The New York Times Magazine
by Ferris Jabr
Industrial production destroyed both the taste and the nutritional value of wheat. One scientist believes he can undo the damage.
On the morning of July 13, like most mornings, Stephen Jones’s laboratory in Mount Vernon, Wash., was suffused with the thick warm smell of baking bread. Jones walked me around the floor, explaining the layout. A long counter split the space down the middle. To the right was what Jones called ‘‘the science part,’’ a cluster of high-tech equipment designed to evaluate grain, flour and dough. Jones, who is 58 and stands a daunting 6 foot 5, calls to mind a lovably geeky high-school teacher. He wore dungarees, a plaid shirt, a baseball cap and a warm, slightly goofy smile. Two pairs of eyeglasses dangling from his neck jostled gently as he gesticulated, describing the esoteric gadgetry surrounding us. The 600-square-foot room, known as the Bread Lab, serves as a headquarters for Jones’s project to reinvent the most important food in history.
Jones pointed to a sleek red machine, roughly the length of three toasters. ‘‘This one’s an alveograph,’’ he said, smirking. ‘‘It blows bubbles.’’ If a globe of dough inflates to the size of a baseball without bursting, that means it has enough elasticity and extensibility to make a baguette or a rustic loaf. ‘‘But if it just goes fffft, it’s probably going to be at best a scone or cookie,’’ Jones said. Nearby was a squat device that looked like a photocopier — a farinograph, which assesses the strength of dough as it is mixed — and a cylindrical machine that tests raw grain for adequate levels of starch.
‘‘You put all three of those together, and you get a very good idea of what type of product that’s going to bake,’’ Jones said. ‘‘Then you come over here’’ — we moved to the left side of the room — ‘‘and you have everything that a craft baker would be familiar with.’’ There was a wooden baker’s bench, wicker nests for rising dough, a steam-injected hearth oven full of crispening boules, an assortment of hand-operated mills. And there was flour: flour piled in bowls, flour coating every available surface, flour kicked up into the air as we walked by.
What most people picture when they think of flour — that anonymous chalk-white powder from the supermarket — is anathema to Jones. Before the advent of industrial agriculture, Americans enjoyed a wide range of regional flours milled from equally diverse wheats, which in turn could be used to make breads that were astonishingly flavorful and nutritious. For nearly a century, however, America has grown wheat tailored to an industrial system designed to produce nutrient-poor flour and insipid, spongy breads soaked in preservatives. For the sake of profit and expediency, we forfeited pleasure and health. The Bread Lab’s mission is to make regional grain farming viable once more, by creating entirely new kinds of wheat that unite the taste and wholesomeness of their ancestors with the robustness of their modern counterparts.
Although regional grain economies have developed in California, North Carolina, Arizona and elsewhere, there are few people who match Jones’s fervor for wheat and none with an equally grand vision for its future. His lab was founded just three years ago, but it has already earned the respect of the country’s most celebrated bakers, like Chad Robertson of Tartine and Jeffrey Hamelman, the director of King Arthur Bakery. Dan Barber teamed up with Jones to develop ‘‘Barber wheat’’ for his restaurant Blue Hill at Stone Barns, which is ensconced in a working farm. Bread Lab breads have even made their way to the kitchens of the White House.
In recent months, the lab’s newfound popularity has caused a bit of an identity crisis. Its latest collaborator is the fast-casual Mexican chain Chipotle, which wants to use one of the lab’s regional wheats in its tortillas. Chipotle serves 800,000 tortillas around the country every day. ‘‘There are definitely issues of scale,’’ Jones says. ‘‘If you have Chipotle come in, how big does it get, and how quickly? Do we end up with a commodity by any other name?’’
Jones and wheat first met when he was a child. While learning to make bagels and marbled rye from his grandmother, Jones listened to tales of the wheat farms that her family had worked on in Poland. While studying agronomy at Chico State University in the late 1970s, Jones grew a modest five acres of wheat on a campus farm. ‘‘I fell in love with it as a crop,’’ he says. He would gaze upon his wheat every day, especially before sunrise and after sunset. ‘‘I don’t know if ‘spiritual’ is the right word, but it was very moving,’’ Jones says. ‘‘I would hear voices.’’ Around that time, he saw Terrence Malick’s 1978 film ‘‘Days of Heaven,’’ which is saturated with unhurried, sunset-lit shots of oceanic wheat fields in the Texas panhandle. ‘‘That did it for me,’’ he says.
