Few things unite the Pacific Northwest’s culture, economy and ecology like food. And at the heart of everything “foodie” are the ingredients themselves. This fifth article and video in “Superabundant,” OPB’s series on food and food systems in the Pacific Northwest, explores the roles wheat plays in the region’s economy, and in the local food scene.
There’s just something about wheat. It’s the key ingredient in an entire world of foods and drinks — pastries, cakes, dumplings, bread, pasta, beer and so much more.
Archaeological evidence suggests that humans have been eating wheat for tens of thousands of years, if not longer. It’s easy to transport, and there seems to be no limit to the delicious dishes that can be created with it.
Wheat was first cultivated in the Fertile Crescent of the Middle East before spreading to cultures and cuisines around the world — eventually finding its way to the Pacific Northwest.
From global to local — and around the world again
In the Pacific Northwest, eons of volcanic activity, combined with silt from gigantic glacial floods, created rich soil, supporting a variety of indigenous food staples. When white colonists arrived, they realized it also happened to be perfect for wheat.
By 2020, more than 700,000 acres across Oregon were planted with wheat, according to the U.S. Department of Agriculture, including Tom Hunton’s third-generation family farm, located southwest of Junction City, Oregon. Started in 1952, as of about a decade ago the farm also mills the wheat it grows.
“Soft white club wheat is a premium pastry flour and so it’s pretty slow milling. It’s kind of soft and a little bit gummy compared to bread wheat. It’s low protein,” Hunton said.
The Pacific Northwest has become known for it’s soft white wheat, which is perfect in crackers, noodles and soft steamed pastries. But it’s just one of hundreds of species of wheat, and many of those less common varieties are also grown in the Northwest.
“Hard red spring wheat and teff to rye and spelt and emmer and einkorn and hard white wheat,” Hunton said, listing up some of the types of wheat his farm has grown, “So many of the other grains, some of which are heirloom or ancient grains.”
Hunton’s heirloom wheat fields, along with massive enterprises that grow the grain on a large commercial scale, cumulatively contribute to a U.S. wheat market valued at $9.32 billion, according to Statista.
And much of that wheat passes through Portland, the largest wheat shipping port in the U.S.
Most of the wheat from the Northwest travels the world and is used in global cuisines. It travels to countries like Japan, China, the Philippines and Indonesia. But it’s also being enjoyed much closer to the fields where it is grown.
A food staple, a source of delight — and, perhaps, an oxymoron
Jasper Shen, a second-generation Chinese American chef and co-owner of XLB Restaurant in Portland, said there’s a huge lexicon of Chinese cuisine that comes from wheat.
“Where my family is from, originally, is Beijing, from northern China, which is more historically famous for their wheat production, and their bao, and their noodles,” he said.
“What’s really flexible and great about wheat is that you can use it in so many different applications,” said chef and co-owner of XLB Restaurant, Laura Tran.
“You can make soup dumplings, you can make bao. You can take the bao and make your own filling,” Tran said. “It becomes a hand-held delicious treat.”
XLB is named after one of the types of dumplings served at the restaurant’s two locations in Portland. “Xiao long bao is a soup dumpling. It’s a dumpling with broth inside, with some form of filling,” Shen said.
“Eating these things just brings me a lot of joy, honestly,” Shen said.
Stephanie Thornton, executive pastry chef at Blue Star Donuts, also brings joy to the world with the wheat-based foods she creates, though hers are more often served at breakfast or dessert.
“All flours are just slightly different,” she said. “I love our flour because it’s been really thoughtfully put together.”
Thornton creates all the gourmet doughnut flavors served at Blue Star, which has several locations in Portland as well as Southern California.
Blue Star is known for it’s grown-up take on doughnuts, serving everything from Blueberry Bourbon Basil to Orange Olive Oil.
“When we started, The goal was to take the doughnut and the impression of what people had of what a donut was and really elevate that,” Thornton said.
“The perfect doughnut is something that can be eaten plain and it’s still great, but the glaze just takes it up a notch. It’s a little bit of crunch, chewy, pillowy, those sound like oxymorons, but they’re totally not,” she said.
That oxymoron of crunchy and soft that’s fried in at the formation of donuts hints at the versatility of wheat across all its uses.
Though it’s one of the world’s oldest staple foods, farmers and chefs continue to find innovative ways to grow the grain and eat it. First propagated in the Middle East, it’s now a staple in Europe, Asia and the Pacific Northwest. Grown in Oregon and Washington fields, it’s shipped around the globe, and enjoyed in restaurants and homes right next door.
In short, wheat is one of the region’s biggest contributions to the global food system, bringing a little piece of the Pacific Northwest to kitchens everywhere.