HEWN HAND-FORGED ARTISAN BREAD OCCUPIES A SMALL storefront on Dempster in Evanston, decorated in a rustic—one might even say rough-hewn—style. In a few days they hope to start smashing through the wall to expand into another storefront. So in a bigger space, they’ll surely expand from a standing-room-only bakery to a cafe with lunch offerings and seating and wi-fi and all that stuff, right?

This story was developed in partnership with the Good Food Festival, March 24-26 at UIC Forum, GoodFoodFestivals.com. Editorial is the sole production of Fooditor.

This story was developed in partnership with the Good Food Festival, March 24-26 at UIC Forum, GoodFoodFestivals.com. Editorial is the sole production of Fooditor.

Owner Ellen King makes a how-am-I-gonna-break-it-to-ya face, the kind both shop owners and moms learn to make early in their careers. “No… we kind of want to stick with the whole idea of the boulangerie. Originally when we opened we had soups and salads and sandwiches, but we just don’t have room for that now. Really offer lunch, and do takeout.” Okay, but still, you’re not going to have cafe tables? “People ask us that, but to be totally honest, to do that we’d have to move a bathroom, the bathroom’s in the back. and that would cost, like, $25,000 that we don’t have.”

Okay, a practical small business answer, I can understand that. But as it turns out, that’s kind of not the reason at all. “The other thing I like is, I love the idea of forced community. Where people find seats,” she says, meaning the plank that sits on the radiator, the old church pew against the wall. “So often, people end up talking to people they wouldn’t, because they’re sitting next to them and that awkwardness disappears.” In her mind, if people can disappear into the privacy of their own tables, that community disappears with them.

“Like we have this row of guys who come in,” she continues, warming to her subject. “They’ll probably come in around ten. And they’re all bachelors, or divorced, and they’ve independently all met, and they come in around the same time, they’re all in their late sixties or early seventies, and they just sit and interact and have coffee. And we have moms that come in with young kids. And these kids interact with these guys, who probably haven’t interacted with young kids in a long time. And it’s really cute.”

Hewn owner Ellen King, chatting with a regular

Hewn owner Ellen King, chatting with a regular

“One day we had this guy John, he’ll probably come in, and he was sitting and this little girl was sitting next to him, and she just kept looking up at him, and he was like ‘Hi there, how are you?’ It was this kind of forced talk. And now, she’ll come in and she’s like, ‘Hi there, Mr. John, how are you?’ We watch all the interactions, from behind the counter. It’s so sweet.”

 

 

In the kitchen at Hewn

In the kitchen at Hewn

IF ELLEN KING BELIEVES THAT accidental connections can lead you in new directions, her own experience with Chicago’s Good Food Festival has reinforced that—connections she made at the festival in past years started her on a path to baking with unusual and ancient grains. That not only leads her to new products to sell, she says it’s helped her really understand for the first time where the wheat she bakes with comes from.

An interest in historical grains comes naturally to a baker who started as a history major. “I got my master’s in history at the University of Maine—my thesis was on Native American education in New England,” she says, slightly rolling her eyes at her younger self. “My parents were like—you’re on your own, what are you going to do? Because I had scuba certification, I literally thought, well, they’re looking for sea urchin divers on the coast. But I decided that was just not… possible. I moved back here, I worked jobs that I hated for three years, and then moved to the west coast, to Seattle.”

Graziano Sandwich/1939

 

At least in Seattle, she began to encounter a more artisanal strain of the food industry. She went to culinary school, and then worked at Quillisascut Farm School in eastern Washington in the early 2000s. “That’s where I got exposed to woodfired ovens, and bread. There was a grain farm just starting up called Bluebird Farm, and they grew farro and all types of grains. And I just thought, how cool is that, but what was I going to do with it?”

hewn6a

Life happened, and over the next decade she and another woman became partners, had a son, started a couple of businesses (including one making pet treats, which she credits for at least teaching her the basics of running a business), moved back to Chicago so her partner could go to Northwestern—and eventually broke up here. Still fascinated by bread and in need of an income, she began baking it at home—lots of it.

