Stephen Jones has a question for America: “Why is our bread so damn white?”
It’s a question with a host of answers. White flour tastes sweeter. It’s predictable, and easy to work with. It’s efficient. It’s stable. And all of this is reinforced by habit.
But Jones, a professor at Washington State University who runs a research program called The Bread Lab, doesn’t find any of those answers satisfying.* Instead, he’s breeding new varieties of wheat, and pushing consumers to expect more of their loaves—more nutrition, more flavor, and more variety. He spoke on Tuesday at the Aspen Ideas Festival, which is co-hosted by the Aspen Institute and The Atlantic, perched on the edge of the stage, his legs dangling below, with a soft voice and an endearing grin.
Humans have been baking grain into breads for 30,000 years. For the last couple of millennia, some have been sifting the flour, making it whiter. “We’ve taken something that’s so beautiful and so pretty—that wheat kernel—we’re going to take 30 percent of it away, and feed it to hogs” or find other ways to dispose of it, Jones said.
The quest for pure, white bread took on added cultural meaning at the end of the 19th century as nativists tried to distinguish American food from the culinary traditions of immigrants, and of other societies. “White flour, red meat, and blue blood make the tricolor flag of conquest,” Wood Hutchinson wrote in McClure’s in 1906. “The boasted superior nutritive value of whole grains and cereals is absolutely without foundation,” he went on, praising instead the diet that had “carried the white men half round the world.”
After a decade spent breeding industrial wheat, optimized to produce the white breads that Americans had come to expect. “In my university, we started breeding wheat in 1894. Their target at that point was white flour—how much white flour could the farmer get out of the wheat kernel, how white is it, and how much wasted stuff would be left over.” Jones was ready for a change.
“In 2008, I went to a small research station that we have just North of Seattle in the Skagit Valley,” he recalled. He found farmers growing wheat for their crop rotation, and selling it at a loss. He baked bread from the varieties of wheat they were using, and found one that made a particularly remarkable loaf.
He started breeding new strains of wheat, and found that local farmers embraced them. “The flavors that you get from these are just amazing,” he said. And strains of wheat that thrive in different geographies have brought to bread a sense of distinct terroir, changing wheat from a resource traded on global commodity markets, to a crop that enriches local communities.
Farmers, Jones said, have been eager to embrace the change. “They don’t talk about commodity anything; they talk about food. And we keep the food in the region where it’s produced,” he said. “The locally grown wheat is milled and it’s a regional thing, keeping value in the region where it’s produced.”
Jones’s once-lonely crusade has lately achieved some measure of renown; Chipotle wants to buy one of his regional grains to make tortillas, and he was profiled in 2015 by The New York Times Magazine.
But he’s just getting started. “We used to have at least 16,000 flour mills in this country,” Jones said. Today, though, “we have three basic millers that control at least 80 percent of the production.” He wants to revive wheat as a regional product, from the grain in the field, to local mills, to bakers and consumers.
Jones has previously suggested that the processed, plastic-wrapped products on grocery-store shelves should be labeled “American bread,” because they bear roughly the same relationship to actual bread as orange squares of “American cheese” bear to cheese.
But he’s a welcoming evangelist, willing to meet the members of his audience where they are. “There’s not a product alive that throwing a handful of whole wheat in there isn’t going to make it better.”
Instead of buying processed loaves, Jones encourages people to bake their own bread. He bakes every night, using version of Doris Grant’s recipe—although he mills his own flour, he calculates that the ingredients for a loaf should cost about a dollar. His hands are in the dough for about 10 minutes, including clean-up time.
“Relax, and don’t feel the pressure that we all do that it has to look perfect,” he said. “That’s okay, it’s still going to taste pretty good.”
* This article originally stated that Stephen Jones is the director of the Washington State University-Mount Vernon Northwestern Washington Research and Extension Center. We regret the error.