52 Loaves: One Man's Relentless Pursuit of Truth, Meaning, and a Perfect Crust
By William Alexander
Hardcover, 352 pages
List price: $23.95
"Wheat-eater, wheat-eater, wheat-eater, wheat!"
I glanced at the numbers on the clock radio, glowing dimly in the dawn -- 5:30 -- pulled the pillow over my head, and tried to go back to sleep.
"Tell that damn bird to pipe down," I moaned, then bolted upright. Today was harvest day!
The previous October, Anne and I had planted four beds of winter wheat. For nine long months I had waited for this day, watching over my crop like a nervous mother-to-be, protecting it against the neighbor's cats, shooing away grasshoppers, and deterring greedy crows as it grew to maturity, turning from grassy green to bread-crust gold.
Three weeks ago, startling in its suddenness, it had almost magically become recognizable wheat. It was a touching gesture, the swollen, almost voluptuous seed head bending over to face the very earth it sprang from, bowing as if offering its head in sacrifice to its master, so that others might gain nourishment -- and life.
I was only too happy to oblige. First I had to be sure it was ripe. I brought a seed head over to Erle Zuill, a local 75-year-old farmer, for a look. The very first thing out of his mouth made my blood run cold.
"Are you sure this is wheat? It looks more like barley. I've never seen threads like this on wheat."
Oh my God! What had I done? My mind started racing. I was sure the packet said wheat -- wasn't I? -- but the seed company could've made a packing error.
"Of course, the last time I harvested wheat was fifty years ago," Erle added.
I relaxed a bit as he rubbed his aged, coarse farmer's hands together vigorously, opened them, and blew. The chaff drifted away with his breath, leaving a small palmful of wheat berries, a little smaller than popcorn kernels, behind.
"It's ripe for sure."
That's what I was waiting to hear.
Harvesting grain, the act that turned homosapiens from nomadic hunters and gatherers to village, then town, and, finally city dwellers. Once our ancestors had learned to cultivate grain some ten thousand years ago, they could put down their own roots and stay in one place. And create pottery. And houses. And societies and schools and arts and writing and buildings. Thus in a sense, the grain I was about to harvest was a direct and necessary antecedent to the magnificent Empire State Building sixty miles to the south!
As my knowledge of harvesting was based in whole on the same Flemish art that had filled my head when I planted the wheat, I had a similarly romantic vision of how the process would go. Stooped over, grabbing handfuls of wheat in my left hand, I'd swing the curved sickle in a graceful arc with my right, cleanly cutting the stalks off a few inches above the earth. The Good Wife would follow behind, gathering the wheat into sheaves, tying them and laying them in the field, where the Happy Children, laughing, and making a game of the work, would gather them up and bring them to the barn.
One thing I got right: me stooped over. But with a tool no peasant in a Flemish woodcut would've been caught dead with. After taking a few useless swings with my old, rusty scythe (essentially a sickle on a long pole), I went into the basement and emerged with my not-quite-as-rusty hedge shears.
Anne (playing the Good Wife) and I moved down each row with our hedge shears, Anne gathering handfuls of stalks, which I snipped off a few inches above the ground, very much aware that I was harvesting wheat more in the style of a twenty-first-century Mexican landscaper than a fifteenth-century Flemish peasant but, after all, it was the twenty-first century. The whole operation took less than half an hour, and when we were done, we'd filled two large garden carts with wheat.
With the wheat stalks all laid out in the same direction, it was time to thresh. The word is closely related to thrash for good reason. Threshing consists basically of beating the hell out of the wheat until the berries are battered loose from the seed heads that encase and protect them. With some ten thousand years between the first cultivation of grain and the 1834 invention of the combine, mankind has, as you might expect, come up with a number of ways to accomplish this. Pliny the Elder, writing around 77 A.D., described three methods in favor at the time: beating with a flail; using a crushing stone or board; and spreading the wheat out on a floor to be trampled by a train of oxen.
I had lent out my oxen for the weekend and didn't own a flail -- two heavy sticks connected by a short chain -- which looks like something you'd find smacking the buttocks of a Member of Parliament in a London S&M den, so I had to improvise, pulling out an old straw broom I'd been saving for the occasion. Anne and I lay a handful of wheat out on a new canvas tarp, and I threshed away.
The result of all my frenetic flailing was a bushel of dented wheat. Not a single berry emerged.
"Hit harder!" Anne urged, like a high school cheerleader rooting for her favorite (I hoped) linebacker. Cheered on by Pom-Pom Girl, I hit harder. A few strands of the broom flew off. I hit harder and still harder until, winded, I sat back on the tarp to catch my breath. A few lonely kernels of grain lay scattered among the debris. It was going to take something firmer than a broom to coax this stuff out.
"How about the back of a shovel?" Anne suggested.
That seemed a bit rough, but I didn't have a better idea, so I flailed away at the wheat with a shovel for a few minutes. Sure enough, the canvas soon became littered with popcorn-sized kernels of wheat. After a bit of this, I concluded, "What's the point of all this flailing if we have to strip each seed head by hand anyway?" I went down to the workshop and returned with the wooden mallet I use on my woodworking chisels. That was the ticket! Some wheat remained behind, but not nearly as much, and many heads were totally clean.
Now we were cooking. The tarp gradually filled with grain and chaff, along with broken pieces of straw. Occasionally we stopped to shovel the wheat and chaff into a large bucket over which I'd placed a homemade sieve. Running our hands in the wheat and chaff along the screen, we were rewarded by the musical sound of grain tickling into the bucket.
After six hours, weary, sore, and sunburned, we had threshed our little crop of wheat, and I understood why the Latin word for the threshing board is tribulum, which has the same origin as tribulation. This was tribulation if I'd ever seen it. Thank goodness for the combine, which cuts, threshes, and cleans the wheat all at once, right in the field.
Our bucket of wheat and chaff was mainly (by volume, at least) chaff, and we still faced the job of winnowing, that often-cited act of "separating the wheat from the chaff." But that would have to wait for another day. It was evening, and I needed a hot shower and a cold drink. Anne had one request, as she peeled off her gloves and fell back onto the grass, exhausted.
"Promise me you won't grow cotton next summer."
Excerpted from 52 Loaves: One Man's Relentless Pursuit of Truth, Meaning, and a Perfect Crust by William Alexander. Copyright 2010 by William Alexander. Excerpted by permission of Algonquin Books.