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Where were you during the great bread baking boom of 2020? Me, I was cleaning out a trash can full of dog food to make room for 50 pounds of flour.
The trash can belonged to Ziggy, my family’s late dearly beloved chihuahua (may he rest in peace), but at the height of the first COVID crisis in August, I needed somewhere to store the flour I’d ordered from a wholesale bakers outlet. Ziggy would understand, I reasoned, so I dumped the kibble, hosed down the can, and lined it with a trash bag. In went the white stuff, a flurry of particles clouding around me like a halo.
A store of flour weighing as much as a small child felt necessary then: No one knew how long the pandemic would last (a long time, still ongoing, maybe forever), and for the many (the many, many) who had taken up baking in March and April of 2020, tentative forays into bread-making had evolved into full-blown lifestyles. As a result, the demand for flour exploded, and by summer, access to a product that had previously seemed as pedestrian and ubiquitous on grocery store shelves as cornflakes and ketchup — and which typically costs under about 50 cents a pound and was designed to last forever — became tenuous at best. At King Arthur, the brand that became synonymous with the millions of sourdough loaves baked during the pandemic, business boomed: In 2019, it sold 23.7 million 5-pound bags of flour to consumers; it sold nearly double that between April and November 2020 alone.
Long before I acquired my wholesale hoard, though, I had bought myself some break-glass-in-case-of-emergency flour. In the fridge, tucked behind a head of purple cabbage and next to a few cans of beer, was a small, clear bag from Castle Valley, a local stone mill located in Bucks County, Pennsylvania. “Refrigerate or freeze,” the bag read, with an expiration date of six months.
Inside the bag in the fridge was 10 pounds of bolted (or sifted) hard wheat flour with a creamy buttermilk color, slightly textured to the touch. Made with local wheat, it cost me $19, or $1.90 a pound, three times as much as the trash can flour. I had been buying this kind of flour from Castle Valley for a little over a year, ever since I started thinking about the flour that I put in my bread and where exactly it had come from. It was flavorful, it had personality, and it had an earthier look and feel than the flour in my trash can — it wasn’t bland and white. But I also couldn’t quite explain what made it different.
A few months before the pandemic began, a friend sheepishly admitted to me that she didn’t know how flour was made. At the time,