A few years after college, Jones apprenticed with an Idaho wheat breeder named D.W. Sunderman, who taught him the craft of breeding: selectively cross-pollinating plants in order to create entirely new varieties. A head of wheat contains up to a hundred hermaphroditic flowers that usually pollinate themselves. Jones would choose a head on one wheat plant and pluck out all its pollen-producing anthers with tweezers, preventing self-pollination. Then, using plastic tubing or gauze, he would bind the neutered head to an intact one on a second wheat plant. Because wheat produces so many flowers, and has a gargantuan genome many times larger than our own, a single cross can yield a carnival of wildly different offspring. ‘‘He taught me how beautiful plant breeding could be,’’ Jones says of Sunderman, ‘‘and also the notion that if I wanted his job, I would have to get a Ph.D.’’
In 1991, Jones completed his doctorate in genetics at the University of California, Davis, and the U.S.D.A. hired him to study the wheat genome at Washington State University’s main campus in Pullman. Three years later, Jones landed a job as one of W.S.U.’s chief wheat breeders. At first, he was ecstatic, but disillusionment soon followed. The essence of plant breeding is innovation — the prospect of creating something truly novel. Yet in his first official role as a wheat breeder, Jones felt stifled. He was tasked with improving the yield and disease-resistance of wheat cultivars that had been designed for industrial milling. Prioritizing qualities the food industry considered superfluous was discouraged. When he tried breeding wheat with higher levels of nourishing minerals, like iron, zinc and magnesium, he was told those characteristics were unimportant. When he proposed working with a healthier wheat that still made excellent bread flour — albeit of a somewhat yellow tint — the university expressed no interest, he says.
Commodity wheats are defined in just three ways: hard (high in protein, which is good for bread) or soft (better for pastries); red (dark color and strong flavor) or white (pale and more delicate-tasting); and winter or spring, depending on when they are planted. ‘‘Hard red spring,’’ for example, is often used for bread; ‘‘soft white winter’’ is better for pastries. A vast majority of America’s 56 million acres of wheat grow in a belt stretching more than 1,000 miles from the Canadian border to Central Texas. Around half of the crop is exported, and most of what remains is funneled to feedlots for cattle or to giant mills and bread factories, which churn out all those bags of generic white flour and limp sandwich bread sleeved twice in plastic. This industrial system forces plant breeders to prioritize wheat kernels of highly specific sizes, colors and hardness.
By 2007, Jones had spent more than a decade begrudgingly breeding wheats for the commodities market. His opinion of industrial agriculture was no secret, however. As tensions mounted between Jones and the university, he made a bold decision: In order to escape the commodities system, he would give up wheat altogether. In 2008, he moved to W.S.U.’s western campus to become director of the W.S.U.-Mount Vernon Research Center, which helps small- and mid-scale farmers in the surrounding Skagit Valley, halfway between Seattle and Vancouver, grow about 80 different kinds of fruits, vegetables and flowers.
While preparing for the move, Jones thought he would end up working on cabbage for sauerkraut or cucumbers for pickling; he didn’t have a spiritual connection with those crops, but he liked them well enough. Driving around the area, however, he was startled to discover one wheat field after another. Farmers told him it was crucial for crop rotations, which disrupt disease cycles and return nutrients to the soil. They harvested and sold the grain, but only to lose less money. There was no sense in trying to compete with giant growers in the nation’s wheat belt. What would happen, Jones wondered, if he developed unique varieties of wheat adapted to the Skagit’s cool, wet climate and extremely fertile soil? What if he could interest local millers and bakers in dealing primarily with Washington wheat? What if wheat, like wine, had terroir? After all, it used to.
The giant band of wheat that stripes the center of America is a byproduct of the industrial age. From the 18th century to the early 19th century, wheat was grown mainly near the coasts. During this time, immigrants and American emissaries introduced numerous varieties — Mediterranean, Purple Straw, Java, China, Pacific Bluestem — which breeders tinkered with, adapting them to various soils. All that preindustrial wheat was a living library of flavors: vanilla, honeysuckle, black pepper. Agricultural journals of the time noted the idiosyncrasies of wheat kernels — whether they were red and bearded, velvety or ‘‘plump, round, of a coffeelike form’’ — and distinguished wheats that produced ‘‘excellent’’ and ‘‘well-flavored’’ bread from those that yielded ‘‘inferior’’ loaves. Two wheats in particular, Red Fife and Turkey Red, became immensely popular in part because of their robust nuttiness.
