My Kingdom for a Cracker!

After 10 days of eating within 10 miles, I was ready to do just about anything for food made from grains.
My kingdom for a cracker, photo by Vicki Robin

Making a pancake: (1) Wheat heads ready for "threshing." (2) From wheat to mixer to colander to flour. (3) One cup of ground wheat, fresh from the coffee grinder. (4) Pancakes, served with butter and mint tea.

Photos by Vicki Robin

When Tricia Beckner asked me to eat only what she can produce on her CSA farm-ette for a month, just to see what happens, I was game. As you’ll see, we’ve widened the circle a little to include food produced 10 miles from my home on Whidbey Island, with exceptions made for 4 essentials: oil, salt (+5 other spices), caffeine, and lemons (until I can find local apple cider vinegar).

My friends Eric and Britt have long dreamed of creating a sustainability research and education center. Two years ago we almost bought a farm together, but I ended up in my house in town and they bought 3 1/2 acres in the Maxwelton Valley. In no time at all they had fruit trees, gardens, ducks, chickens … and a very small wheat patch (couldn’t call those 5 rows a field).

I visited them today and Eric let me cut some of the wheat, as it was beginning to go moldy after a recent rain. He had no desire to do anything with it. Sort of a, “Here, you take it. Good luck.”

I filled a recycled shopping bag with dirty wheat stalks and grain heads, and headed home determined to not go to bed until I’d had a cracker. Or a pancake.

I’ve been pretty deprived of crackers, toast, cookies, and chips for the last 10 days, so I filled a recycled shopping bag with dirty wheat stalks and grain heads and headed home, determined not to go to bed until I’d had a cracker. Or a pancake.

I wish you could have been here. To thresh the wheat, I put it in a wide mouth jar and plunged my hand mixer down in it, breaking up the wheat heads and spinning off some of the chaff. Then I dumped it into a colander and broke up more by grinding it into the colander holes with a rubber ball. Okay, got some wheat berries and lots of chaff. Now what?

Aha! the hair dryer! I took the colander outside with my hairdryer tugging at its cord. A few short blasts and the chaff had flown up while the berries stayed mostly in ... and I had a cup of wheat—plus a porch (and hair) full of fluff.

To turn my berries into flour, I got out my handy dandy coffee grinder—and indeed, when I lifted the lid there was something that looked like what comes so easily out of the bulk bins at the market.

Of course, there is no baking soda in my ten miles, much less baking powder. But salt and oil are already on my “exotics” list, so I mixed flour, honey, salt, water and oil, and eventually something came out of the pan that looked like some ancient bread the Hebrews took with them when they fled Egypt.

I slathered the pancakes with my hand-churned butter and every bite was heaven. All ten of them.

But I did it! By 9 PM (I started at 7.30) I had 4 little pancakes. I slathered them (okay, dotted them) with my hand-churned butter and every bite was heaven. All ten of them.

How much we take the basics for granted. I laughed my head off watching myself do my little science experiment using household gadgets, but behind it all, I was deeply humbled. 

Whidbey Island, photo by Jay WilsonMore from Vicki's blog: What my neighbors and I learned when we sat down to figure out what food resources we have at hand, and how to fill in the gaps.

I recalled those treks I’ve done in the non-industrialized world. In Thailand, I watched girls and women use a foot pedal to run a grain pounder to accomplish what I’d done in my kitchen lab: separate wheat from chaff. “How,” I wondered at that time, “could they spend their whole day doing that?” It was repetitive. Boring. Of course, it was my terrified Western ego reacting, imagining being starved of stimulation and freedom. More scenes came: horse-drawn threshers, women grinding wheat berries for bread. All of them carry with them this perfume of—tell the truth, Vicki—superiority. Or at least relief that I get to spend my days as I will.

Pancakes. Crackers. Cookies. Bread. Everything that enters our mouths is the product of other people planting and threshing and grinding—not to speak of those entrepreneurial middlemen and women who try for livelihoods by bagging and transporting and baking and packaging and delivering and pricing and ringing up, so that those grains that begin in Iowa or Russia can give me a little crunch on an afternoon break from writing.

I may just—like Eric—decide that the rest of that bag of wheat isn’t worth the work. Tonight's effort to turn wheat into crackers, though, has taught me one more lesson about how much work goes into feeding us.


  • from Vicki's blog about her 10-mile diet.
  • : Photo essay:: Meet today’s young farmers.
  • : How a Community Food System Works
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