(Article for Bread Lines, Bread Baker's Guild of America magazine)
It’s quarter to five on a warm late summer evening. Sourdough loaves glow in the amber light in the small dining room of our tiny 1920’s bungalow in downtown Modesto, California, the results of a full night and day of hand mixing, shaping and baking. I pull the last of the baguettes from the oven as steam floods the tiny kitchen. Outside I can hear the familiar squeaking of the picket fence gate as my front yard begins filling with a small crowd, arranging themselves into a line. Animated with conversation, the line trails out of the yard, onto the sidewalk and down the street. I open the front door and shout hello to friends and neighbors , greet newcomers, and capture a few hugs from kids as I spread colorful blankets and cushions onto the grass next to the garden beds overflowing with wildflowers. It’s story time at Alchemy Bread. Children gather close to hear a picture book with a bread or baking theme. I read the story to the sound of giggles from the children, their families waiting to buy their weekly bread.
The hands of my regulars are laden with treasures. Homemade plum jam, eggs from backyards hens, a large bag of coffee roasted in a home kitchen, salsa, a packet of foil steaming with freshly made tortillas, bundles of flowers and a bags full of tomatoes and peppers and herbs. They are all here for our weekly tradition called ‘Friendship Bake” an opportunity to barter anything homemade or homegrown for fresh bread.
How did a tiny cottage bakery with no storefront, no marketing and no listed address on the outskirts of a rough downtown neighborhood grow to draw a crowd? The answer is community. I started baking out of my tiny home oven and delivering my bread around nearby neighborhoods in my cargo bike 3 years ago. I started small by investing a lot of time in my community. I partnered with my friend who is a doula, to give my bread to postpartum moms after their new baby was born. Donated bread to preschools, elementary schools, church dinners, and made meals for friends that were sick or injured. Taught baking classes to kids through local culinary classes and 4H clubs. Donated bread to art gallery openings, poetry readings, community garden work days, and for sharing at potlucks. Going to a weekly park playdate and arriving with a big basket of bread to share with moms and kids. This same park is where I started an initiative with a few other small businesses to make lunches with local jams coffee and fruit, load it into my bike and take it to the park to serve the homeless that live there. Each small act has touched a new web of people, and as those connections are nurtured and grown, positive word of mouth has extended the line in front of my house.
As Friendship Bake has flourished, it became an opportunity to support local artists. Featured once a month during bread pickup as part of downtown Art Walk have been watercolorists, photographers, printmakers, textile artists and florists adding beauty to our weekly gathering. A collaboration with our poetry center created “bread bag poetry”, featuring local poems in our bread bags each week, and promoting poetry events in our city. We hosted Porchfest, a community music festival put on in our neighborhoods, where anyone was welcome to stop by and hear acoustic tunes in our front yard and socialize on our porch. We even had a children’s book author and illustrator do our story time and a book signing here. These events have brought new dimensions to what we can do with bread.
Engaging with the community has continuously amended the lovely cast of characters that assemble here each week. The fruits of their labors in their hands, conversations shift from the usual “what do you do?” to “what do you love to do? or, What did you make?” and while the eclectic group includes schoolteachers, gardeners, yogis, musicians, artists, poets, woodworkers, makers, farmers, crafters, cooks and all sorts of interesting folks, bartering as a community and storytelling together has given us a glimpse into the reason we are all here; for a deeper connection, and the opportunity to really know and serve one another.
When the sun sets on friendship bake and all the bread has sold out, some regulars stick around to gather on the porch. They know that I’ll disappear into the kitchen, and reappear with homemade pizzas and a few bottles of wine. It’s over this food and conversation that we forge the next great thing we’ll do in the spirit of community, together.