I pulled up to David Kaisel’s house in Rumsey, California on a clear June afternoon. The ride from the Bay Area was curvy and lined with popping colors of wildflowers, and as I got further and further from the city, I started to feel the freedom of California’s hope and promise fill me.
I pulled up and Max, David’s trusty canine companion, came out to greet me, David close at his heels.
I’d met David at the Grain Gathering at the WSU Bread Lab back in 2015 and it was obvious that this man has a passion for bringing back heritage grains, chief among them, Italian varieties that progressive breeders were adapting to the California climate back in the early 1900’s. David had lived in Italy where he had developed a palate for bread and pasta that could only be sated by these specialty grains, and he had a plan to grow and mill these heirlooms to share with the Golden State.
David seems like one of those people who goes a mile deep and an inch wide. In other words, he climbs into a niche and takes his excavating tools to find out each and every detail of its cracks and crevices. It soon became clear that he was going to have to grow his own wheat if he was to accomplish his goals. He started Capay Mills in 2013.
“I made us some lunch,” he said. “But first, come check out my wheat trials.” He led me around back where he had a table set up with five-gallon buckets sprouting stalks of what all looked about the same on first glance. On closer look, however, each stalk was its own embodiment of genetic difference in a class of one kind. Looking at the plants on this table was like looking at a muted rainbow of color and texture. David walked me around to each and pointed out expressions of difference as if he were pointing out characteristics of his own children. “This one is longer and each kernel is plumper,” he said with a proud look on his face. He held out a seed head. “This one is probably prone to lodging,” he said despondently. “But I’m not giving up on it because it has such potential.”
The day was getting hotter and we moved into the house for a little lunch. David was a city boy before he started this endeavor and his house is a delightful mix of country life and his urban past. There are signs of his previous existence all over the place and when I wasn’t helping chop vegetables for the salad or spreading butter on hunks of homemade bread, I delighted in walking his halls and taking in the varied book selection or the eclectic art on his walls.
After lunch we hopped into David’s truck and headed over to one of his fields. As we stood looking out at the sea of wavy green before us, he pulled up a stand of weeds that I hadn’t even noticed. I felt a sudden pang for the real striving and struggle of this work; the minutiae in his dedication to offering alternatives to industrial scale food production. Each day, the work he brings to market is often completely lost, overlooked entirely. Worse, some people glorify it as a kind of unreachable platonic ideal that could never really feed the world. Yet he still goes out there every day and does his best to change this whole upside-down system that is itself failing to feed the world adequately. This is hard, hard work David is taking part in, this trying to overcome a stuck system to feed people real food at a fair price. The wind blew through the field and each stalk was now reaching for us under its gentle breeze as if to offer a solution.
That Sunday at the farmer’s market, I tasted some of the varieties of wheat from the field where we’d stood. After we’d had lunch and he’d shown me around the mill and farm, I’d gone back into the city. He got straight to work on making shortbread cookies that he passes out to showcase the differences in flavor between the various kinds of wheat. With coffee in hand early on a Sunday, I sidled up to his stand at the Temescal Farmer’s Market and popped one of the cookies in my mouth. It was Chiddam Blanc, a white wheat that was all at once sweet and nutty with hints of hay and hazelnuts. Next I grabbed a Sonora wheat, which was much fuller with an almost umami kick to it. There were several more, each with a distinct flavor and cooking characteristics that David could detail. In this one person, I found the exceptional arc of vocation created by civilization. This man was a farmer, miller, and baker, all three, and he did each with care and attention to detail.