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Cas City Forum Hall & CAS-L  |  Special Interests - Groups & Societies  |  Cosie's Corner & Feed Bag (Moderator: Delmonico)  |  Topic: History of Wheat in the United States 0 Members and 1 Guest are viewing this topic. « previous next »
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Author Topic: History of Wheat in the United States  (Read 456 times)
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« on: March 22, 2016, 01:12:29 pm »

Wheat is another one of our foods that is often misunderstood from the view of historical cooking, wheat flour being one of the staples in any of our camp kitchens, most of the flour we buy today is very similar to the period product, but not exactly the same and the type used in the time period changed during the 19th century and could differ to a certain extent due to region, I will cover these and explain how they affect us and our camp cooking.

First we need to know exactly what we are dealing with when we say wheat, since there are several species that use this common name and the species we use today in most cases is really a relative newcomer to food crops. Wheat of course is a grain and all grains are in the grass family (Poacae) wheat being of the genus Triticum. Like most of our old world grain crops,(wheat, rye, barley and oats) wheat had it’s origins in north west Asia, most likely in the area known as the Fertile Crescent. The grain crops we call wheat has perhaps the most complicated genetics of any crop, some being dipoid, some tetrapoid or hexaploid (meaning two, four or six chromosomes) I mention this for interest, but it goes beyond the scope here. Many species still exist as limited crops in some places, the one called spelt (Triticum spelta) making a limited comeback with the health food industry, but today only two wheat species have any importance as food crops and one is limited. For our discussion we’ll leave these behind because they have no importance in 19th century America. (For those interested in genetics it is a stable tetrapoid hybrid).
We’ll start with what is called Durum wheat or Macaroni wheat (Triticum durum) as the name implies it is the wheat type used to make macaroni (in period context macaroni can mean any pasta) as well as most hot cereals such as cream of wheat, Couscous, bulghur wheat or similar hot cereal dishes. The flour made from durum used for pasta is called semolina. The kernel of durum is hard, has a lot of protein although it is low in gluten. In fact it is the hardest and highest protein wheat type, and dates to around 7000 BC as a food crop.

Although attempts were made to grow durum wheat in this country from the early Colonial era (Thomas Jefferson spent a lot of time and money trying) there was little success till the 1890s in North Dakota and even today North Dakota and eastern Montana grow the majority grown in this country, most pasta was imported to this country from Italy till around 1900, making it more of a expensive luxury food.

This brings us to the species of wheat we are most familiar with Common Wheat or as it’s sometimes called Bread Wheat (Triticum aestivum) a stable hexaploid hybrid. This type of wheat starts to show up in archeological records around 1500 BC in the Middle East, it is most likely a accidental hybrid between Durum Wheat and a wild grass known as Tausch’s Goatgrass, (Aregilops tauschii) a wild grass type that produces a medium sized edible kernel. Today, 95% of the wheat grown is one of the sub-species/cultivars of this type and is one of the world’s most important food crops.

Common wheat is further divided up into different types, types with red colored bran are called red wheat, and lighter colors are white types. Those with a protein are contents of 10% to 14% are called hard types, soft types have less than 10%, and we will get how this affects our baking later. The other difference is some wheat is what they call spring wheat, meaning it is planted in the spring and harvested in the fall, they other type is winter wheat, these types are planted in the fall, they sprout and grow several inches tall then go dormant over winter and mature when the weather warms to be harvested in the late spring/early summer, winter varieties need the cold freezing weather to mature properly, therefore they are not suitable for warmer climates.
Wheat was brought into America through two colonial routes, the earliest being varieties of soft white spring wheat brought in through Mexico by the Spanish, this was the common wheat of the Spanish colonies and spread into what is now Texas, New Mexico and California and is still a common type grown in Oregon, Washington, New Mexico as well as Mexico. The old original cultivar brought in is known called Sonora Wheat and improved strains are still grown today.

