When Life Hands You Fresh Cornmeal...
by Rosie DeQuattro
If you had to design a museum exhibit to depict an 18th-century New England village, I bet you’d come up with something like Longfellow’s Wayside Inn in Sudbury. The centerpiece of this 122-acre “New England World,” if you will, is the inn itself established in 1716.
Chances are you’ve been there, tried the Yankee Pot Roast and the Indian Pudding, visited the gift “shoppe,” seen the giant tour buses lined up in the parking lot and the groups of field-tripping fourth and fifth graders; stopped once or twice to gawk at a wedding in progress at the white-steepled Martha Mary Chapel; or found your way to the Redstone School house immortalized in Sarah Josepha Hale’s 1830 poem, “Mary Had a Little Lamb;” and probably even stood for pictures outside the crayon-red water wheel at the Old Grist Mill.
But did you know that that picturesque little mill by the pond is more than just a pretty face? It’s a real, working, all-water-powered mill that grinds several hundred pounds a week of 100 percent organic whole wheat and corn, available for purchase (try the corn meal and make some muffins—a recipe is on the bag). What’s even more intriguing: There’s a full-time miller on-site.
We caught up with the garrulous miller, Richard Gnatowski, on a cold October afternoon. He promised us a demo of the mill operations. He was dressed in long socks and woolen knee britches, vest and cap. Besides being the inn’s miller he is also the costumed interpreter giving visitors tours of the mill while explaining the history of milling grain.
“The mill was built in 1929 as a museum to look like a late-18thcentury merchant mill,” Gnatowski said while heaving 50 pound bags of whole wheat off a truck, all the while chatting up the truck’s driver. He stacked the bags, all 2 tons of them, on wooden pallets on the floor.
The bags read USDA Certified Organic Whole Wheat.
The grain comes from the Northern Plains, the Dakotas and Canada. Although it’s difficult to source locally grown grain, someday soon it may be available—locally milled and locally grown. With the increased demand from bakers and consumers for organic grain, the University of Vermont recently launched a research project to be conducted over the next 3 years on how to increase local wheat production. The aim is to increase farmers’ ability to produce a profitable, sustainable wheat crop. Knowing that farmers in New England don’t have the land base to compete on the commodity scale, the project will study wheat planting, harvesting, diseases, weed incidence and yield. Stay tuned.
Finally, with energy to spare, he turned his attention to our demonstration. Disappearing for a moment (off to open the floodgates?), he reappeared when suddenly the chilly old mill erupted into sound and motion. From a water source in Marlborough, water flowed into the pond above the mill, sluiced through a canal that Gnatowski clears regularly of algae and flotsam, and dumped into the buckets of the bright red water wheel.
As the buckets filled, the wheel began to turn—and not all that slowly either. The power of the turning water wheel started up the millstones and all around there was thrumming and creaking and clacking. Corn began siphoning through the millstones and sifting down one channel and up another to the second-floor screening room. It traveled back down another chute and fell like dry sand, softly shhhhhhhh-shing into a wooden barrel—an orchestra of sound with the miller as the mad conductor. The whole thing, from corn to meal, took just seconds. Gnatowski said if the conditions are right, “if there’s enough water power, grain supply and the stones are properly dressed [sharpened] and balanced, 12 tons of flour in 24 hours is possible with these quartzite stones.”
Two- and 5-pound bags of 100 percent organic, locally milled corn and whole wheat from the Wayside Grist Mill are sold in the mill and at the Wayside Inn gift shop.
Longfellow’s Wayside Inn: Boston Post Road, Sudbury; 978-443-1776 or 800-339-1776; firstname.lastname@example.org.
Rosie DeQuattro is a freelance writer and frequent contributor to Edible Boston. You can read her other food-related stories on her blog, “Food and Wine with a Story,” at rosiedequattro.com.