Jim Franks thinks your open-crumb, cold-proofed, exquisitely lamed sourdough boule is bullshit.
“It’s impractical and overly sour because of the overnight fermentation,” he says. “And pretentious and unusable because of the shape—round bullshit. And stuff falls through the holes.”
Franks, who sells bread every Wednesday and Saturday at a Humboldt Park farmstand, is an iconoclast in the current pandemic-driven, digital-sourdough zeitgeist. He’s an outlier among professional artisanal bread bakers as well.
“I basically always wanted to do 100 percent whole grain [bread] and that’s a really confusing thing because most people always think they’ve had that—but they’ve had it nowhere. There’s basically ten bakers in the world, including me, that know how to do it.” He’s worked for most of them: including Jim Williams of Backdoor Bread in Vermont; Sophie Williams of Raven Breads in Bellingham, Washington; Kendall College grad Mike Zakowski of The Bejkr in Sonoma, California, and the godfather of American whole grain sourdough bread baking, Dave Miller of Miller’s Bake House in Yankee Hill, California.
These are all bakers who have managed to make a living at the difficult and often dangerous business of running commercial bakeries—and selling bread made from hard grains that have been milled without removing the nutritious bran that surrounds the germ, unlike the majority of commodity flour produced in the United States.
Unlike them, Franks does not make a living from his bread. Between $2 to $4 of each loaf goes to Chicago Patchwork Farms, an urban farm with four plots around the city built on formerly contaminated, now remediated land. But he does obsessively, and rigidly, adhere to a set of principles that would put most commercial artisanal bakeries out of business. Real whole grain bread made from 100 percent local flour, naturally leavened with wild yeast, is a standard few can claim. Most compromise themselves in some way: rigging fermentation with Vitamin C, adding commercial yeast or commodity flour, or pretending to mill their own grains.
Franks, who’s 32, doesn’t make these compromises because he doesn’t have to. “The only reason I was able to do that was because of an incredible amount of privilege,” he says. “Being independently wealthy has allowed me to be like ‘fuck you’ to society in all these ways that have been so crucial to do something that’s really special and obviously really in demand.”
Despite this unshakable stance, Franks is genial, open, and if you allow him, he can talk about bread nonstop for hours. But he wasn’t always so single-minded. He grew up on the north shore in a wealthy family, though he says he didn’t realize he came from money until well after he left home.
In his 20s he was idle, hanging out in the music scene, struggling with depression and obsessive-compulsive disorder, and smoking a lot of cigarettes and weed until one of his lungs collapsed. “I realized I didn’t like my life and I was scared and confused. I had a bunch of money saved up, so I started wandering the country.” He worked on films and a music festival as a production assistant and did a million other odd jobs, never staying anywhere more than three months over an eight-year period.
He didn’t find his purpose until after a friend showed him how to make sourdough and he made it on his own for the first time. “I saw it rise and it was this crazy click,” he says. “I was in love. I was up for three nights reading about flour on Wikipedia. I was just lost in it. I had done so many things before, I was afraid to tell anybody, ‘I’m a bread maker now.’”
But he didn’t settle down. In 2017 he embarked on an epic series of stages in sourdough bakeries across the country. “I had to just go everywhere and get behind the counter to see what was really going on. I would just show up and be like, ‘Hey, I’m here. I’m ready to work. Can I please stage at your bakery today?’” He figures he worked at about 35 sourdough bakeries over four years, and along the way became thoroughly disillusioned with the business.
“You have to work somewhere for like five years just to make whole grain bread. But there are all these things that are terrible about being a baker. There are chronic health problems. The environment is unsafe. There’s all these compromises just to run a business and exist in capitalism.” Besides that, “There’s no money in bread. The margins are insane. The supply lines are really rough, and everybody who’s doing these sustainable things are really bad at business because they really care. I had the money and time to just avoid that.”
Eventually he got behind the counter with some of his heroes, and looking homeward began thinking of starting something in Chicago, which he says, apart from Publican Quality Bread and Pleasant House Bakery (which no longer makes bread), was existing in a “bread vacuum.”
