Attention citizens of Missoula: Culture in the Garden City is officially dead. Forget the symphony, never mind the poetry readings, disabuse yourself of the ranking on the trendy hot spot list. Missoula has been whupped, and right in the kitchen of all places. And by whom? What other Montana town could possibly claim culinary superiority over us, you might ask? Well, lets see, there’s Toston (led almost single-handedly by Elaine Hensley), Townsend (whose Betty Horne and Deena Gobbs know bread like Bo knows baseball), and Livingston (with Claudia Rees’ stunning Golden Treasure Pie, which daringly combines pineapple with cottage cheese). Also deserving mention were Cut Bank, Miles City and Sheridan, all of which distinguished themselves with respectable entries in the new Wheat Montana Cookbook, featuring home-grown wheat recipes gathered from around the state.
How many recipes did Missoula residents contribute to The Wheat Montana Cookbook? One. Calling ourselves the cultural mecca in the mountains, and ordering take out in the same breath. Shame. Thank you Dannon Giles for your Ginger Molasses cookies, which kept us from being shut out completely. You may not be able to get a veggie burger in Havre, but if you knew Lori Henderson, I’ll bet a slice of her Oatmeal Wheat Bread would make you drop those snide comments about Hi-Line cuisine quicker than a hot rivet. Disappointment and shame hang over this valley like the smoke from prescribed burnings and catch in the collective craws of those of us who are proud to live in this fair city. Something must be done.
And don’t point to the proliferation of bakeries around town, with their clientele as rabidly loyal as any European soccer fan, as if this were proof that culture existed. These seemingly innocuous purveyors of sophistication are the sybaritic enablers of our civic problem. Why even buy flour, butter, eggs or wheat at all when you can just hop in the car and run down to the local bakery, throw down three bucks for a loaf and maybe even pick up a little something for the ride back up the Rattlesnake? You might as well live in the suburbs, with that kind of attitude. Come on now, if you’re proud to live out here in the Last Best, you could at least act like a pioneer once in a while. Besides, think of those folks in Worden, Shelby, and Ethridge. If they want good bread or something delicious for dessert they make it themselves, by gum.
As you may have gathered, the recipes in this cookbook are compiled from the Wheat Montana bakery and deli in Three Forks and from recipes sent in by customers and fellow bakers. Although the book is mainly about breads and desserts, I was intrigued by the descriptions of cooked wheat kernels called berries and the various recipes containing them. These little protein-laden, glutinous nuggets need to be soaked overnight and then cooked for about 25 minutes until they are tender, but still chewy—and delicious with milk and sugar as a hot breakfast cereal. Some of the other applications of this cooked wheat include: Wheat Relish (a cousin to bulgur salad), Wheat Pudding, Fried Wheat Snacks (cooks like popcorn, tastes like wheat), Wheat Pilaf, and my all time favorite, Wheat & Meat Casserole.
Depending on your skill level, the cookbook offers a Pancakes & Waffles section, which has some good rudimentary suggestions; Muffins, Biscuits & Quick Breads, where some higher-order kitchen skills come into play and where the nagging question of how cowboys cooked their biscuits is answered succinctly by Elaine Hensley’s entry, titled provocatively enough, Prairie Biscuits: flour, salt, buttermilk, lard, baking powder, soda, plastic bag, and dutch oven. “Form a ball, knead on a floured surface or in hands.”
But it’s the Yeast Bread section that is certainly the culmination of this work, where that fermenting fungi gets into the act and either your loaves rise or they don’t. From bagels to french bread to two plausible cinnamon roll recipes to replica of the Wheat Montana Wheat loaf itself. Between the Miscellaneous section and Desserts there are plenty of cookies, cakes and even a sweet, nutty hardtack. And truly, if you have any kitchen skills, or your pride has been piqued, there are enough delicious challenges in this book to keep you interested and baking all winter long. After all, it’s not about who wins or loses, but about getting off your duff and getting in the game.
Truth be told, I have never been a good baker. It’s not that I don’t try, but most of my past attempts at making bread have resulted in kitchens that looked like Superfund sites with little in the way of an edible product. However, a month ago when my impotence in the bread department began to gnaw at me, I began with some basics. And maybe it is the air, maybe the water, or me that is different, but having mastered the pizza crust in the last month, the arrival of the Wheat Montana Cookbook represented a fortuitous test by ordeal. And surprisingly, when the music was over and the dust had settled, I actually had two fine loaves of wheat bread.
Citizens of Missoula, I exhort you to get into the kitchen make something with your own hands and then pick up your pen and try to put us back on the map by answering the question posed by Louis Untermeyer: “Why has our poetry eschewed/The rapture and response of food?/What hymns are sung,/what praises said/To home-made miracles of bread?”