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Three Bakeries Robert Barba

Three Bakeries

Robert Barba


Part One: The Counting

At the heart of the bakery is a great iron god. It is no coincidence that in many bakeries the oven is named Vulcan, the most popular American-made commercial oven, named for the Roman god of the forge. In my first bakery, the G.H. Bent Company, of Milton, Massachusetts, the oven was not a Vulcan, but a huge, almost room-sized, eight-shelf rotating-rack unit, built like a smaller, wider Ferris wheel into the back wall of the bakery, with two large iron wheels at each end, but instead of seats, hinged on those wheels so as to always remain parallel to the ground, baking shelves. These shelves were ten feet wide and about three deep, and were lined with a synthetic baking stone layer so the cracker bottoms would not burn. When loaded, each held over a thousand crackers.

Every late afternoon before I left work for the day it was my job to make up the starter for the next day’s crackers, called the sponge, two one-hundred pound bags of all-purpose King Arthur flour and some yeast and shortening to get things started. It would work overnight, making a slurry, supersaturated with yeast, and I would finish the dough off when I came in at seven A.M. the next morning. By eight, we would be baking, and we would do this until late morning. The crackers, called common crackers, were practically the last of their kind on the East Coast, the kind you would once have found in a barrel next to a wheel of cheddar at any New England country store. We also made old-fashioned hardtack—just flour, water and salt, almost no yeast. When eaten straight out of the box they could break a tooth, but split and warmed they were the perfect complement for a good cheese, and we shipped them throughout the country to a handful of fine cheese and cracker aficionados and to specialty shops. Our most famous customer was Lena Horne, who ordered often enough that we had a shipping stencil cut for her New York City hotel address. This was in the days before computerized shipping labels, and the bakery still used the nineteenth century technology of a stencil cut into a heavy, waxed sheet of cardboard, over which was run a hand-inked roller.

The bakery was the oldest continuously operating bakery in the United States, founded by Josiah Bent in 1801. There was a purportedly older bakery just down the road from us, in Whitman, Massachusetts, the original Toll House of chocolate chip cookie fame, but although it claimed to have been founded in pre-Revolutionary times, it had in fact opened its doors in 1917. The date on the front sign, 1709, was made-up, a marketing ploy. Our bakery, and our building, was the original, the real thing, and the oven, though a modern contraption by comparison to much of the structure, was ancient and cranky. I stood each morning at its fiery, open face and fed it unbaked crackers using a handheld peel, essentially a large, short-handled wooden spatula, about two feet wide by three deep. The crackers came to me down a long conveyer belt, and it was my job to slide the peel under them and place them in the oven, five peels per shelf. If I was perfect, the first shelf of crackers came back around too pale and would have to circulate once more, while everyone else stood around and watched. The idea was to be something just less than perfect. If my pace was right and I messed up just once or twice in the circuit of the oven, the crackers came back around golden brown and ready to be unloaded, which I did with a different peel, to protect the sharp leading edge of the loading peel, and dumped them into wicker laundry baskets for both cooling and transporting. When a shelf was emptied, I loaded it again with five more peels of unbaked crackers, and in this way we baked continuously all morning.