In late 2018 he moved back in with his mother, who was thrilled he’d found a career and was willing to support it. He continued to stage at bakeries in town and around the midwest, but he began to develop his own style that combined ultratraditional methods with an experimentalism that arose from his slavish devotion to using only local ingredients. “You can’t use raisins, olives; all this stuff that is regular bread stuff,” he says. “If you tell people that, they’re just like why? But it was really, really important to me.”
That’s particularly challenging when it comes to grain, but it’s changing. Michigan, he says, has become a powerhouse when it comes to einkorn, a difficult-to-grow and hard-to-process variety that’s resurged among other ancient grains in the new American artisanal bread arsenal. Franks says he’s making the only 100 percent einkorn bread within 2,000 miles. He’s found other small farmers and millers in Wisconsin, Indiana, and Illinois selling buckwheat, spelt, oats, and corn; and for sweeteners, molasses, sorghum, maple syrup, and honey.
Franks began selling his bread and a few pastries at Patchwork’s Chicago Avenue farmstand last summer after donating a dozen loaves for a fundraising dinner. This led to a regular two-day stand each week that put him in touch with a wide network of farmers and foragers.
“When I started I was like, ‘This is a good opportunity for me to get out there and get some exposure, but this is a really bad business arrangement. I don’t want to keep giving these people money.’ But the more I fell in love with the farm and the people, I was like ‘Oh I gotta keep doing this to make money for Patchwork.’ Food is, to me, incredibly political and radical, and everything I do in terms of giving away that wealth is in terms of converting that money to these farmers and Patchwork.”
If you’re struck by the irony that the only viable way to become a baker of sustainable whole grain bread is to be a rich kid who gives it away, just know that Franks’s breads are extraordinarily good, and not priced higher than any other boutique bakery’s breads ($8-$10 depending on your means).
Last week I plowed through a loaf of 100 percent einkorn; amber-colored with a tight crumb, mildly tangy but with a nutty, rich, almost fatty flavor. I also demolished a loaf of 100 percent rye vollkornbrot. Franks hates when folks say his bread is dense, but this one is undeniably so: cakey, almost fudgy, stippled with millet, flaxseed, and sunflower seeds.
Eschewing the cold proofing that leads to the wide-open airy bread dominant on Insta-Sourdough, Franks ferments these loaves at room temperature—which leads to what he correctly describes as “full but airy” bread, especially for whole grain. He bakes them in rectangular loaf pans, rejecting the digital hegemony of the round boule. “It’s better for whole grain but also because pan breads are more accessible than the artisan boules that everyone makes. People know how to cut them and use them and they sorta trick people into thinking it’s more regular bread and not pretentious.”
On the other hand, he’s flexible when it comes to embracing happy accidents. I also purchased a one-off, Insta-worthy boule from him with a wide-open, airy crumb that he made from spelt grains and new potatoes that he had on hand after screwing up some gnocchi he was making for Patchwork’s farmers. It’s every bit as good as the others.
Franks’s own Instagram account, @blessmelordforihavesneezed, is a parade of whole grain possibilities that’s hard to look away from: colonial “lost” breads made from rye and nixtamalized hard local corn, fermented oat porridges, spelt brioche, and breads loaded with unconventional additions like kabocha squash, foraged black walnuts, goat milk, and roasted pureed beets.
He says demand for bread is undeniably higher this year than last year, though he believes the home breadmaking boom is a fad whose popularity is exaggerated by the media. Nonetheless he returned to Patchwork’s farmstand this season in the middle of the pandemic and he was inundated with requests for advice about bread baking. “It’s just so simple,” he says. “You can make it really complex and get intimidated out of it because people listen to these super artsy, passionate people who want to give them these wild, complicated methods about how you have to make sourdough. But the dumbest people in the world make bread. All the stuff that people use to make bread really complicated is about making white bread. I wanted to get people to use better wheat.”
Franks sells bread at Patchwork’s farmstand at 2825 W. Chicago on Wednesdays from 3 to 6 PM and on Saturdays from 10 AM to 2 PM. He posts his selection the day before on Instagram (@blessmelordforihavesneezed). It’s best to preorder, because he usually sells out within the first two hours. v