Understanding rye, from the farm to the oven
It begins with the rye sourdough starter, made at least a week before you want to bake. Scoop a generous spoonful into about a liter of lukewarm water (if the starter is good, it will float). Use your hands to dissolve the starter and then add enough rye flour to create a mixture with the consistency of sour cream. This mix is called your “preferment.” Cover and wait.
The next morning, the preferment should be bubbly. Add salt to taste and more flour until the dough feels like a lump of clay, then knead it until your arm feels like it might fall off. Listen: if you’ve done it right, the mix will squeak and squelch. Scrape it into a loaf pan and let rise for a few hours; poke three holes in the top to let you know when it’s risen enough. Bake, letting your kitchen become infused with a sweet, malty aroma. Let cool completely before eating, smeared generously with salted butter.
With that, you’ve completed one assignment in “Rye: Cultural History and Embodied Practice” — a class offered during Yale Summer Session that accomplishes the difficult task of being both almost entirely online and explicitly hands-on. Along with bread baking, students are asked to make rye porridge and cookies, take virtual field trips to rye fields and whiskey distilleries, and read texts that examine the historical context in which rye was grown.
The course was designed by Maria Trumpler, a senior lecturer in the Department of Women’s, Gender, and Sexuality Studies in Yale’s Faculty of Arts and Sciences; Jeremy Oldfield, the farm manager for the Yale Sustainable Food Program; and Laura Valli, a doctoral candidate at Washington State University’s Bread Lab. First offered during the 2022 Yale Summer Session, the course is built around a series of videos developed by the three instructors and the summer session videography team, including one depicting the entire life cycle of the rye crop at the Yale Farm. Other videos follow practitioners — including Valli, who grew up in Estonia, where rye is a staple — as they interact with the grain.
“The embodied element is both in doing the practice and in watching the videos with the practitioner guiding them through it,” said Trumpler. “Knowledge is way more than intellectual. To access what rye has to tell us we have to be open to using all of our senses.”
Yale Summer Session provides undergraduate courses and programs in person, online, and abroad to both Yale students and others, including high school and international students; it also offers intensive academic programs such as the Yale Summer Conservatory for Actors and the Yale Writer’s Workshop. Summer students also may live on campus during their program, giving them access to a range of unique residential experiences like study breaks, intramural sports, and hikes in the area.
This summer, 21 students enrolled in “Rye”: a handful in New Haven, the rest elsewhere in the United States or abroad. “There is irony in an all-online course for embodied practice,” said Trumpler. “But we see that they bring their friends and family into what they’re studying, and it’s a way for academic work to connect them to others.”
For students in the United States, Trumpler created care packages of rye heads and seeds for them to handle; students located in New Haven joined Oldfield on the Yale Farm to harvest and thresh the rye.
“We are exploring the edges of how someone can have an immersive sensory experience, remotely and collectively,” said Oldfield.
The Yale Farm has been planting rye for more than a decade, largely as a cover crop to hold and enrich soil over the fallow winter season. Yet even before rye’s star turn in the summer session course, Oldfield discovered its additional utility as a teaching tool — including for a Russian literature course and in providing materials for art projects at the Yale School of Art.
“There are so many lenses that you can engage rye through,” said Oldfield. “You are usually able to find a lens that fits the curiosity of the group that you’re with, whether that’s a group of high schoolers from New Haven public schools, or a group from a French language course that is visiting the farm and looking at idioms.”
It seems difficult to overstate rye’s role in cultural history. As Stanley Ginsburg writes in “The Rye Baker,” one of the course’s texts, “It was rye that fed Geoffrey Chaucer’s London and François Villon’s Paris, rye that fueled the empires of Charlemagne and Peter the Great, and rye that filled the ships of the Hanseatic League – the vast medieval mercantile federation that for four centuries united the nations of the North and Baltic Seas.”
Some historians even cast rye as a pivotal player in the fall of the Roman Empire and the Salem Witch Trials. Regarding the latter, the summer session students use a mock trial format to debate the possibility that a fungus-infected crop led to charges of witchcraft.
Valli, who created the video of “non-recipe rye bread” that guides students through the baking process, hopes that engaging in embodied practice can offer students a fundamental appreciation of how their food gets made.
“I was really surprised by how appalling people found handling the dough,” she said, noting that many students opted to use a kitchen mixer or wear gloves. “That was really telling for me, just how distanced we are from the food production side and how wary and afraid of it we are.”
Over the summer, Trumpler noted, students gained a certain confidence. “The bread has no recipe, but we do give them one for cookies later in the course,” she said. “But by then they are so used to experimenting that many of them blithely ignored it.”