A few years ago, I was in Seattle at a food writers’ conference. Among the many illustrious speakers were three experts from the Washington State University Bread Lab, a research operation that seeks to “combine science, art, curiosity and innovation to explore ways of using regionally available grains.” All that these experts shared was of interest, but what caught my attention was a comment about hoping in the future to get their hands on some rye flour, because rye was simply not part of the grain experience in that part of the Pacific Northwest. Living in the Chicago area, where stores can have an entire aisle for many, many varieties of rye bread, that hope struck me as bordering on unimaginable. I decided to do more research.
Turns out the Midwest really is the center of rye production and rye use in the United States. You can get it other places, but mostly it’s shipped from right here. Of course, knowing the region, I had some idea that it was related to settlement patterns. But it turns out that much of the Midwest offers an environment ideally suited to cultivating rye. Rye only germinates in soil that is hovering around the freezing point and thrives in places that are a bit dry and perhaps not ideal for wheat, like the Great Plains. But given the fact that many of those who immigrated to the Midwest settled areas with agricultural conditions like those in their home countries, perhaps it was inevitable that rye would take hold. As Willa Cather wrote in “My Ántonia” (set in Nebraska, still one of the nation’s top rye-growing states):
“My old folks,” said Tiny Soderball, “have put in twenty acres of rye. They get it ground at the mill, and it makes nice bread. It seems my mother ain’t been so homesick, ever since father’s raised rye flour for her.
Rye is strongly associated with northern and eastern Europe, with the Dutch and English being the first to introduce the grain in the United States. But it was the opening of the Midwest that gave rye its real home. Today, most American rye is grown in Wisconsin, Nebraska, Minnesota, and North and South Dakota, regions heavily settled by Germans, Scandinavians, Russians, Poles, Czechs and other Eastern Europeans.
Rye is grown outside the limits of the Midwest, but it’s in the Midwest that it’s grown for grain. The handful of other nearby states grow it to use as a cover crop, to enrich the soil, or as hay to feed livestock. In many places, too-warm winters or too-wet springs keep rye away, but in places that are borderline, if the rye is allowed to develop mature seed, it has the potential of becoming a weed. And here lies the problem for the folks at the Bread Lab. According to the USDA, Washington has classified rye as a “Class C noxious weed.” It truly is not a “regionally available grain” for them.
Thanks to continued immigration from Europe, the reliance on rye has continued, and not just for bread. There’s rye whiskey and rye beer, plus wonderfully sour zurek, a soup made from fermented rye flour starter. (Check out Polish stores, such as KD Market, for ready-made zurek, packaged as is traditional with a hard-boiled egg.)
Rye remains best known for its contribution to bread. Flour made from rye is gluten free, so it is popular among those with dietary restrictions (though one needs to be careful, as wheat flour is often added to rye flour to lighten the loaf). While there are excellent neighborhood bakeries across the region, Chicago has a long history and a long reach when it comes to rye bread. Among those long histories is that of S. Rosen’s, founded by Polish-born and German-trained baker Sam Rosen in 1909. Rye bread isn’t all they make—they are also famous for the poppyseed hotdog buns that help define Chicago-style hotdogs—but it is foundational to their business. It’s the rye bread most commonly found in “regular” grocery stores. When I was growing up, their cocktail rye was ubiquitous at parties. But in addition to supplying stores locally, S. Rosen’s ships nationwide, primarily for foodservice, because while the rest of the country may not grow rye, that doesn’t mean they don’t want to eat it.
Where the options increase dramatically is at stores such as Fresh Farms, Garden Fresh or any grocer with largely rye-focused clientele. This is where you’re likely to see an entire aisle of rye. Generally, rye breads are grouped by baker, rather than by type, with the Chicago Specialty Bakers, Racine Bakery (which, despite what the name suggests, is on Chicago’s South Side), and Val’s Bakery in Skokie being among the many commercial bakeries offering variations representing a span of rye-loving nations. And despite numerous suppliers, demand is great enough that one also finds imported European rye in these stores.
My lifelong love affair with Pumpernickel Brick ended when Baltic Bakery closed, but since then, I’ve developed a great fondness for Chicago Specialty Bakers’ coriander-encrusted Borodinsky Russian rye. (Borodinsky means “rye bread.”) I have a friend who swears by Val’s rye bread, and a few friends rely on smaller, local bakeries for their rye. But knowing that rye isn’t available everywhere makes me want to take greater advantage of my access to the abundance here, so who knows what I’ll get next time I find myself wandering down the rye aisle. I’m hoping that you, too, will be inspired to further explore the Midwest’s overflowing pocket full of rye.