Sharon Johnson wanted to give audiences just a taste of "ancient grains" in a duo of 2009 lectures in Jackson and Josephine counties.
But so many people hungered for the topic that Oregon State University Extension had to turn away crowds from its centers in Central Point and Grants Pass. The overwhelming demand, staff decided, warranted an entire symposium on the breadth of whole grains consumed for millennia — and more recently returning to favor in industrialized societies like the United States.
"I was just blown away in each county," recalls Johnson, an OSU associate professor of health and human sciences.
After more than a year of organizing, Johnson and the Extension have assembled a panel of experts, dishes for tasting and a mini recipe book for its first "Ancient Grains Symposium," a "multidimensional" look at producing, procuring and preparing whole grains of yesteryear in modern times. Planned for March 24, the event is presided over by cookbook author and grains guru Rebecca Wood.
"We just want people who are curious about expanding their culinary repertoire," says Wood.
Participants will take home 20 recipes written by Ashland Food Co-op's culinary educators and taste whole-grain dishes tested by OSU's Family Food Educators. For many, the event could provide first-time exposure to little-known amaranth, farro, kamut, millet, spelt and teff.
"The interest in teff, for example, was really strong," says Johnson of the grain known primarily as the key ingredient of Ethiopian flatbread — "injera" — and dietary staple of the country's renowned distance runners.
More prominent still is quinoa, the South American super grain that boasts 10 amino acids and myriad minerals. Quinoa contains no gluten and is more easily digested than almost any other grain. Like amaranth, quinoa is actually seeds of a flowering plant related to leafy vegetables.
Quinoa is native to the Andean highlands between Chile and Colombia, growing mostly in Peru and Bolivia, where it has been cultivated since 3,000 B.C. Requiring very cool days and even cooler evenings, the plant will grow in the Rogue Valley, the San Luis Valley of Colorado at about 8,000 feet, as well as in countries such as China and Mongolia. Global demand for quinoa has risen so sharply over the past decade that the wholesale price increased sevenfold.
A Colorado resident, Wood was among the first Americans to research and write about quinoa for her 1989 book "Quinoa the Supergrain: Ancient Food for Today." A decade later Wood, now 66, expanded on the concept with "The Splendid Grain," which won two of the food industry's top honors, the Julia Child cookbook award and the James Beard KitchenAid cookbook award. Her foresight since has been rewarded with the general public's appreciation of whole grains.
"I think everyone is giving more lip service to whole grains," she says. "Health is why. Another reason is for the fun of it and the diversity."
Wood's symposium lecture will touch on the history and origins of grains and delve into modern-day farming methods that drive pricing structures, as well as the differences between genetically modified grains and unmodified counterparts. She'll also discuss the body's gastrointestinal system to shed some light on intolerance and sensitivity to gluten, the protein naturally found in wheat and related grains like spelt, rye and barley.
"So many people worry about the effect of gluten in their diet," says Johnson.
Another popular topic is feasibility of small-scale grain production in communities like the Rogue Valley to promote regional food security. Farmers and members of the symposium panel, Chi Scherer of Williams and David Mostue of Medford, will explain their operations.
"In this time, we need really sustainable mechanisms of sustenance," says Scherer, who has been farming organically in Williams for more than 30 years. "Plant protein is so much more sustainable than animal protein."
Citing environmental and societal responsibility, Scherer recently turned his efforts to beans and grains after decades of growing vegetables and fruits to sell at food co-ops and farmers markets. He harvested several hundred pounds of quinoa and amaranth last year and sold them at Ashland Food Co-op and through the online farmers market Rogue Valley Local Foods. Those joined his 2009 commercial debut of beans and lentils.
Beans also are growing at Mostue's Dunbar Farms. But his primary focus is wheat, sold whole as berries last summer and more recently as flour. The next step in claiming a larger piece of the food-industry pie is producing whole-wheat bread and pasta to sell at the farm's own store.
"Once you've got the grain, there's so many directions you can go," says Mostue.
Phasing out the family's century-old pear operations, Mostue says he intends to diversify the farm until he meets the "full gamut" of dietary needs. The reward is tangible, he says, in slices of bread baked with flour he milled from wheat he grew.
"You suddenly start to go 'OK, this is food.' "