Wednesday, February 4, 2009

Grinding grain

Ye Maids who toiled so faithfully at the Mill
Now cease your work and from these toils be still;
Sleep now till dawn, and let the birds with glee
Sing to the ruddy morn from bush and tree;
For what your hands performed so long and true,
Ceres has charged the Water Nymphs to do.

Antipator of Thessalonica, 85 B.C. 1

Grinding grain is hard work, still done by hand by much of the world, and still done here at home. Hard kernels of wheat berries, barley, maize, or rice are ground into flour, the foundation for life in an agricultural society. Bread, booze, Fritos, Lucky Charms--all from ground grains.

On Sabbath, I grind wheat, a direct violation of the melachot. It is hard work. Muscles strain, but they know what to do. My mind is idle, and in the steady whir of burr on burr, my thoughts wander.

I use a Country Mills grain mill--a solid tool. It will last longer than me. The burrs need replacing every decade or so, but the rest of the machine will be fit for my grandchildren, should they choose to grind.

A small depression is growing deeper in the cement basement floor--my left foot rocks back and forth as I crank, and over time, the sole of my foot has made its own cradle. My son's bicycle rusts in the backyard--he has long outgrown it. When I get the time, I will figure out a way to rig his bicycle to my mill. I am not getting any younger, and my legs are stronger than my arms.

A wheat berry makes a fine crackle as it gets crunched between the plates of the hand mill. One stationary plate, one rotating plate. The noise sounds like the white noise background of an untuned radio. When I have drunk too much melomel, I imagine that the wheat berries make a noise beyond the crunching on the bran. There are worse things to imagine.

First my right arm, then my left. I can feel my biceps swell. My legs work, too, shifting my weight back and forth with each pass of the milling wheel. My breathing picks up.

Oxygen in, carbon dioxide out. When the wheat berries were made in Montana, the wheat plant breathed in carbon dioxide, and using the sun's energy and water, created carbohydrates and oxygen. The sun's heat is now released again in the warmth of my breath, my churning muscles, and the steel plates grinding the wheat.

Before the last few wheat berries pass through the millstone, I pick 2 or 3 to go into the garden. They are, after all, alive, until ground into flour. Conscious? No, but that's not the point.

That's not the point at all.

1 from Mill Folklore: "History or Hearsay,"

The Country Mills grain mill photo is from the Everything Kitchen--I have no monetary interests in the product, but I do have an unnatural love for this inanimate object. If you buy one, get the "power bar"--grinding is hard work. Those prairie women were tough!


Kate Tabor said...

Good morning Michael,

I have to share with you a grinding wheat story, but first you have to know a little bit about my father's cousin Pat. Pat was always a glass half full kind of woman; she saw the best in everyone and when you were with her, you felt you were the most important person in her world. She spun her own wool, so it should come as no surprise that she ground her own wheat.

She used a hand crank coffee grinder to have at those wheat berries, and once when we were eating at her home in the fall, she wanted to make an apple pie. But she couldn't find the coffee grinder. She searched everywhere with no luck, but she was not one to give up in her desire to make that apple pie.

So, she looked outside and saw her solution. The bird bath. She scrubbed it out, found a good rock, and smashed those wheat berries. Now it was not really flour when she was done, so she made a graham cracker style crust - and it was unusual but tasty.

Now I don't grind my own wheat, but I have her bread recipe and I make sure that I toss in a handful of cracked wheat. Pat would want it that way.

doyle said...

I love your stories, and I love every Pat I meet.

I bet once you start grinding your own flour, you won't look back.