As wheat spread from the coasts inward, so did flour mills. By 1840, 23,000 of them were scattered throughout the country. (Today there are around 200.) People would bring wheat they farmed themselves, or bought from nearby farmers, to the closest mill. As the culinary historian Karen Hess noted: ‘‘Even if you yourself did not grow wheat, you knew that what you bought was local wheat, and you knew its baking characteristics.’’ Bakers and homemakers were used to adjusting their recipes to accommodate different varieties. And they knew how to spot high-quality flour: ‘‘Good flour adheres slightly to the hand, and if pressed in the hand retains its shape,’’ advised ‘‘The Young Housekeeper’s Friend,’’ published in 1845.
In the mid-1800s, America’s patchwork of regional grain economies began to give way to a much more integrated system. The Erie Canal and transcontinental railroads opened up the vast expanse of the Great Plains to wheat farmers, while also offering affordable ways to ship grain across the country. By the late 1800s, wheat farming had largely shifted to Midwestern states.
At the same time, the Industrial Revolution fundamentally altered the process of turning grain into flour. Jones has a pantomime he likes to perform when discussing the millenniums-long history of milling: ‘‘First, there was pounding with mortar and pestle,’’ he says, smashing a fist into an open palm. ‘‘Then, there was this’’ — he moves his hands back and forth parallel to the ground, mimicking the manual grinding of grain between two slabs of stone. ‘‘Then, it turned into this,’’ he continues, rotating his hands around an invisible vertical axis to conjure the motion of the stone mill, which could be powered by water, wind or animal. ‘‘And then this.’’ He points his index fingers toward each other and spins them in sync.
That last transition, the steel roller mill — which first appeared in Budapest in 1839 — was a radical departure from previous techniques, because it sheared the wheat kernel apart. A grain of wheat has three main components: a fibrous and nutrient-rich outer coating called the bran; the flavorful and aromatic germ, a living embryo that eventually develops into the adult plant; and a pouch of starch known as the endosperm, which makes up the bulk of the grain. Before roller mills, all three parts were mashed together when processed. As a result, flour was not the inert white powder most of us are familiar with today; it was pungent, golden and speckled, because of fragrant oils released from the living germ and bits of hardy bran. If freshly ground flour was not used within a few weeks, however, the oils turned it rancid.
Roller mills solved this problem. Their immense spinning cylinders denuded the endosperm and discarded the germ and bran, producing virtually unspoilable alabaster flour composed entirely of endosperm. It was a boon for the growing flour industry: Mills could now source wheat from all over, blend it to achieve consistency and transport it across the nation without worrying about shelf life. That newfound durability came at a huge cost, however, sacrificing much of the grain’s flavor and nutrition. In the 1940s, to compensate for these nutritional deficiencies, flour producers started fortifying white flour with iron and B vitamins, a ubiquitous practice today. The rise of roller milling and bread factories also put pressure on plant breeders to make wheat even more amenable to the new dominant technologies; whiteness, hardness and uniformity took precedence over flavor, nutrition and novelty.
Today, whole-wheat flour accounts for only 6 percent of all flour produced in the United States. And most whole-wheat products sold in supermarkets are made from roller-milled flour with the germ and bran added back in. According to the F.D.A.’s standards, flour labeled ‘‘whole wheat’’ must retain the germ, bran and endosperm in their native proportions, and ‘‘whole-wheat bread’’ must be made with whole-wheat flour, but the agency does not verify products’ composition before they hit the market.
It’s also unclear how industrial mills add back the oily germ without significantly shortening shelf life, a topic they are hesitant to discuss. David Killilea, a nutrition scientist at the Children’s Hospital Oakland Research Institute in California, says big mills might deactivate the living germ by steaming it or exposing it to gamma rays. In Michael Pollan’s most recent book, ‘‘Cooked,’’ one former General Mills employee confesses that the germ was thrown out because it was too much trouble. Killilea and his colleagues are currently developing a test to determine the proportions of endosperm, germ and bran in an anonymous sample of flour, which could bring transparency to the murky practices of industrial mills.
