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.