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Leavening The Image of Home Baking

King Arthur Flour sponsors national contest to celebrate `pure joy' of an age-old tradition

By Jennifer WolcottStaff writer of The Christian Science Monitor / March 11, 1993


IS home baking on the rise? Judging from the flurry of mixing, kneading, and shaping at King Arthur Flour's recent "Winterbake," one might think so.

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Tantalizing sweet, savory, and spice aromas wafted throughout kitchens, makeshift classrooms, and a maze of hallways at the Inn at Essex here. The Winterbake honors winners of a national baking contest sponsored by the flour's parent company, Sands, Taylor & Wood. It was initiated in 1990 as a biennial celebration of King Arthur Flour's founding in 1790.

But, even the 1,000 recipe submissions that landed in their mailbox in response to a publicized "search for a new classic" don't necessarily point to a reversal in the cooling off of home baking.

"I've heard it said that every generation spends half as much time in the kitchen as the previous generation," says Josh Sosland, associate editor for Milling and Baking News, a weekly trade publication based in Kansas City, Mo. He explains that the increased availability of gourmet baked goods has boosted per-capita consumption of flour from 110 lbs. in 1972 to 140 lbs. in 1992.

But this is no consolation to King Arthur Flour owners Frank and Brinna Sands, a husband-and-wife team, who are concerned about the scant amount of flour that makes its way into the hands of home bakers.

"In 1900, 80 percent of flour milled in America was for home baking. Today, it's around 4 percent," explains Mr. Sands in a Monitor interview.

Behind the facts and figures, however, the couple perceives the loss of a tradition that means far more than producing and consuming a loaf of bread or a sticky bun.

"So many of the things we do today are passive," says Mr. Sands, pointing to television and other leisure activities as offering tough competition for baking.

Other reasons they cite for the drop in interest range from efforts of baking-mix companies that create an image of home baking as a tedious task to the increase in women working outside the home.

"One of the things we know is that even when the rest of the world seems like it's falling apart, [baking] makes you feel so good because you have done something that is creative, and if you have someone to share it with, it creates another connection," says Ms. Sands. She adds that by baking for her grandchildren with her grandmother's recipes, she connects generations that will never meet.

The passing along of family traditions is a way of life for president Frank E. Sands II, who, after buying the company from his father in 1986, became the fifth generation of his family in the business.

A major thrust of Winterbake is to enlighten the public about "the pure joy of baking," to which the company is dedicated, as they tell consumers in a bannered slogan alongside the familiar knight-on-the-horse logo on every King Arthur Flour bag.

At the stately Colonial Inn at Essex, nestled into the Green Mountains in Vermont's Lake Champlain region, the company gathered 70 winners (five in each of 14 baking categories) and their guests, along with seven top chefs and culinary instructors - Albert Kumin, Jim Dodge, Mary Ann Esposito, Michael Jubinsky, Barbara Lauterbach, Elizabeth Alston, and Josef Harrewyn - for three days of workshops, sumptuous dining, and sampling of the winning recipes.

Of course, these folks hardly need convincing as to the benefits of baking from scratch. But, their leavening influence on the image of home baking and King Arthur Flour beyond the boundaries of the inn is highly valued.

"The instructors aren't paid anything, they come of their own goodwill because they care about the product," says Mr. Sands.

Julia Child, who judged Winterbake entries last September, is among King Arthur Flour's most prominent fans and "market makers," as Mr. Sands calls them.