There were two other people involved in this enterprise. First in the sequence was the feeder, whose job it was to cut the cracker dough from the dough trough and feed it repeatedly through the mechanical sheeter, which produced a slab of dough about eight feet long and an inch thick and the width of the conveyer belt, the same two-foot width as my peel. This slab then went through a stamp die that cut the crackers, eleven to a row, and the excess dough was lifted from the conveyer belt by the stripper. The stripper was sometimes the owner, sometimes his daughter, but the stripper of choice was Flo, an older woman who had worked at the bakery for decades and who had a spirit and a temper that I had never seen before in a woman of her age. She was my first genuine Yankee, I think, and so unlike anyone I had ever met in the Midwest that I took to her instantly, though for the first month I worked there she called me by the name of the previous “cracker boy,” Bill. If I corrected her, she would say, “If you last more than a few months I’ll get your name. If you’re not going to—and I doubt it—you might as well be Bill.” Flo’s job was to grasp the corners of a manageable piece of excess dough, usually about four feet across, and deftly strip the dough away (hence her provocative title) from the stamped crackers, leaving them perfectly in rank on their march to me. Common crackers had smooth faces, but on mornings we made water crackers they came out of the die each one stamped with the maker’s mark of the G.H. Bent Company. Marked or unmarked, they went into the oven and once around and then into their wicker baskets. As I say, if all went well. If there was a problem, like if I stood too long adjusting the ragged edge of a peel-load, tapping it into line with the side of the peel, and Flo did not see me stop and let the conveyer run, and a few rows of unbaked crackers escaped onto the floor before she could trip the switch, by the time the first shelf came around they would be too dark to use, scrap for the boss’s chickens. This was a difficult lesson for me to learn. I had never held a job at which I could not daydream and was slow to give up this habit.

But if all went well, and after the first few weeks it usually did, by morning’s end there would be a dozen or so laundry baskets lined up in a row, from where I stood all the way down the south wing of the bakery to the smaller bread oven. When we finished baking crackers for the day, it was Flo’s job to take apart and clean the die and oil it and put it on its shelf until the next morning, and whoever was working the sheeter disassembled and cleaned it, and I swept the oven and then took the crackers upstairs to the packing room. This was the realm of the two older women who like Flo had worked there for decades and who were named, I kid you not, Gladys and Dottie. Gladys had worked at the bakery even longer than Flo, nearly thirty years.

I reached them by riding an ancient water-driven freight elevator to the attic. The car held two baskets side by side, and a third could be stacked crossways to them, but this then left no room for the cracker boy to ride along. If we weren’t in any particular hurry, I would load just two baskets at a time and ride with the crackers. I loved the slow noiseless rising of the antique water elevator and the way I would emerge from darkness into the dim light of the attic, stacked with every bakery accoutrement imaginable. The elevator worked on a system of ropes connected to valves that turned the water on and off. You pulled on a rope to turn the water on and the water pressure would lift the elevator slowly, hydraulically, to the next level. At the top, a pull on another rope would turn off the water and stop the elevator. There was a trick to pulling the rope at just the right moment to get the elevator to stop precisely with its worn-smooth plank floor level with the landing of the attic floor. It was the first time in my life I had worked at something like this, something imprecise but repetitive, so that one slowly learned a certain precision in the repeating.

When the elevator was loaded instead with three baskets and I was not taking the ride, I would pull the rope but only partially so that the elevator would rise at the same rate at which I could climb the stairs and so not overshoot the attic floor and have to be brought back down when I arrived. My goal was to climb the stairs at a leisurely pace and when I arrived at the wooden safety door of the elevator upstairs, to reach in and turn off the water just as the elevator crept even with the floor. This was deeply satisfying. Each basket had a length of jute cord tied through one of its handles, and with these I would pull the baskets out of the elevator and leave them to cool outside the overhead garage door that opened onto the packing room. There was a small space cleared for the baskets in the great clutter of the bakery attic which was otherwise filled with spare cookie tins, cardboard packing boxes, generations of various styles of baking pans, some still in use, most not, and even an aisle of objects related to the making and bottling of soda pop, which had been the business of the current owner’s father before he bought the bakery in 1940. These were men after my own heart, who never threw away anything that might conceivably be used again. One afternoon I found the three-ring binder that held the original recipes for the soda, and the one for ginger ale began, “Crush eight pounds of fresh ginger.”