Wheat seed brought into the East Coast area of what would become the United States by the colonists from England, this was soft, red spring wheat called Purple Straw Wheat due to the straw having a slight purplish cast. Strains of this type were the predominant wheat grown in the farming region of the United States, which was predominately east of the Missouri River till just before the Civil War. This strain of wheat did not do well in the New England area and crop failures were common, part of the problem the earth was in a cooling cycle from the late Medieval period (around 1250) to around 1850, called the Little Ice Age, the winters were colder, summers shorter and wetter, this caused many to grow rye for their breadstuffs because it does better in a cooler damper climate than the strains of wheat grown in America at the time. (This is the same reason many areas of northern Europe also depended more on rye.) Today the majority of the wheat grown east of the Missouri is still soft red winter wheat of improved strains.

A big change was coming in wheat growing as the Civil War drew near, in the mid 1850’s a strain of wheat made its way into the United States from Ontario Canada, a strain that was discovered as a single stand (as the story goes) in some seed, sent from Scotland, the original seed originating in the Ukraine. This cultivar was known as Red Fife and was (still around and making a comeback) a hard red spring wheat that is hardier than the Purple Straw strains, allowing wheat growing to move into Wisconsin, Minnesota and the Dakota Territory as well as onto the Canadian Prairies. Red Fife could also be planted as a winter wheat in areas with mild winters with enough moisture to keep it from drying out.

The next big step in wheat growing would come a few years after the war, members of a group known as Germans from Russia or Volga Deutsche were immigrating to the Great Plains, settling mostly in Kansas, Nebraska and the Dakota Territory an area with a similar climate to the lower Volga River region they had moved into a little over a 100 years before. The immigration of this Mennonite group would have a big affect of the wheat growing industry in the United States; this would come in the form of a new type of wheat, called Turkey Red a hard red winter wheat, a type of wheat very suitable to the cold winters and hot dry summers of the Great Plains. Within 20 or so years this became the dominate wheat grown on the Great plains south of the Platte River and continued to be till just before WWII when better cultivars were developed.

There were other cultivars of wheat used in small amounts, but these are the ones that were met with success, these were crossed with other strains of wheat in the 20th century for improved yield, hardiness plus pest and disease control and are grown in very limited amounts today.

Besides new lands being opened up for wheat production, compete with wheat strains suitable for them, other changes were happening, that allowed more production using less time and labor. The first of these major improvements came in 1701 when an English agronomist named Jethro Tull (Yes the 70’s English Rock Band was named after him) patented a horse drawn grain drill, a device that evenly puts the seed in the ground at the right depth and covers it. This made the wheat crop even across the field, increasing production by plants not being the sparse or over crowded and less seed wasted to birds and other small animals by it lying on the ground. The evenness also made harvesting easier although before the end of this century it was still harvested with a scythe and then the scythe and cradle, harvest was still by hand cutting and the stalks had to be tied by hand into what is called sheaves, which are stacked to fully dry and then are threshed to remove the grain from the hull.

For almost another hundred years the shocked grain had to be taken to a threshing floor and beaten with flails, then winnowed to remove the hull. Late in the century threshers that removed the hull and the straw leaving clean grain were invented, these were horse powered, large ones powered by steam traction engines that could be moved from farm to farm became popular and practical in the 1880’s, increasing the amount of wheat that could be threshed in a day, the window to harvest and thresh, is very small or heavy grain loss occurs.

A big step forward was the horse drawn reaper, this moving platform cut the grain and only required two men, on that drove the horses and the other one who bound the shocks, this allowed 2 men and 2 horses to do the work of a large crew with scythe and cradles. These were invented in the 1830’s and a patent dispute would carry on for years between Obed Hussey and Cyrus McCormick while farmers bought the machine of their choice.

A reaper/binder that automatically tied the shocks was patented in 1872 that cut and bound the shocks by machine, the smaller ones could now be operated by one person and the larger ones took two, but took a much wider swath than before allowing more acreage to be harvested in less time with less labor.

