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by Ashley Lodato

Bluebird Grain Farms staff writer

Photo Credits: Amy Sandidge

The kitchen of food blogger and culinary photographer Amy Sandidge is exactly the kitchen you want to enter when you have a hankering for a snack. Feel like a ham and cheese pocket or some laminated pasta with edible flowers? Or is your sweet tooth demanding strawberry cake with lime buttercream frosting or raspberry swirl loaf? Either way, Sandidge has you covered. Better yet, she’ll incorporate whole grain flour into what she feeds you.

Raised in Alaska, Sandidge remembers a childhood of mild foods, saying “the only spices…in our home were salt, pepper, minced onions, paprika, and garlic powder.” The variety of foods, Sandidge says, “was just as limited.” But in culinary school at the Alaska Vocational Technical School  in Seward, where Sandidge completed a culinary arts and baking program, she was “exposed to a variety of foods, spices and techniques for preparing food.”

“You would think growing up with limited exposure to new foods I would have been hesitant about trying new things,” says Sandidge, “but it was the opposite, I loved it. I did everything I would to finish my assignment early and try new things.  I still get excited trying a new food, spice or learning new preparation technique.”

Working in the culinary scene, Sandidge says she was attracted to “the fast paced environment, the drive to create new and exciting dishes and the feedback from customers,” adding, “You work hard to create beautiful and unique dishes, when the customers love it, it is such a great feeling.”

As a food blogger, photographer, recipe developer, and mom, Sandidge’s pace seems no less fast, and she’s still creating beautiful and unique dishes. These, however, are consumed enthusiastically not by restaurant diners, but instead by Sandidge’s two teen boys, her friends, and neighbors.

Feeding large groups is familiar to Sandidge, who grew up in a family of 12. (There were 10 of us [kids], all from the same parents,” she says. “Although I’m sure the thought crossed their minds, maybe even several times a day, my parents are saints for not strangling any one of us.”) Sandidge’s mother got Sandidge involved in the cooking at a young age by buying her a “huge cookbook with plenty of photos for me to ogle over.” It was this moment–the gift of a cookbook–to which Sandidge attributes her fascination with food.

Sandidge’s mother also taught her to make bread for the family, paying her 25 cents/loaf. “Besides being a saint, my mom was also smart. Money was a motivator, and I was pretty sure I would be a millionaire in no time,” Sandidge says. “Can you guess how many loaves of bread a family of 12 goes through in a week? 21, that’s how many. Every Saturday was baking day. I never did earn my millions, but it was enough for whatever trivial things I was interested in at the time.”

A few years later, Sandidge’s mother handed over the family grocery shopping to her. “She gave me our budget for the week and taught me to purchase within it to feed the family. I had $100 for a week, occasionally $120. Can you imagine that now? I spend way more than that on my family of 4,” Sandidge says. “I thought it was awesome, and absolutely loved it.Not only did I get a feel for choosing food items, but also learned to stay within budget. Thank you mom! Grocery shopping is still my favorite kind of shopping. It’s kind of like therapy for me. I continued to cook until I turned into a rotten, older teenager and wasn’t interested in cooking anymore.” Fortunately, Sandidge’s passion for cooking was restored a few years later. (As was her mother’s, once the kids were out of the house and she only had to bake and cook for two people.”

Sandidge’s food blog, A Red Spatula, is strikingly appealing. Crisp and colorful photos, the textures inherent in baked grains, negative space, echoing pops of color. “I am and have always been drawn to art,” Sandidge says. “I love the use of color in particular, I assume this came from my years as a quilter.” Although she doesn’t remember being particularly artistic as a child, Sandidge says she has “worked hard to learn techniques that help me to express myself in whatever medium I am interested in at the time.”

A dedicated student, Sandidge says “When I first started my Instagram account, my photos were horrible. I didn’t feel they showed what I was trying to convey in my food. I bought a camera and watched every YouTube video I could find.” In recent years, she says, “I have been practicing to get myself to a level I want to get to. I love to push myself to learn new ways of doing this.”

Sandidge has a “keen interest in whole grains” and has spent the past few years learning more about them and incorporating them into her family’s diet. “I stumbled upon Einkorn online when I was looking for local ancient grain,” she says. “I hadn’t heard anything about it but was intrigued. I ordered some and have been obsessed ever since.” Of Einkorn, Sandidge says “I love the health benefits, of course, but also love the way it bakes. My family has loved it.” Sandidge makes most of her baked items with partial whole grains and says that Einkorn is “perfect for families starting to transition into a higher whole-grain diet.”

Before she discovered Bluebird Grain Farms‘ signature organic Einka products, Sandidge was using Bluebird’s organic Dark Northern Rye, often grinding the rye berries herself. A supporter of small farms, Sandidge calls herself “an advocate for our American farmers.” She says that Bluebird grains “have been wonderful to work with. I used the rye in a rye bread we made for St. Patrick’s day- Ruebens are a must! I also use them in a multigrain bread I make. It has a mix of whole wheat, rye, brown rice etc and it is loaded with nuts and seeds. All the baked goods I have created with it so far have been amazing.”

Sandidge’s blog makes whole-grain cooking and baking seem both possible and appealing, and she says she has “worked hard to develop recipes that will work for anyone.” Most food blogs seem to feature either all white or all whole grain, but Sandidge falls “somewhere right in the middle,” which aligns in general with her “philosophy of moderation.” By combining whole grain and refined flours, Sandidge makes baking with an eye to nutrition accessible to the mainstream kitchen.

During the coronavirus pandemic, everyone seems to be baking, as evidenced by bare flour sections in grocery store aisle. For Sandidge, it’s business as usual, and she didn’t have to worry about sourcing ingredients. “One thing our family didn’t really worry about during this pandemic was food shortages,” she says. “I have always tried to make it a practice to have a well-stocked pantry. Most everything the stores were short on, I already had in good supply.”
Sandidge doesn’t recommend overstocking, but she does encourage pantry-style shopping, where people keep their kitchens supplied with enough ingredients to cook delicious, wholesome meals from scratch–“keeping the things we use daily in large supply.” With a little creativity, Sandidge says, limited storage space can be accommodated, and she reminds readers that “whole grains are a great, healthy food group” to prioritize.

But baking is serving more than just practical purposes in the pandemic; for Sandidge, it’s almost therapeutic, and she suspects others feel the same way. “Baking is a comfort to me as it allows me to be creative,” she says. “It is also a comfort to my family, there is something so soothing about the smell of freshly baked goods filling your house. This has been especially important during this time of upheaval, so many other things have been in limbo and out of our control, my family really needed the comfort. It sounds like most everyone else it reaching out and trying to find that comfort as well. A good home-cooked meal or baked goods makes things seem a little brighter in the world.”

You can learn more about Amy Sandidge at her food blog: A Red Spatula.