy men in attendance was Pat Manley, well-known Maine builder of masonry ovens. Pat has built complex restaurant-style wood-burning masonry ovens, grills, and stoves for some of the best eating places in Maine, but his most exciting on-going project is an annual winter trip to the highlands of Guatemala where he brings a team of “Masons on a Mission” to help construct masonry cook stoves for Mayan villagers who otherwise use three-stone fires with a prodigious output of toxic smoke and fumes. It’s a great cause–read more  about this project at

On Thursday, I chaired a round table discussion among food writers and some academics–Steve Jones, wheat breeder and geneticist from Washington State University was one, and another was Myron Beasley who teaches American culture at Bates. The subject matter ranged widely but all agreed that there’s a need to help Americans get the information they need to eat better food, without pretensions and without preaching. Chef Michel Nischan, who shared the keynote spot with food writer Molly O’Neill, has set up Wholesome Wave, a foundation that works through a variety of programs to bring fresh farm produce at farmers’ markets together with the low-income folks who need it most.

All in all, we ate a lot of good food at this Kneading Conference–and we talked about a lot of it too. But perhaps even more important, we began to think about the political and economic problems that lie ahead, whether related to global climate change or to thoroughly industrialized agriculture, and in the process maybe we started to lay the groundwork for better food for all Americans.

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