“I started making bread at home, because I missed the bread from the west coast,” she says. “I became obsessed. I had a pallet of flour in my kitchen—and I lived in a condo. One good thing about kids, you meet a lot of people when you move to a place, so I recruited families from my kid’s preschool to buy bread so I could justify buying so much flour. I had an underground bread club with a hundred people.” One of her customers, Julie Matthei, would become her business partner and the manager of Hewn when she finally turned her bread obsession into an aboveground business in 2013.

 

 

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DR. STEPHEN JONES IS THE DIRECTOR of The Bread Lab at Washington State University, a wheat breeder who works with ancient and overlooked grains to try to find ways to improve the quality of our bread. Ellen had had exposure to him and his work at Quillisascut Farm School. At that time she was baking the way a good modern bread maker should—she was using organic flour from places like Lonesome Stone in Wisconsin, and only natural fermentation processes, no commercial yeasts. Then in 2014, not long after opening Hewn, she saw that Jones was going to be part of a panel at the Good Food Festival called “Ancient and Heirloom Grains in the New Food System.” She went.

“Afterwards I went up to him and almost accosted him, like a groupie,” she laughs. “It became totally clear to me after that panel that we needed to focus on our local grains, on heritage grains. So I talked to him about what I wanted to do, because hand-mixing our breads, we can play with a lot of varieties of wheat really easily. We can change our formulas really easily, to work with all these different varieties. If they’re really hearty and heavy, we can modify it by adding a little water or maybe adding some of our whole wheat, because we know how it works.”

hewn3

“Stephen and I emailed back and forth, and he sent me these agricultural journals from the 1920s, the University of Wisconsin, about what was growing in this region. So through that I started reading all these historical journals, which for me was really fun. Reading about tests that failed, and crops that grew, and the blending of them.”

She met another collaborator at that Good Food Festival—a female farmer named Andy Hazzard, whose Hazzard Free Farm near Rockford sells various kinds of sustainable, heritage grains at local farmers markets such as Logan Square. “I’d known about heritage wheats because my background is history, so I’d always been interested in agricultural history,” Ellen says. “But I had no farming background, and when I met Andy, I had literally just met her and I said, would you be willing to grow some grains for us? Like a variety that hasn’t been grown in decades. And she’s like, ‘Yeah, sure! Whatever!'”


They harvested Marquis wheat, but they can’t bake with it, because it’s all being saved for seed. So they won’t know if it makes bread anyone will want to eat for at least another season.


The question was, these varieties from the early 20th century she’d been reading about—could you even find the seed stock to grow them today? “Andy found these seeds, the Marquis wheat, which was a cross between Red Fife and a hard Red Calcutta, created in Canada at the turn of the century. So she was able to get two pounds of those, and planted it last April. We went out there in August and harvested it with scissors, because a combine literally can’t harvest such a small amount—it was us with our scissors.”

Harvesting at Hazzard Free Farm, 2015Hewn

Harvesting at Hazzard Free Farm, August 2015

Actually going to a wheat farm for the first time was another eye-opening experience for her. “It’s pretty cool when you start understanding what you’re seeing, and it’s not corn and soybeans, which aren’t even for human consumption, like it is in most of Illinois,” Ellen says. “It was so awesome on so many levels, because honestly I didn’t know the whole complexity of harvesting wheat. It sounds so ridiculous, like a butcher not knowing how you kill an animal. After spending time with wheat farmers, I’m like, you guys would just be better off going to Vegas and playing the numbers. That would be a better career than depending on the weather at this time of year!”

