Grinding with Water of the Past

Life's a Grind

The heartbeat of the past goes….Click…tick…click.  The sound echoes around the work room. It’s the steady pulse of a contraption called a damsel which shakes a few grains of wheat into the eye of the mill’s grinding stones.

A water wheel turns the stones.  No engine blurrs the sound of the click….tick. Its beat is constant. If there’s a clog  or misalignment, the heartbeat of the mill doesn’t sound right. The miller comes running because the damsel is in distress.  Allegedly, that’s how the phrase originated. Lovelier image than a lass tied to train tracks, yes?

You probably think I make up the fitz-glimmer of these posts. Okay. I admit exaggeration may weave through  many of my stories, but you can grab your smelling salts and go ahead and faint upon learning that I research the Friday Pioneer posts.  My idea-seeds come from early settlers’ journals and old newspapers.

So, while doing ground-work for an upcoming post I stumbled into a sentence I didn’t understand: “Of the 5 mills in the area, the Enterprise Grist Mill makes the better flour.”

How could you make bad flour? Lumpy? Buggy? Full of chaff? (Wait till you read the Dec 9th post for truly gross details). And then I realized all of the flour I’ve used in my life has come out of a sealed, white, paper bag. On a shelf in a grocery store. Quality-controlled. Enriched.  I’ve never seen or worked with a home-made product.

“Field trip!” I yelled. That’s how a friend, Helen, and I ended up at the internationally known Bob’s Red Mill in Milwaukee, Oregon.  After we elbowed kids out of the way, we stuck our noses against the window and watched wheat, corn, and barley being ground into powdery cooking items.

Understanding that we were nosy and grabby, they let us diddle our fingers in bowls of products (some with squint-eyed names such as Teff and Kamut berries.)  Explaining different stations, they allowed us to rub our knuckles on stones used for 100 years.  It was rougher than A’a’ lava (which is skin-shredding mean).  Both of us peppered them with questions and took notes.  They sent us away with great stories (which you know I’ll goose up a bit) and packages of 10-grain breakfast mix  (which honestly cooks into such a rib-sticking meal, I bet you could hike at least 14 miles on a stomach of it.)

We learned that George Washington ran a four-story grist mill. (He also ran a 5-still whiskey distillery but they were quite mum about that—and no samples).  And the answer to my quest: Why were some mills better than others?

1)      Some millers had hidden chutes that siphoned away extra flour to their own secret bins. (Flour-stealing cheats!)

2)      Some mixed mildewy wheat or sawdust with their grinds. (Four-stealing, fiber-adding lowlife!!!)

3)      Cheap grinding stones crumbled into the flour (Perhaps Washington lost some teeth from eating his own product?)

Usually, I take a long scowl at changes, but in a modern-day switcheroo it seems we’re harkening back to our history.  Bakeries and bread shops have returned to grinding their own flours these days.  And you can buy stone-grounds  in bulk bins.  Or you can get Bob’s Red Mill at many grocery stores.

Best of all, I’m relieved my pie recipe doesn’t begin:  Plant 5 rows of wheat and three pumpkin seeds. And the miller doesn’t send me out to fish in the stream (which he controls) to keep me busy while he siphons, sawdusts, and grinds my grain.

Click, tick, tick…that’s the sound of change. The heart beat of the damsel is alive again.

(I’d highly recommend this tour for anyone passing through Oregon.  It’s fun, informative, free, and you get to stick your fingers in stuff.  If you can’t get there, just plunge your hand in your own flour canister and re-read this post.

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About Barb

I escaped from a hardscrabble farm in Oklahoma. I'm not sure why people think I have an accent. I miss the sunshine, but not the fried foods.
This entry was posted in Appreciation, Enough, Humor, Life and tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

31 Responses to Grinding with Water of the Past

  1. Pingback: Threshing Manure | Before Morning Breaks

  2. The Hook says:

    I followed your advice and you’re right; this rocks the second time around! Now I have to clean up all this flour….

