Awakening in winter dark, I felt a peculiar consciousness of a living, stirring thing in the house — something other than the usual snores of a Labrador retriever. I padded downstairs to the prairie kitchen, lifted the towel covering our big Medalta mixing bowl, and checked the progress of my vorteig — my pre-dough, the batter stage of a baking project I had left on the counter for first rise overnight. It was alive, and alluring — I bent over the bowl to take in the scent.
Quite a bit of the morning to follow was spent in an annual ritual — the production of bierocks, a characteristic folk food of the Volga Germans. I am not Volga German; I am Hanoverian in ancestry; but I grew up alongside Volga Germans in western Kansas and learned some of their ways. Bierocks, for instance — a portable food, cabbage and onions and meat (beef and pork mixed in this case) and seasonings stuffed inside a baked bun.
The bun is the thing, and so I had taken down the canister of bread flour and drawn heavily from it. This is unusual; I seldom get into the bread flour, because Dr. Kelley is the master baker in our house; but the bierocks are my project. Our bread flour is Dakota Maid, which reminds me to note, the North Dakota Mill and Elevator, makers of Dakota Maid flour, is celebrating its centennial this year.
Dakota Maid products represent the highest and best use of hard red spring wheat — Dr. Kelley vouches for the bread flour. My more typical baking ventures, muffins and such, generally involve products bearing the Hudson Cream label from Stafford County Flour Mills, Hudson, Kansas. Mostly I use their short patent product as a general-purpose flour, and not just because I like the Brown Swiss cow on the flour sack.
The bierock ritual is part of the fall clean-up process for the prairie garden, making use of our yellow onions and one of the cabbages that the deer left us. We each ate one bierock for supper, and then I bagged the rest for the freezer. The annual output of bierocks thus become convenience food for busy winter days, but they are convenience food laced with connotations.
A native of the leading winter wheat producing state in the union, Kansas, and a long-time resident of the leading spring wheat producing state, North Dakota, with a farm in one state and a job teaching agricultural history in the other, I figured I was pretty well embedded in wheat culture. Then I was commissioned to write the chapter on wheat for the Handbook of Agricultural History, Oxford University Press. The history of wheat, everywhere, in 8000 words. (I came in at 7998.)
The Oxford project compelled me to tiller out from my prairie roots, to school up on the neolithic origins of grain crops, to consider the inter-continental connections of wheat by migration and trade, to explore the significance of wheat and bread in human cultures, to recognize the joint agency of wheat and humankind in colonization. The story has to accept some hard truths about environmental and human impacts.
Gluten emerges as a provocative metaphor: a strong and resilient tie that binds, that makes Dr. Kelley’s artful baking possible, that drives the passion for quality in grain production — but is detrimental, even deadly, to some people. Gluten is embedded in the actions and assumptions of settler peoples displacing indigenous peoples from temperate grasslands all over the world — hence I am glad that the North Dakota mill gave up its old logo featuring an Indian maiden.
So now, while I knead my dough, I feel two kinds of connections coming up from my arms: those of homeland, the prairies and their peoples, and also ones far more cosmopolitan, reaching around the globe. You may say, you have your bierocks, shut up and eat. To which I say, not yet.