Wednesday, April 16, 2014

A Pound of Cornmeal, A Whole Lot of Work

I'd gone to Ayers Creek Farm to help with some chores, but the first thing I did was to head out behind the house where I knew Anthony had his telescope set up. This time of year it's focused on the top of an old snag about a hundred yard from the house in a grove of firs. Looking through the eyepiece, I could see three fluffy grey humps. One hump shook itself and turned into the sunlight that was just coming up over the hills to the east. Piercing golden eyes lit up, and when I whooped the other two humps turned and I was the one who was being watched.

I tore myself away from the three great horned owlets when I heard Carol starting up the gator to head over to the shed—actually a large new processing barn for the corn, beans and berries that are grown on the farm—to help grind 120 pounds of flint corn needed for the week's deliveries to some of Portland's best restaurants. Carol escorted me to the back room of the shed and introduced me to my companion for the day, a small corn mill (top video and left) that, shaking and rattling, has ground their signature Roy's Calais Flint cornmeal for the past several years.

If you've ever heard the words "artisan" or "slow food" or gone to the farmers' market and wondered how a farmer could charge several dollars for a one-pound bag of organic corn meal, I have your answer. Let's not go into the several years it takes to develop the perfect corn for your climate that grows well, is resistant to local pests and yes, tastes good, too. The year before planting, thousands of that season's harvest are sorted to find just the right kernels to use for seed for the next season's crop. When the next spring arrives, it's time to prepare the fields, plant the kernels and make sure the plants survive to maturity. In late summer the corn is harvested, the stalks are stripped, the cobs are dried for several months and then sorted to find the very best ones to grind into cornmeal.

Those selected cobs are bagged and stored until it's time to grind the corn, which is where I entered the picture. Carol had put the cobs through a hand-cranked cast iron corn sheller that removed the dried kernels, then run them through a cleaner that removed the silks and other debris from the shelling process. The crates of shelled kernels were stacked next to my grinder friend, and it would be my job to turn the machine on, fill the hopper with kernels and watch as they dribbled down through the grinder, each hopper-full filling the bucket at the bottom with around 10 pounds of cornmeal.

After the bucket was filled and I'd set it up for the next batch—it took about 20 minutes or so to run the full hopper through the grinder—I turned on the machine and then headed into the main room with the bucket of cornmeal. Each batch of the ground meal had to be hand-sieved through a mesh-bottomed frame with handles at each end, which meant dumping about three pounds at a time into the sieve and shaking it into a tub until all the meal had filtered out, leaving a pile of larger corn bits and husks from the kernels.

The sieved cornmeal was still slightly warm from the grinding, and the smell of the freshly ground corn was like fresh tortillas or a warm pot of polenta—distilled comfort. After each bucket had been sieved, I scooped the meal into a tub to weigh it out into five-pound portions that I bagged and labeled. Then it was time to run back to the grinder for the next bucket, take it out of the grinder, put in a fresh bucket and refill the hopper. Did I mention that this had to be done for 120 pounds? Right.

By mid-afternoon, having paused for a lunch on the patio of lamby-licious shawarma wraps from Izgara in nearby Forest Grove, the crates were filled with bulging bags of cornmeal ready for delivery. Baptized from head to toe in cornmeal dust, I drove back to town with a new appreciation for what it took to produce those little one-pound bags of cornmeal waiting for me on my next trip to the market.

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