The Empire Of Wheat | Prairie Public Broadcasting

The Empire Of Wheat

Dec 5, 2020

The pantry in our place on Willow Creek has an eight-foot shelf devoted to nothing but flours: bread flour, whole wheat, soft white biscuit flour, semolina for pasta, you name it. My capable wife has a wonderful way with dough, and I myself can turn out a pretty good stack of sourdough pancakes.

Wheat holds pride of place in our culinary life, as on our family farm, and it seems not just bountiful but also wholly beneficent. Or so I thought, until I worked up the chapter on wheat for the Oxford Handbook of Agricultural History. As I said in a previous essay, wheat, as a cultivar, has agency in history, and it turns out not all of that history is benign.

Early in the research process I noticed that wheat carried a lot of imperial freight. The plant has an amazing capacity to morph and adapt to varying conditions, including the needs of humankind. Its adaptability is a key reason people and nations have carried it to far corners of the world. It travels well, too--just keep the moisture and vermin out, and wheat is an ideal commodity for colonial commerce.

Wheat became the cash crop on the pioneer fringe of settler societies in the temperate zones of the earth, from South Africa to Saskatchewan. When the frontier had passed, wheat settled into permanent residence in great wheat belts, assuming both economic and symbolic importance in places like North Dakota and Kansas. North Dakota used to have a statute requiring the phrase “Buy Dakota Maid Flour” on all state communications. Kansas embraced “Wheat State” as an unofficial nickname more than a century ago.

All of which seems positive, but there are negatives, as wheat became an unwitting symbol of colonial conquest and racial supremacy. There was a cultural fascination with gluten, the protoid component that made it possible for bread to rise into nicely aerated loaves. Bailey’s Cyclopedia of American Agriculture declared in 1907, “Wheat is a plant of vast economic importance, widely distributed over the civilized world and having a history coincident with that of the human race.” The civilized world, you see--uncivilized peoples didn’t get it.

Gluten, it was believed, made wheat a superior grain for superior people. “The difference is due to the presence of gluten,” the authors declare. “The dough owes this elastic quality to the presence of the gluten.” It is hard to exaggerate how tightly, among academics and scientists, wheat was wrapped up with colonization and white supremacy. After all, the heyday of wheat culture a century ago was also the time when serious academics embraced the doctrine of “scientific racism.”

As the famed chemist of North Dakota, Edwin Ladd, affirmed in 1902, “Wheat is the greatest staple for the Caucasion race.”

This all worked to the detriment of native peoples. To people confined on reservations on the Great Plains, Indian agents issued white flour as a staple for tribal subsistence. That in turn led to the emergence of fry bread as a standard food, promoting a high-carbohydrate diet among peoples subject to diabetes. One native scholar has gone so far as to rename “fry bread” as “die bread.”

There is bitter irony that having taken the interior of North America by military conquest for the sake of Euro-American wheat farmers, American and Canadian authorities thrust upon the natives of the land a food regimen that threatened their long-term survival.

So, are we clearing our shelves of wheat flour and swearing off gluten? Well, no, we are what we are. Wheat remains a great cash crop for the prairies and a treasured food for us. But we know our history, including our 10,000-year history with wheat.

-Tom Isern