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  3. I did not know the origin of that saying. Very interesting factoid and very interesting post. I’m I visited you this Thanksgiving Day.

    You have a great turkey day.

    Like

  4. Oh my goodness, I am so tickled you came by my blog! I really enjoy yours so much and plan to come back again and again. You blog is so different. Now when Hubs says “Get off that Computer it will rot your brain!” I can say, “It will not I am l learning about flour, bread and hiking.” Love it Thanks again for taking a look-see at my place.

    Like

  5. Elyse says:

    Oops, I forgot. George Washington’s Distillery is open again, not far from here. Here is the website for any of your readers who are in the area (April-Oct only — not now when one needs a bit of help staying warm). http://www.virginia.org/Listings/HistoricSites/GeorgeWashingtonsDistillery/. The web page says it is “Family Fun” — I’m thinkin’ that means that the kids drive Mom & Dad home.

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  6. Elyse says:

    As I prepared my T-Day turkey just a short time ago, I picked off a few last feathers and commented to my niece how lucky we are these days to not have to feed, kill and pluck and all those other things. Now I realize that my appreciation is late, as I should have been thanking my lucky stars that I didn’t have to either grind my flour myself or hauled it down to the mill.

    What a wonderful story, filled with warmth, humor and history. I just love your mix — just enough sawdust to keep me chuckling! Thank you so much for visiting my blog. I’ve subscribed to yours too. (At least I think I did, my subscriptions have not been showing up lately 😦 ).

    Like

  7. Christie Coykendall says:

    Hi Barb, What a great twist on describing your visit to Bob’s Red Mill. Mill stone technology was a wonderful boon to mankind, make that womankind. A few years ago I traveled to Central Africa and saw the women and teen girls sweating at the hand mills. The hard labor required just to grind one meal’s worth of grain was tremendous. The callouses on their hands looked like the bottom of your feet. Thanksgiving is tomorrow so I guess that’s just one more thing on my ‘thankful’ list…flour mills! Happy Trails, Christie

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    • Barb says:

      Thanks Christie. You are a tour guide with a fountain of wisdom and knowledge. I can’t imagine grinding by hand, but this is from a woman who used to only cook with Gold Medal four…so thanks for changing” me. And I tend to squint at change.

      Like

  8. Ok, I’m in. You are a riot. Anyone that can make visiting Bob’s and seeing grains being ground entertaining is okay in my book. By the way, thanks for finding me, now I can hoot along with you! Margie

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  9. Des Harding says:

    Texwisgirl has proclaimed you ‘a nut’…you’re aiming for ‘peculiar’…I’ll have to say you’re a good mix of both 🙂
    How on earth do you get to play dress up in all of your different costumes and guises? I also see you’ve been blogging since December 2009, so you’ll soon be celebrating your 2 year Blogiversary. Congratulations in advance!
    I appreciated your visit and the lovely comment you left, Barb. Thank you! I’ll most certainly be back to see what else you’ve been up to. I really enjoyed this post and the string of comments 🙂

    Like

  10. Julie says:

    I thought Bob looked familiar! I splash a little of his flaxseed meal in my cereal every morning. Needless to say, it is my personal mood enhancer. Happy Thanksgiving! Julie

    Like

  11. TexWisGirl says:

    a quick look around here has me convinced you’re a nut! 🙂

    thanks for dropping by my blog and leaving a comment! i appreciate it!

    Like

  12. souldipper says:

    Thanks for popping by for a visit with me…I’m really delighted to have discovered your very interesting site. Great idea to draw from the pioneering days. I’ve read several books by Ivan Doig – pioneer stories from NW states. His stories contain methodologies, phrases and humour that were used in Western Canada as well. Plus I love hearing interesting stories about the birth of phrases.

    Ewww…maybe people didn’t die so much from hard work. Mildew wheat and sawdust?!

