Wednesday, August 3, 2016

Grinding Away

Bread is the staff of life or at least an important element of meals be it crackers, biscuits, cornbread, johnny cake, fritters, flatbread, dumplings, shells or sliced - take your pick. We have both leavened and unleavened depending on the availability of an agent or according to fashion, custom, or ethnic cooking. The major ingredient of our daily bread is some type of meal or flour.
   An old way of referring to a person who was a heavy eater was to call him a "trencher." This term originated in the Middle Ages when few bowls existed - hard crusted bread was hollowed out and filled with stew. These then served as bowls or trenchers. The stew was speared with a knife, juices soaked into the bread and was eaten last to finish the meal. Everyone carried their own knife to capture chunks of meat and vegetables; forks and spoons did not come into existence until the time of Elizabeth I of England.
   Available seeds, nuts, and grains were ground into coarse meal by early peoples by hand, then mixed with water until a ball formed that could be shaped. It was then baked in or near an open fire, on a water soaked slab of bark, or on a heated flat stone.
   Grinding was done by hand. I have a palm size stone I picked up in a museum gift shop. It was in with some rocks, but when I lifted it from from the box it fit my hand perfectly with a small place for my thumb. Worn smooth by time and use I was holding a very crude, but efficient grinding stone whose owner was right handed.
   How it came to be unidentified and pitched into a box for sale I don't know, but I purchased it. It sits on a shelf above my desk, the single Clovis people's artifact I own. From time to time I pick it up and wonder about the life of someone who spent hours grinding dried seeds, nut meats, or acorns into meal for making bread.
   Milling may have been the first step our ancestors took toward industrialization when people move from a gathering to an agrarian society. Early mills were two heavy disk shaped stones. The harvested grains were placed between them. They were powered by animals or humans who walked in a circle (round & round) to grind seeds into rough powder. The entrance drive into Levi Jackson State Park in Kentucky is lined with early mill stones.
   Much later people learned to use the force of falling water to turn waterwheels which moved wooden gears to lift and lower the stones. Every hamlet had a milling establishment as "shanks mare" (walking) was the major mode of travel. When a stream wasn't deep enough or have a constant flow of water to turn the wheel small dams were built across the stream. Today across the country you can find remnants of these early dams along the banks or across a stream though the mill house is long gone: a victim of the ravages of time and weather.
   Some have been restored as a working mills and are tourist attractions. A few never went out of business when flour and corn meal for human consumption became readily available in grocery stores and presently enjoy a thriving sales to a new generation who search for natural foods.
   Many survived as feed mills for a while, where farmers who grew their own corn for winter feed took their produce to be ground for their chickens and other livestock. We took our corn to Southern States to be milled for this purpose so by the 1970s and 80s even the feed mills were disappearing to the larger more efficient concerns powered by electricity.
   The photo above is of a mill house in Tennessee off Highway 127 near the home of Sgt. York. The dark across the bottom is the dam to operate the pump under the structure. Winter light gives the photo the aspect of a painting, but it was taken with an early digital Sony that uses a hard floppy disk.  

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