The combine harvester dates back to the 1860’s, although the horse power to work it was great, this type of harvester would seldom be seen till after WWII when lighter, more efficient internal combustion engines were developed, at first most were small and were attached to tractors with a separate power unit to run the threshing part, but these evolved into one unit as we commonly see today.

The introduction of viable strains of the hard wheat’s did cause some problems for a few years; milling was still done by the burr stone method aka “stone ground.” This process does not lend itself well to grinding the hard types of wheat; with out going into the details, hard wheat was discounted on the market till around 1880 when the continuous roller mill process was brought from Central Europe. This made milling the hard wheat into flour an easy process and brought the price of hard wheat up on par with the soft varieties.

The roller mills brought in the concept of the large milling centers, the roller mill process made larger centralized mills possible and the improved transportation made it easier and cheaper to get grain to these centers. The main large centers in the late 19th and early 20th century were Kansas City, Dallas, Seattle , San Francisco, Buffalo and Minneapolis, although there was still milling on smaller scale in many places, most often grinding local grain for the local market.

So we have some background in place on the way the wheat was grown, harvested, milled and we know what types of wheat was grown, so how does that affect us as a whole as far as doing living history?

Once again it comes down to how accurate we want to be or even can be in our supplies, how do we know what flour to chose and why? First we want to decide what we are going to make, if we are going to make biscuits, pies and cakes, then a softer flour is what is needed, if we are going to make yeast type breads a harder flour is needed, (this was often termed weak or strong flour with variations and is still graded that way in Great Britain). At first glance this looks to be easy, if you are doing pre-1880’s just run down to the local health food store or even most grocery stores and get some of that stone ground flour they all sell, that would be what we want, wouldn’t it? Well yes and no, for most use the all purpose flour you most likely have been using is going to be a lot closer to what you want, buy the un-bleached and you can’t do better for all around use, it’s the quality of the flour you want, not how it got that way, I know this is going to shock some, but modern stone ground flour is almost a scam, except the industry is giving people what they think they want.

To start with most “stone ground” has made maybe a pass on a stone roller, but never fear, that stone passes nothing magic onto the flour, there are few small mills that do a true stone ground, but it really has no advantage other than being more costly. (Do keep this from the general population; I have as well as likely most of us, a soft spot for the little guy who does things the old way.) The real problem with the modern “stone ground flour” is it is ground too coarse; some where in modern times the idea has surfaced that stone ground flour needs to be a product that is almost as coarse as meal. (Also a bad reference because much period corn meal was finer ground than today.) But that is what the general public that consumes it wants, so that is what they get. But we can do better to get closer to period foods if we understand the true nature of the flour at the time.

To understand this first we need to know that what we want to end up with in almost all cases (with a slight exception I will explain later) is plain old white flour, we don’t care that a lot is lost tossing the germ and the bran, there are a couple valid reasons for this though, the first is very important, the oils in the bran and germ will turn rancid fairly quickly, if we want our flour to keep well and taste good we have to keep it from spoiling and white flour is what we need. Also the bran and the germ lessen the strength of the gluten as anyone who makes whole wheat bread knows, with most whole wheat flour you either have to make heavier loafs or put at least part white flour in it, add that to the fact for a good part of the time period we are dealing with soft flour with a lower gluten content than most of us are used to and to make good bread with the lesser quality yeasts (often home made type or from the beer at the local brewery) of the time, we need all the help we can get.

To make this easier to understand lets say we are small farmers before the war, location isn’t that important. It’s fall, we have our wheat harvested, we may have sold some if there is a local market, but we are keeping part of it for our own use. We have loaded up and are taking some of it to the local mill lets say enough to make us flour for a couple months, plus some extra, that’s how we pay the miller.

