Baking is an Old Man’s Game
May 6, 2014
The question I have been asked most frequently over the last months is, as I have said here, “When will you open?” I can answer that now:
Today at 7 am.
We are open and crowded and didn’t make nearly enough bagels, English muffins, and morning pastry.
The second question I have been asked over many more months is more complicated: “Why are you doing this?” Why would I take on a project demanding for people half my age?
In 2005 I sold The BreadLine and had no thought about opening another business. Consulting to others was the right life for a man nearing his seventies.
But one day in 2008 I had lunch at the home of a lifelong friend in Chevy Chase D.C. The bread he served looked “dark” but was in fact made with white flour darkened with a coloring and with some rye flakes sprinkled symbolically on the crust, a fake pumpernickel.
Murry apologized for the bread and asked, “Where does one go to get good bread in Washington.”
I was hearing that question often. There was no neighborhood bakery making good bread. Why, 20 years after I opened Marvelous Market, a real neighborhood bakery, had others not opened in other neighborhoods? How could it have become so hard again to find good bread?
I began to think about opening a bakery. It seemed like a silly thing for a man of my age to do. And it seemed risky too; so at first and for a long time I thought about a bakery with another business attached – perhaps a deli curing pastrami and corning beef – or a breakfast restaurant, perhaps.
But then in 2010 my sister died.
Like many others, Carla was a career-changer. A city planner turned out of HUD by the 1980 Presidential election, Carla, not knowing what she wanted to do but certainly not one to be idle, formed a support group she called “Work-seekers,” composed of other unemployed Democrats.
After a while she decided to indulge her lifelong love of reading by opening a bookstore.
Carla knew exactly what kind of place she wanted, a neighborhood place. She started it in 1984, and in 1989, she moved it to a larger space on the same block with neighbors carrying books across Connecticut Avenue, the police helping as if we were all ducks in the Boston Public Garden.
Then she enlarged it and then a bit more, always resisting pleas made to her to open branches of it in other places, understanding the value of uniqueness.
Carla had created something really wonderful for Washington. Three years later with new owners, it is even more wonderful.
In 2011, a few months before Carla died, a young couple opened a bakery in Boerum Hill, Brooklyn. I had helped them a little during their planning and just as they opened for business, that very day, their baker quit. They called me and I drove up to New York to help them and lived in their apartment for the first days of Bien Cuit.
Once again I was waking long before dawn after a few hours of sleep, arriving at the bakery to find others already at work, mixing doughs, smelling the smells, feeling tired and energized.
I stood at the door in the early mornings looking out on the urban ugliness of Smith Street. At first people passed not noticing the bakery. We put a sign on the sidewalk. A few passers-by poked their heads in. A few walked around the little store. A few bought something.
We took the unsold breads off the shelves each night feeling the uncertainty, feeling the fear. And then I returned to Washington and keep in touch with the Golpers by telephone.
Of course Bien Cuit was a huge success.
Last spring I was shown 4434 Connecticut and all seemed serendipitous. It is my old neighborhood, half a mile from Politics and Prose and the storefront in which I began Marvelous Market.
Today Bread Furst opened in that space. Here we are going to do all that we can to enrich the food life in this neighborhood as Carla enriched its intellectual life. Here we will try to create a neighborhood place, hospitable and traditional.
That it is across the street from the arcade now gone in which I had my first job in Washington, down the street from the first house I bought and from Marvelous Market that disappears as we begin makes this seem like a very good idea.
And Carla would have loved it.