When I had all the crackers upstairs, I would finally raise the overhead door to the counting room and drag a few baskets inside and dump a few onto the packing table for Dottie and Gladys. I would make bets with myself about what they would be talking about when I raised the door. If it were Gladys’s lead, she might well be describing that morning’s sunrise as she and her husband, who she always called Mr. Hansen, ate their morning oatmeal on their side porch at 5:30 A.M., as they did every morning. More often the topic was determined by Dottie, as she was the more talkative, and those were usually about something she had seen on TV the night before. An astonishing percent of the time this was the then-popular game show, Family Feud, starring the dashing and slightly naughty Englishman, Richard Dawson, with whom Dottie was much enamored. What was dumbfounding to me was the level of detail that Dottie seemed to have memorized, perhaps only so that she could recite the entire show almost verbatim for Gladys. Sometimes in the summer the boss’s youngest son would be out of school and would help me with the crackers, and I would amaze him with my ability to predict with uncanny accuracy when it would be Family Feud and when the sunrise. I would bend down to grasp the door handle and just before I raised it, would mouth, Family Feud and then enter stone-faced as Jimmy fought not to laugh when Dottie said, “ . . . and she guessed boiled eggs! Boiled eggs! Can you believe it?” And Gladys would laugh out loud at the sheer idiocy of the woman who said boiled eggs, and then would ask what the real answer was and Dottie would pause, look her right in the eye and announce, dramatically, “iced tea.” (Name something you would take on a picnic).

A few years later, when I was still living in Boston but working at another bakery, I went to hear the folksinger Ferron, who sang a song about working with such women at a factory in her native Canada and about her outrage at the theft of thirty years of their lives for such work, and I realized, maybe for the first time, that the world was something cruel more often than funny, and that I had better learn to tell the difference. Not stop laughing at the truly funny, but at least know the difference.

Dottie and Gladys sat on high stools around the raised packing table, which nearly filled the room. This table had high wooden sides and a hammered tin basin and held five or six baskets of crackers, which the cracker ladies counted by hand, twenty-two to a bag, twelve bags to a case. They spent their days in that high, windowed room, the afternoon light streaming in, the view to the southeast mostly forested, counting and talking to one another, day after day, year after year. They’d been there since well before I was born. Later in the day, downstairs in the bakery we would be making date bread or cookies or brownies or pound cakes, it was different every day, and the voice of Gladys (it was rarely Dottie) would come over the intercom, “More crackers please, more crackers,” and one of us would go upstairs and dump a few more baskets. By afternoon they had usually run out of things to talk about and so would ask about me—they seemed truly interested in my life, I seemed to be like no one they had ever encountered before in the bakery—a recent college graduate, a poet, a reader. I lived in a big house in the Jamaica Plain section of Boston with not only other men but with young single women. They were scandalized by this, but also deeply curious about the arrangement and what our parents thought about it. It would have been entertaining to tell them that the young women were in fact lesbians and let them chew over that deep into the afternoon, but it was not mine to tell.

This was my first job out of college. I was working forty hours a week for the first time in my life, making $6.25 an hour. I went to the movies and ate dinner out at least two nights a week. Growing up I had seen something like five movies in a movie theater and had eaten in a restaurant perhaps eight times in my seventeen years. I had been intending to go to graduate school for English Literature but wanted to take a year off, make a little money—I had never until recently had more than a hundred dollars to my name. The summer after I graduated I managed to scrape together just over six hundred dollars, which I thought a fortune and which lasted about six weeks in Boston. I had talked my way into this baking job with no relevant experience, based solely on the strength of my prose (“You oughtta’ be a scribe!” the owner’s wife said to me when she called me for an interview), and in this work I found an enduring metaphor for the rest of my working life.

Of course I have come to resent the same dumb repetition that I used to relish so, the trick of being able to pull the rope at just the right moment when I rode the freight elevator to the attic and slid the safety door aside and stepped out onto the attic floor and hit it just right so that there was no lip for the cracker baskets to catch on as I pulled them from the elevator. The attic would be filled with the steam of thousands of crackers cooling and that rich almost peaty smell of the toasted crackers, and behind it the slightly sweet smell of machine oil, and the beast of the oven turning its great wheel down below, its never-widening gyre, the unoiled hinge pins creaking and groaning in their sockets, then ringing, sometimes setting up three or four distinct notes that would come together for only an instant into an impossibly dissonant yet beautiful chord, and the cracker ladies, beautiful themselves, waiting for the counting.

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