Old Gristmill Keeps Grinding

FOOD: RHODE ISLAND TRADITION

TIM MCTAGUE gets ready to haul another sack of flour to the bagging room. He has white eyelashes and a dust mask about his neck. Behind him two hulking millstones are grinding away. A light powder hangs in the air and coats the floor.

Mr. McTague is the noble miller at Gray's Grist Mill - a grinding workhorse dating back to the mid-1800s. Its site has been used for milling since the 1600s.

Mills like Gray's are rare today. ``They're very unusual to find in working order,'' yells McTague over the noise of the granite. This is ``pretty representative of what was here by 1870,'' he says, with the exception of the power source - an old truck engine.

The process is fairly simple. Kernals of grain are placed in the hopper that leads to the grinding stones. The millstones have patterns on them that cross, gradually crushing the grain into fine particles and pushing them toward the outside. The flour is then funneled onto a sifter and emptied into a gauze bag. In the bagging room, it's weighed and put into paper bags - meticulously pleated at the top and tied with string in a miller's knot.

McTague came to Gray's Grist Mill seven years ago from Toronto and learned the trade from John Hart, whose father married into the Gray family. Mr. Hart ran the mill for 70 years before McTague, and according to one town resident, ``still does more work than any nine people.'' He resides just a short walk away - behind Gray's Country Store.

The mill and the store are the few vestiges of village life here. Gone are the saw mill and bakery that bookended the grist mill. A meat shop connected the bakery to Gray's store, and the gas station used to be the blacksmith. McTague says the area was the ``shopping mall'' of the 18th- and 19th centuries. In the old days, the gristmill was powered by water. Then in the '50s, Hart installed a '46 Dodge engine from an old mayonnaise truck.

But one thing hasn't changed: the mill's famous jonny cake meal. Jonny cakes are made from corn meal, milk, salt, and water. Thin jonny cakes, which McTague prefers over the thick ones, are cooked on a griddle and look like small cr^epes. ``They're the Yankee version of the tortilla,'' McTague remarks. Flint corn is a ``whiter'' corn and has a milder flavor than yellow corn, he adds.

Down the road, John Hart, a soft-spoken gentleman, invites McTague and guests into his living room and recalls earlier days of jonny cakes and the mill.

``My father grew corn, and we had jonny cakes three times a day.''

What's the best way to eat jonny cakes?

``With butter and good teeth,'' he says with a smile. ``You can have anything on them.'' Mr. Hart attributes much of the mill's longevity to his dislike of change. Fortunately, other forms of income, like farming, allowed him to keep it going, he says.

``Grinding years ago wasn't always jonny cake meal,'' Hart says. ``Feed grinding was the big meal.'' After the war, the demand for gristmill feed kept going down, he says. Other mills closed, but his kept turning. ``It's such a simple thing,'' he says gently.

McTague brings up the subject of the '46 Dodge engine and how Hart's father must have deemed him a rascal for using a gas-powered engine in place of water to make jonny cake meal.

``He never even drove a car,'' Hart adds.

The way McTague calculates, that motor makes a trip to Vermont and back every weekend. Returning to water power is something McTague often thinks about. But ``going authentic'' doesn't seem worth the expense right now. It would take a lot of jonny cake meal to do it.

McTague releases some of the historical backwater behind jonny cake meal. The first settlers from England discovered that wheat and rye did not grow well in Rhode Island, so they looked to the Naragansett Indians and tried corn. So it followed that corn kernals took the place of wheat berries in the English grist mills. ``The same eight-row flint corn is still grown and used today,'' says McTague. He gets his hand-harvested from a nearby farmer.

In addition to jonny cake meal, the gristmill turns out wheat flour, rye flour, and muffin, bread, and pancake mixes - about 20 tons of products a year. Mill stones are sharpened every four to six months.

A lot of people have wanted to buy the mill and make it into something else, such as a bookstore or a restaurant, says McTague. ``It's one of those things - people know we're here, kind of take it for granted. But if we were to be threatened, people would probably be upset and pitch in to keep it going,'' he says.

``I have my real loyal friends out there who know me and love my product,'' he adds.

The profit margin is low with a one-pound bag of jonny cake meal being 90 cents. But for McTague, there are other sources of satisfaction, such not having to battle traffic everyday. Also, he's his own boss. ``The only person that can scream at me is me - and not that that doesn't happen!'' McTague admits he should probably be smarter about the future and ask himself: How can I make this pay and protect it?

But for now, he says he enjoys what the mill offers him and customers - as well as the environment. ``We've got freshly ground flour in a paper bag with string, and we sponsor local agriculture,'' he says proudly. All of McTague's ``industrial waste'' (mainly bran) is gobbled up by a farmer's cows and pigs. ``He says the geese go for it pretty well, too.''

At the mill, McTague obligingly whips up some authentic jonny cakes on his old gas stove. They don't rise like pancakes, he says, dripping spoonfuls of batter onto the griddle - ``you want to get that crust on the edge, too.''

Maple syrup, butter, jam, and salt have all been known to top a jonny cake. Today, McTague tries cheese. After testing one, he says, ``This is as fresh as you can get.''

THIN JONNY CAKES 2 cups jonny cake meal (white corn meal) 1/2 tsp. salt 3/4 cup cold water 1 1/2 cups cold milk Combine meal, salt, and water. Stir in milk. Fry 3-inch-wide cakes on a well-oiled, medium-hot skillet until edges are brown, then flip. Makes 20 to 25 jonny cakes.

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