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    • Barb says:

      Aren’t the stories of ivan Doig wonderful? Takes you to another time and place. I didn’t know Western Canada had the same style of “walkin’ and talkin’.

      I bet if we knew what was in some of our modern day fractured foods…we’d be “eWWING” along with you. Think of those insect legs as more fiber.

      Like

  13. I reckon modern man doesn’t corner the market on dishonesty, eh?

    Thank you for commenting on my blog. Made me come here to take a peek at yours, and I really like what I see. Looks like my kinda place. Thank you, ma’am. Count me in as your newest follower.

    Like

    • Barb says:

      And there you go, Susan. The more things change…the more they stay the same. Thanks for the subscribe. I look forward to getting to know you through your posts.

      Like

  14. Aren’t diaries and journals simply the best reading (though sometimes the saddest and/or grossest as well).

    Like

    • Barb says:

      You are so right. Even though this is a satire and humor blog, I’d be remiss if I didn’t include some of the tragedies that striped these settlers lives. The amazing thing is that they kept on going. It’s inspirational…no matter how much change we encounter.

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  15. winsomebella says:

    Fingers in the flour makes for a nice non field trip after a post that took me there.

    Like

  16. moma escriva says:

    I love Bob’s Red Mill, too. What an interesting story, especially the damsel bit and oh what a nice history lesson on wheat! I think a road trip there is really one I’m interesting in taking.

    Like

    • Barb says:

      Yeah, it was pretty interesting. I didn’t include the parts about meeting Bob himself, and the wonderful Christie who fielded any question that we threw at her (and let us stick our hands in stuff).

      Like

  17. Spectra says:

    How great that you went to Bob’s Red Mill! I have been buying their products, both online and in stores, for about 2.5 years. They are a great resource for gluten-free flours…did they show you the seperate milling area for their GF products? I have their teff flour – the worlds smallest whole grain, from Africa, or Ethipia, originally. They also pilfer beans down to a flour, like Fava and Garbanzo, which give a smooth, rich texture to breads and baked goods. And I use their GF all purpose flour for muffins. I’m really glad you shared this tid bit of research with us! Thanks.

    Like

    • Spectra says:

      – and here’s a couple videos of Bobs Red Mill:

      Like

      • Barb says:

        Spectra…thanks for including this. It truly is an interesting place. I’m glad you like it, and I was soooooo impressed by the quality control of the products.

        Like

    • Barb says:

      Yep. They had to clean the GF viewing windows after we stuck our greasy noses and palms against them, goggling at the machines. This was the cleanest place I’ve ever seen. I have more flour on my counters after making a pie crust than than they had in, under, around any of the machines. Perhaps you’ll be jealous to find out, I stuck my hands in teff flour too???

      Like

  18. Roxie says:

    What a fun trip! I’ve got to try that soon. And some day, let’s go tour the Pendleton Woolen Mill in Cammas.

    Like

    • Barb says:

      Absolutely!!!! In it’s heyday, they had so many sheep in eastern Oregon (as you know), they had shearing days and filled long lines of box cars with wool. It comes along in a few more years in the story, but anytime is a good time to do the research.

      Like

  19. I had a roommate from Peru who as we worked on an annual consulting project, brought an extra suitcase to take home bags of American dog food for her beloved pet. She said the dog food from her home had sawdust mixed with it. Horrifying thought and “lowlife” indeed who would mix sawdust with the flour. My maternal grandmother retired to Medford after having lived in Alaska for years, so I find your Oregonian reports interesting.

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    • Barb says:

      Oh Georgette…I haven’t even started in on reporting about the rain. I will as soon as I can think of a way to make it funny. It’s strange how we think of “the miller, the baker, the candlestick maker” as old honest trades. So I was surprised to find literature indicating a person really had to WATCH the miller to make sure he got all of his grain back…just like you have to watch some butchers to make sure the beef you had custom cut and wrapped is really the one you spent all summer feeding.

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