When Jones arrived at Mount Vernon, he started digging through seed banks, collecting both heirloom wheats and modern varieties, crossbreeding them and adapting them to the Skagit Valley’s climate. In 2010, he had some of his favorite varieties stone-milled and then brought several five-pound bags of flour to the Seattle-based baker George De Pasquale for an expert evaluation.
De Pasquale took handfuls of flour and crushed them in his fist to assess their moisture. He quickly mixed the flours with water and yeast and scooped up a portion to taste. Finally, he baked a baguette, a batard and a miche with each flour. ‘‘A couple did not have much flavor or structure,’’ he says, ‘‘but one of them in particular, Bauermeister, knocked my socks off.’’ The bread came out of the oven dark brown. He sliced into it, squeezed the loaf near his face and breathed in: There was a noticeable aroma of chocolate, an alcoholic twang and hints of cinnamon and nutmeg. He took a bite. ‘‘The flavors were so deep, so complex,’’ De Pasquale says. ‘‘The cell structure was really beautiful too. Giant holes, chewable and soft. I’d never been whacked on the head like that before.’’
Inspired by De Pasquale’s reaction, Jones ramped up his efforts to breed for ‘‘flavor, nutrition, funkiness.’’ Each year, Jones and his senior scientific assistant, Steve Lyon, along with three graduate students — Bethany Econopouly, Brigid Meints and Colin Curwen-McAdams — grow between 5,000 and 10,000 kinds of wheat. So far the Mount Vernon breeders have produced wheat with higher than typical levels of iron and other micronutrients; grains that are strikingly blue, purple and black; and wheats that imbue bread with maltiness, spice, caramel — a whole palette of flavors most people would never expect. ‘‘Much as grapes acquire a sense of place, we are finding so does wheat,’’ Jones says. This fall, he plans to publicly release two lines: a West Coast-adapted version of a French wheat named Renan, and a hard red winter wheat called Skagit 09, each of which makes excellent, nutty, moderately dark bread. Once released, the cultivars will either be freely distributed or sold affordably to farmers.
At first, it was just Jones baking bread from his wheat. Two years ago, having reached his ‘‘limit of credibility,’’ he decided to hire a resident baker. He settled on Jonathan Bethony, a slender man who sports a thick chestnut beard and has studied with some of the best in his field. With Bethony onboard, the Bread Lab’s reputation grew even faster, drawing in an ever-widening circle of bread masters and renowned chefs. The lab also became the host of the Grain Gathering, an annual conference that attracts 250 grain obsessives from all over the country. Jones and his colleagues have now outgrown their cozy headquarters; by spring of next year, they will move to a 12,000-square-foot building that they are renting from the Port of Skagit. Their new home will feature a much larger lab and an educational center where King Arthur Flour will train 2,000 bakers each year.
Encouraged by the Bread Lab’s success, a group of investors is planning to build a mill nearby, which will have the capacity to produce millions of pounds of flour annually. In part, this is an attempt to solve a huge challenge for large bakeries interested in freshly milled whole-wheat flour: inconsistency. Although the new mill may produce some single-variety stone-ground flours, it will focus on roller-milling wheat and blending different types to achieve uniformity. These first signs of concession to industrial techniques have alarmed some in Jones’s circle. Perhaps, they worry, the Bread Lab and its affiliated projects are getting too big and too popular for their own good. Is it really possible to scale up without becoming the very type of system Jones and the others fled?
Such concerns have been worsened by the Bread Lab’s new high-profile partner, Chipotle. Steve Ells, the company’s founder, learned of Jones around three years ago through conversations with Glenn Roberts of Anson Mills and Dan Barber. At the time, Ells was determined to meet his promise of ‘‘food with integrity,’’ of working with sustainably grown, locally sourced whole ingredients when possible. ‘‘The tortilla was the outlier,’’ he says: Chipotle’s was made with commodity flour, dough conditioners and chemical preservatives. A single trip to the Bread Lab convinced Ells that Jones and his team could replace Chipotle’s tortillas with a more healthful and tastier whole-wheat version.