They harvested some Marquis wheat, probably last seen in the area around 1907, if then—but they couldn’t bake with it, because it was all being saved for seed for the next year. So they won’t even know if it makes bread anyone will want to eat for at least another season. But just a few weeks ago, one more connection came through that 2014 Good Food Festival. Terra Brockman, whose family has Henry’s Farm, which sells at Evanston and other farmers markets, and who founded The Land Connection to help new farmers acquire land, had been on that panel with Dr. Stephen Jones. She put Ellen in contact with Harold Wilken of Janie’s Farm in Danforth, Illinois, south of Kankakee, who’s also experimenting with unusual varieties, but on a larger scale than Andy Hazzard.

“He’s got 2000 acres of organic wheat. He said, ‘What do you want to grow, I’ll grow you a plot of whatever you want to play with,'” Ellen says. “He’s got the equipment so we don’t have to do it with scissors. He’s got these little combines that do experimental plots at universities, so he can test an acre of this wheat. And be able to harvest it very easily, and grind it for us so we can play with it.”

That last part is important, because you can grow what you want under whatever conditions you want on your own land, but grinding the wheat into flour is where the process often falls down. Ellen says, “We might be able to grow these grains, but the farmers send their grain to one area where they all get blended together, and then get shipped off to the mills, and they lose control of that.”

Locally grown beans on sale at Hewn

Artisanal beans on sale at Hewn

Wilken is developing the capacity to mill the grain on his property. When farmers can do that, they can brand their own products (as Hazzard Free Farm does), develop their own customer bases and command higher than commodity prices—for the grain (Hewn sells a few products from farms they know already), and for the things that a bakery like Hewn makes from their grain. “This grain experiment has blossomed into something really exciting, because the infrastructure is getting built to bring back grains grown in the midwest, stone-milled in the midwest, for us to consume.”

For King, the ability to mill is important both symbolically and practically.  “Working with a farmer directly, I can call Harold up and say I want some of your flour, and it will be milled and come to me fresh within a week,” she says. “I don’t ever want to mill my own flour. Being a historian, it’s a trade, that needs to be brought back and valued, like the baker and the farmer. And I think that’s what been missing, valuing that and the knowledge. In Germany and places like that, they have all the different grades of flour because they still value their milling tradition.”

“It’s like having access to good coffee. It’s the same thing of demanding that from our grains—flavor,” she says. “It’s the farmers market mentality of buying good tomatoes being applied to grain. Which also means that people are baking at home. That’s really cool.”

It does leave one question, though—are people willing to pay that for bread, that’s coming from wheat varieties that are more expensive and likely have lower yields? “We were already using all organic flour that we were getting from Central Milling, and we were already using Gil [Williams]’s flour from Lonesome Stone,” she explains, “so we were already paying a lot for the flour. Our customers know, it’s not like we’re gouging them. We’re charging them a fair price for the quality of ingredients—the quality is different, the labor involved is different. Maybe I’m delusional, but I think our customers will pay whatever it costs, because they’ll be educated about it, this is the wheat and this is what it costs.”

“For me, this grain experiment, it’s like all these pockets of people, connecting and creating this. And the Good Food Festival has been one of the incubators of these people connecting and coming together. It literally is like farming, it took me almost three years from meeting these people, to this. It’s like a crop being grown. But I never would have had that opportunity if I hadn’t been able to go to the Festival, and have access and just wander and meet people.”

So why go to all that trouble, though? For Ellen King, it’s as simple as the idea that our bread, the most elemental food in every society, deserves respect. “When we as consumers start understanding it, we’ll value wheat more and stop thinking of it as just a commodity.”

Part of the crew at Hewn

Part of the crew at Hewn

Ellen King will be on a panel called “Scaling Up Local Grains,” with other grain and baking experts including Harold Wilken, at the Friday Good Food Trade Show & Industry Conference session of the Good Food Festival. For more information, go here.

The Good Food Festival’s event for the general public is the Saturday Good Food Festival and Marketplace. For more information, go here.


Michael Gebert is the editor of Fooditor, and was raised on good Russian winter wheat brought by his Mennonite ancestors from the Ukraine.


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