According to a recent New York Times story probing the quasi-scientific practice of predicting election results by scouring voters’ pantries, certain brands of cereal or types of alcohol apparently correlate pretty well with partisan leanings. Relaxing with a tall glass of bourbon? Might as well just slap a McCain sticker on your car, the theory goes.
Of course, the convergence of eating habits and political leanings is nothing new. For decades, whole-grain bread has been the ultimate totem for the liberal set. A loaf of lovingly made, chemical-free spelt has long signified a commitment to simplicity, frugality and environmentalism.
Or so it was. Recent spikes in the price of foodstuffs, particularly flour, are threatening to complicate artisan bread’s reputation and the livelihoods of the small-business people who specialize in it. Some Asheville-area bakers, panicked by steadily climbing ingredient costs, have already raised their prices, fired staffers and trimmed their menus to rid them of the most expensive grains.
“You feel like you have no control over anything,” says Brendan Dennehy, owner of City Bakery. “You just wait every week for flour prices to go up.”
Aaron Wiener, owner of Carolina Mountain Bakery and a member of the Southeast Retail Bakers Association’s board of directors, predicted flour prices would be the topic of most conversations at a group meeting held in Asheville this month.
“I’m going to find out how guys are coping,” Wiener said. “We’re not allowed to discuss prices because of price-fixing laws, but I’m sure everyone will be saying ‘I just raised [them].’
“We’re a bunch of bakers, so we’re not the smartest guys,” he laughs.
But it takes a healthy sense of humor to find anything funny in this market, Wiener concedes. Wheat prices have surged 130 percent since March 2007, so retail bakers now pay upwards of 50 cents for a pound of flour. While anything measured in dimes sounds affordable to civilian ears, local bakers use 2,000 to 3,000 pounds of flour a week.
“I remember when I was a young dishwasher, my boss crying about flour going up to 22 cents,” Wiener says. “Basically, for years and years, we pretty much paid 20 cents for a pound of regular bread flour. Now a good deal is 40 cents, and it takes some hunting to find that.”
The current situation is a painful reminder of the butterfly effect, with seemingly insignificant personal choices catapulting the world into crisis. The Kansas farmer who decided to tap into the growing ethanol market by planting corn instead of wheat, the Chinese mother who gave her sons a second helping of rice and the suburban New Yorker who drove into the city instead of taking the train all potentially contributed to recent price hikes.
Experts say a perfect storm of economic and environmental conditions has conspired to make eating expensive—in some cases, prohibitively so. With the staple of many developing nations’ diets effectively put out of reach, riots have already erupted in Egypt, Bangladesh and Haiti, where the prime minister was run out of office over food shortages.
Consequences here in the United States have been considerably less dire—neither starvation nor political unrest is imminent—but industry insiders believe the rising costs could still influence the way people in places like Asheville think about their food. Although the short-term forecast for local bakers is grim, optimists say the crisis could spur a newfound interest in local, sustainable food, which is a bit of a house specialty here in Western North Carolina.
“The era of industrial food may be at an end,” Steve Bardwell, owner of Wake Robin Farm Breads in Sandy Mush, says. “As much as I hate to say it, these increases might be giving us a message. We’re living in a fool’s paradise thinking things are so cheap.”
Americans have become accustomed to spending very little on food, Bardwell says. Food purchases account for only 6 percent of Americans’ disposable income, while Europeans spend almost twice that. Consumers in South Africa, Mexico and China typically devote about 25 percent of their income to food—the same percentage Americans spent in 1933.
Perhaps American consumers instinctively sense they’ve undervalued the labor and resources that go into making their food: When Bardwell bumped up his prices this month for the first time since the bakery opened seven years ago, he didn’t hear any complaints. Although the muted response is no guarantee customers won’t start buying Wonder Bread instead of his product, Bardwell is heartened that all breads—from the puffy white grocery-store loaves best-suited for feeding ducks to his wild-yeast levain, made with filtered water, sea salt and unbleached flour—are going up in price.
“We raised it $1 across the board,” Bardwell says. “So we printed up a leaflet that described what was happening. Nobody took one. Nobody even asked about it.”
Still, even understanding customers can’t entirely cushion small-scale bakers from the flour-price fallout. Bardwell recently received an e-mail from a fellow artisan baker in Knoxville whose usual distributor has refused to continue selling to her. “Her orders are too small,” Bardwell explains.
Weiner has tried to game the system by ordering in bulk, but discovered he didn’t have anywhere to stash 2,500 pounds of flour. “It was just ridiculous,” he recalls of the effort.
Small-scale bakers are being forced to imitate bigger bakeries in other ways too: Pricey organic ingredients and coarse cereals, like spelt and rye, are being eliminated from bread rosters across Asheville.
“It used to be people were real specific about the particular brand of flour,” Wiener says. “Nowadays, people aren’t too concerned about the brand they use.”
“Spelt was a favorite,” Dennehy says. “People who need spelt, need spelt. But we had to stop producing it. Even at $6 a loaf, we weren’t making money.”
But some bakers prefer to view the current situation as an uncomfortable hiccup in the inevitable ascendancy of local food. Rather than resort to the industrial products that many observers believe exacerbated the crisis, Bardwell thinks consumers will develop eating habits that aren’t reliant on the whims of foreign governments and the cost of jet fuel.
Brian Long, spokesperson for the North Carolina Department of Agriculture, said the state is experiencing a renaissance in wheat growth.
“Farmers last year planted 880,000 acres of wheat,” Long reports. “That is a huge amount, 30 percent more than what they planted the year before. Winter wheat is at a record high. A lot of that interest stems from the prices.”
And those prices don’t appear to be leveling off, so bakers are bracing for a tough year.
As Bardwell spelled the name of his bakery—Wake Robin Farm Breads, plural—at the end of our phone conversation, his wife snorted in the background. “If prices keep going up, we may drop that ‘s,’” he said.