After a few false starts, Bethony devised a viable recipe using just five ingredients: water, oil, salt, whole-wheat Edison flour and a sourdough starter. The starter, a living concoction of flour, water and microbes, is not exactly standard procedure for a tortilla, but it is crucial for Bethony’s version: It magnifies flavor, makes the wheat molecules more digestible and extends the tortilla’s shelf life by adding acidity. Bethony taught his techniques to Ruben Berber and Tom Hoffert, who work in research and development at Don Pancho Authentic Mexican Foods in Salem, Ore., Chipotle’s primary tortilla supplier in the Northwest.
To accommodate Ells’s vision, Don Pancho has seriously modified its production process. The company must continually prepare and store large volumes of sourdough starter, maintaining just the right temperature and pH level. Further complicating matters, whole-wheat flour is often temperamental. It absorbs much more water than most bakers expect, and the shards of bran threaten to tangle the smooth strands of gluten, creating a sandy texture. If something goes wrong, the tortillas might turn out too bitter, or not stretch to their full size, which would be disastrous for a burrito that typically envelops more than half a day’s recommended calories. So Don Pancho has been cutting Edison with white flour. The tortillas they have produced so far are dense, golden-tinged and slightly tangy.
Ells plans to test the semi-whole-wheat tortillas in the Pacific Northwest. If things go well, he says, he will pair regional sources of wheat with tortilla makers around the country, which means the tortillas in, say, California might taste different from those in Florida — a discrepancy that would make many chains cringe. Although Jones and his community celebrate Chipotle’s openness to such diversity, they have also been unnerved by its interest. When Jones started working with wheat farmers in the Skagit Valley, he hoped to ‘‘keep value where it was produced,’’ not to partner with a company that has more than 1,900 venues and serves 1.4 million customers each day. What if satisfying Chipotle deprives others?
Edison wheat grows primarily in one location: 500 acres of Oregon farmland managed by Jones’s collaborators Tom and Sue Hunton and their family. A few months ago, nearly all of that wheat had been reserved for Chipotle, which irked some of the Huntons’ customers, like Mel Darbyshire of Grand Central Bakery in Seattle and Nan Kohler, who owns Grist & Toll, the only stone mill in greater Los Angeles. ‘‘Businesses like mine and local bakers need to be baking with that Edison,’’ Kohler said at the time. ‘‘If Chipotle walks away, then what? We haven’t created something sustainable.’’
Since then, thanks to a bountiful harvest and a decreased quota from Chipotle, the Huntons have been able to sell Edison to Darbyshire and Kohler. Tom Hunton is still waiting on an official contract from Chipotle. Yet he is optimistic that the partnership will work out. He also sees this as an opportunity to extend the benefits of regional grain economies beyond their geographic borders. ‘‘In this case, even over distance, the connection between grower, baker and miller is much more cemented and transparent than other instances in a closer radius,’’ he says. ‘‘There’s a void out there that needs to be filled with something other than the industrial-mill model. This is one way to do it.’’
Despite the Bread Lab’s growing influence, it is still quite sealed off from most of American society. For those of us who are not ardent home bakers buying fresh whole-grain flour from one of the few recently resurrected stone mills, who do not regularly queue up at Tartine or dine at the likes of Blue Hill, the kinds of wheat and bread the lab extols are still largely inaccessible. That is the power of industrial agriculture: It has so thoroughly expunged genuine whole-wheat flour from our diet that most of us do not even notice its absence. And here is where the partnership with Chipotle just might make sense: If it succeeds, it will bring real whole wheat to more American plates than any other Bread Lab collaboration so far.
Of course, that all depends on how faithful Chipotle remains to Jones’s grand vision. If the final tortillas are less than 50 percent Edison, aren’t they just the restaurant equivalent of the imitation whole wheat from the grocery store? A month or so after touring the Bread Lab, I asked Jones one last time whether he was worried about compromising, now that his dream was giving way to an ambiguous reality. After all, this was a man who practiced daily communion with his wheat plants. His swift response surprised me: ‘‘Our job at the Bread Lab is not to get all religious on 100-percent whole wheat.’’ Then he caught himself. ‘‘Although,’’ he continued in a quieter voice, ‘‘I guess we do.’’
Ferris Jabr is a writer based in Portland, Ore. He has written for Scientific American, The New Yorker and The Times.