Again with out going into great detail on the process itself, (so this doesn’t become a small book, we now have our sacks of product, 4 kinds of it in fact. Let’s start with the first product, fine white (or rather slightly yellow since its un-bleached) flour we call that patent flour, from the first grinding, separating and sifting, and to buy it from the miller, it brings the highest price, it is low in gluten though, this is best suited to pies, cakes and biscuits. The second type is called clear flour; it is fine also from the sifting, it has more gluten in it and is our bread flour and noodle flour. The next is what will look a lot like our modern stone ground whole wheat flour and it is called the middlings, on our farm we use it for animal feed, poor people buy it because it’s cheap, although it makes very heavy bread and is subject to turning rancid, other farmers give it to the hired help/slaves, depending on the circumstances. This contains some flour and some bran. The other bags contain what is called the shorts, this is the germ and the majority of the bran, with some flour, uses are similar to the middlings.

The yield from our milling will give us about 60% flour by weight, about 2/3rds patent and about 1/3rd clear and the other 25% or so will be about half middlings and shorts, most millers charging between 25 and 50% of the product.

So as people doing living history demonstrations what is going to be the best flour for us to use in our demonstrations to at least be fairly correct to the period we demonstrate? Well perhaps the best answer is what you most likely are already using, a modern flour labeled all purpose, although these are not all created equal, we need to look at protein content. There are really 3 types of all purpose flour and although not labeled this way, they are roughly classed as Southern type (7 ½ to 9 ½ percent) National brand (9 ½ to 12%) and Northern type (11-13%). The Southern types are going to be the closest to being exactly right or rather at least till around the time of the Civil War when the harder wheat’s started becoming popular and these really became big in the 1880’s and beyond.

Although the package will only give you grams of protein per serving in many cases (1/4 cup) we can get the percent or very close to it by a little simple math, take the grams of protein per ¼ cup serving and multiply it by 4, that will give us of course the grams of protein in a cup which happens to be very close percent of protein which can also vary, plus since the grams will be rounded up, it may be a half percent or so lower.

As an example, the store brand I often use shows 3 grams per serving so that means it’s around 11 ½ to 12% protein, that tells us it’s a good flour to use for yeast breads, it may be a bit to strong for biscuits and pie crust, but by avoiding working it when mixing it will still do ok, but kneading it will make either tougher than desired. It is also to strong of a flour to be totally correct till into the 1880’s, although we are dealing with a subject beyond most historical cooking demonstrations. The lower protein all purposes will do fine for pies, cakes, biscuits and will do fine with yeast breads, one will have to work it more through kneading to get the glutens fully developed to make a good light bread but it will work fine, just takes a bit more effort.

The other big difference you will run into is that most of the flour used today is bleached and till around the end of the 19th century it was un-bleached, so how does that affect our historic cooking, well to be truthful it really don’t make as much difference as many would think, see despite what we are told, bleaching of flour was first used to keep from having to age flour before use, with out aging which also turns the flour much whiter, it allows one to develop the gluten to be when working the flour, this process according to several sources I have looked at says a minimum of 3 weeks to as much as 3-4 months before the flour has aged to where it works well, the bleaching keeps the flour from having to be stored before use. What I find interesting is going to these different companies web sites I see none that state they age their flour before shipping, which is a point I would mention, or maybe not, it might lead more people to do research, they claim it’s better for you, but is it really and I have a problem with being charged more for less, if they don’t have to bleach it, and they don’t age it, why does it cost more?

Another option that is very useful to many in cook camps is not often thought of by many is a product called self-rising-flour, this is flour that already has the baking powder and salt in it, for those not doing yeast breads it is a very handy product and it dates to the 1850’s, a lot of the flour sold by trading posts, Civil War sutlers was of this type, by adding water only and making a dough, one could make a usable if not great biscuit, more water to make a batter and a usable pancake can be made, of course shortening and/or milk will make either better. This does give a traveler and easy way to come up with breadstuffs as long as one has the self-rising flour and water as well as a way to cook it.

Besides the baking powder already being in the flour, another advantage of self-rising flour is that is in most cases has a lower protein content than the same brand in an all-purpose flour, this of course means it makes a softer biscuit and flakier pie crust and also means it’s harder to overwork.

