FAIRFIELD — Standing before a crowded Moody Chapel on what she described as a “deliciously moist morning,” Sarah Owens had a message for the crowd gathered at Kennebec Valley Community College’s Hinckley campus: Bread can bring us together.

Owens is the keynote speaker at the Maine Grain Alliance’s annual Kneading Conference, which runs through Friday and is followed on Saturday by the annual Artisan Bread Fair in Skowhegan.

Owens knows a thing or two about bread. Originally a ceramicist and a horticulturist, Owens transitioned into baking after experiencing what she called “gastrointestinal problems,” which doctors in New York City eventually labeled as food intolerances to a number of things, including a number of different types of wheat. She told the crowd this happened around the time gluten-free food boomed and joked that you could go into a Whole Foods grocery store and find products such as gluten-free fish, which drew laughter from the crowd.

Owens, who operates BK17, a subscription bakery and workshop in New York, said she wasn’t satisfied with excluding foods with gluten, such as bread and pies. So she experimented and improvised.

“I embarked on an exploration,” she said.

That led her to fermented and thus more easily digested foods, which led her to naturally leavening breads. She said she began with easily sourced, processed and highly refined flours, saying there was a lot of trial and error as she largely stuck to white breads. Eventually she branched out, expanding what she was baking and the venues she baked for.


“I began trying to understand flour,” she said, investigating its “dynamic parts.”

Her experimentation brought her to stone-ground flour, which often is considered more nutritionally sound. Stone-ground flour is seeing a resurgence around the country, including in Skowhegan, where the Somerset Grist Mill operates traditional stone milling in a repurposed jail house. Founded in 2008, the mill is part of Maine Grains, which provides high-quality grains from Maine throughout the Northeast.

Eventually, Owens came to sourdough, which is made by fermenting dough. That became the basis and the name of her first cookbook, “Sourdough,” which went on to win a James Beard Award.

She released another book last summer titled “Toast & Jam” and is working on a third cookbook.

She said she was motivated by seeing the gathering of passionate people at the Kneading Conference. “I’m so fortunate to be able to pass this inspiration on to others,” she said. “It’s become my way to honor the gifts of the Earth and pass this passion on to others.”

This year the conference moved from its former home in Skowhegan to KVCC as the Maine Grain Alliance partnered with the college, with its new farm-to-table culinary arts program and its sustainable agriculture program. There are 250 registrants for the conference, which features demonstrations and workshops by the dozen, ranging from beginning techniques for home bakers to how to use wood-fired ovens.


Tristan Noyes, executive director of the Maine Grain Alliance, said the conference keeps growing each year “by leaps and bounds.” Like every year, he said, there were new workshops and ideas for those in attendance, and the organizers continue to expand existing programs. One new program involves a partnership with members of a Somali Bantu community on the use of corn. He said the group also has expanded, holding monthly events across the Northeast and engaging in partnerships to help bakers, brewers, millers, maltsters and farmers.

“It’s a fun community of people,” he said.

Community was a central theme in Owens’ remarks that kicked off the conference. Recently, she began working with the Sadalsuud Foundation, a nonprofit organization that supports Syrian refugees and is building community throughout Lebanon. Owens said she didn’t speak the language there, but she was able to communicate by baking with those she met. Baking is a way to “look beyond our differences” and “embrace multiplicity” through the simple act of breaking bread together, she said.

“Bread has a potential to return to being our currency,” she said, a way to “participate in other cultures.”

Owens, who said her passion to “cultivate the Earth” began as a young child growing up in rural Tennessee exploring her environment, concluded that the move toward stone-ground flour and more locally sourced products isn’t an attempt to diminish any company large or small. Instead, she said, it was about finding the communities of farmers, bakers, brewers and others and helping them succeed.

“Our power is in our passion,” she said.

Colin Ellis — 861-9253


Twitter: @colinoellis

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