SKOWHEGAN — Bread is an important part of chef Peter Reinhart’s personal as well as historic stories.

A teacher at Johnson & Wales University in Charlotte, North Carolina, he likes to relate as many stories as possible to his students while teaching them to bake. The stories, he said, are more likely to stick in students’ memories than facts about fermentation, carmelization or the coagulation of proteins during the baking process.

“What are they going to remember?” Reinhart asked an audience gathered Thursday morning at the Skowhegan Fairgrounds. “They will remember the stories. They’ll remember something they’ve connected to.”

The winner of three James Beard awards for his books on baking, Reinhart was this year’s keynote speaker at the annual Kneading Conference.

The annual two-day conference is hosted by the Maine Grain Alliance with the purpose of promoting discussions about local grain economies and offering classes and workshops that incorporate local grains.

“Today we are welcoming a crowd from all across the country,” said Amber Lambke, executive director of the Maine Grain Alliance and a co-founder of the conference, in opening remarks. “Year after year the feedback we get is that this conference is life-changing.”

The conference this year has drawn more than 200 bakers from many backgrounds for a schedule packed with approaches to flatbread pizza, how to make sourdough at home and techniques for wood-fired baking.

“It’s really exciting to be here with all these baking people,” said Denisa Cundick, who runs a small bakery, Breadweavers, at her home in Farmington. She said she was hoping to be accepted off a waiting list for the sourdough class.

The conference is also an opportunity for those in the industry to talk about what it is about grains, and specifically bread, that brings people together.

“Bread has a story to tell,” Reinhart said. “It’s not as much about technique or how to do it as it is about ‘What is it about bread that’s so special for us?’ We wouldn’t be here if bread didn’t touch us in some way.”

Whether that story is the story of the Jews eating unleavened bread during their exodus from Egypt, the people of France rioting because they were unable to get flour during the French Revolution, or a personal story, the story of bread is a story about connecting people, Reinhart said.

Reinhart said one anecdote that illustrated to him how essential interpersonal relationships are to good bread making came on a trip to Mama’s Pizzeria, a cheesesteak and pizza shop outside Philadelphia, where he grew up.

He visited the shop while working on research for a book, “American Pie: My Search for the Perfect Pizza.” When he called ahead, he was surprised to hear the former owner’s son, whom he remembered as a 13-year-old, answer the phone.

He learned that the man, now 43, had taken over management of the restaurant. He visited the restaurant, but the pizza was not as good as he had remembered it.

“I called him over and said, ‘Has something changed in these pizzas?'” Reinhart said.

“He said, ‘So you noticed,'” Reinhart said. The man explained that the pizza was not as good as when his father, who had a special recipe for the dough, had managed the shop.

“But I don’t care,” the younger man said.

He explained that while the pizza had changed, the cheesesteaks, which were the younger man’s true passion, had improved. Reinhart tried them, and he agreed. The secret, he said, was not in the ingredients or technique, but in the person making them.

“What I saw was a person expressing his love for what he’s doing, his passion for what he’s doing through the food, and that translates,” Reinhart said.

Passion is key to unlocking the baker’s mission, which is to bring out the full flavor of grain, Reinhart said.

“I think a good test of how good bread is is to ask the question, ‘Is it memorable?'” he said to the conference attendees before sending them to their first workshops of the day. “Does it open a window into soulfulness? Does it connect us with something deeper?”

Rachel Ohm — 612-2368

[email protected]

Twitter: @rachel_ohm

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