I normally just use regular all-purpose flour in camp, then use yeast, baking powder or what other leavening is needed, how ever there is one type demo where I find it handy, this is the demos I do for school kids for a Living History day. In these demonstrations typically I’m set up as one station the kids go to, I have each group 20-25 minutes and they have the rest of the half hour to go to the next station, this goes on from about 9 am to around 2 pm to 3 pm, this just makes keeping biscuit dough ready a lot easier.

One other type white flour can be bought in most stores, and that is what is called cake flour, a very soft type of flour that contains about 7 ½% to 8 1/2 % protein, this came out in the late 1890’s to make cake baking easier, this made softer cakes than even the softer southern flour and the hard flours taking over the market made this a needed item although some old recipes will call for cornstarch to be added in different amounts to soften the flour.

I will cover one other type of wheat flour before I finish, this one can be confusing because information is a bit vague, and this is whole wheat or graham flour, some sources say graham flour was unbolted (unsifted) whole wheat flour, other sources say it had the endosperm (the white starch part ground fine and the bran and outer layer ground coarse and mixed, some sources though say it is any whole wheat flour. After years of research I think in a way we are dealing with apples and oranges here, in the strict terms I am guessing that the flour Sylvester Graham promoted for his vegetarian diet in the 1840’s was an unbolted whole wheat flour, but like the Graham cracker it changed and Graham flour became a popular catch word for any whole wheat flour, even if the germ was removed in the grinding process, the oils in the germ cause the flour to become rancid in a short time. The followers of Graham were never a large group, how ever in contemporary post Civil War Cook Books you find recipes for Graham gems (muffins) and breads, this is just a guess but I would say this is degermed whole wheat flour since some recipes call for adding wheat germ.

Today of course when buying whole wheat flours we have two main choices, on is go the health food stores and buy their bulk whole wheat flours, some which is ground with the germ, most of these however are the coarse “stone ground” and really don’t as I mentioned, duplicate the flours of the time. The other is our main stream grocery stores who also sell mostly the so called stone ground flours, so we gain little other than a cheaper price.

How ever in recent years there has been another option available, there are several companies selling roller mill (fine ground) whole wheat flours made from the hard red spring wheat strains. These have very high gluten content and make very nice whole wheat bread that rises fluffy with out using part white flour. These I have found are the best solution to making whole wheat bread and would duplicate the whole wheat flours of the time being made in the milling centers close to the northern plains in the late 19th century such as Minneapolis, most wheat from the Dakotas and eastern Montana being shipped there by rail.
Today we also have another type of whole wheat; this is made from hard white spring wheat, this is a recent development and is intended to make good whole wheat bread flour (yeast type) that does not have the color and nutty taste of red whole wheat, this is not historical flour.

In conclusion I am going to say there is not one type of flour can be used for all baking in the second half of the 19th century, one needs to take into account the exact time period and just as important, the region, cost of shipping made most flour used produced in the local area, although by the 1870’s the rail system helped this.

In the South, lower gluten flour would be best; the reason quick breads such as biscuits were the main stay, Midwest a common middle range all-purpose will be close as well as the North East due to better rail systems allowing wheat to be shipped from the Midwest. Further west on the plains the mid-range all-purpose will be fairly close and in the northern part a higher gluten Northern type would be more correct, West Coast across the Rockies, the soft types would be more common in the south and the hard more common in the northern part.

With all that information I will say this, for most of our baking in our period camps, the common middle range all-purpose will pretty much do what we want, if making quick breads such as biscuits, just stir the flour, don’t knead it, this will keep it soft for that type of bread stuff. For yeast breads, just get in and work it, kneading it well, developing the glutens so the dough holds up with the slow rising of the yeast.

How ever if you are not getting the results you want, go to a higher or lower gluten flour for the type of baking you are doing and see if this does not help, biscuits to tough, go lower, yeast bread don’t rise fluffy then try a higher one.

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Mongrel Historian

Always get the water for the coffee upstream from the herd.

Ab Ovo Usque ad Mala

The time has passed so quick, the years all run together now.
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