In 1990, I left my desk job to become a bread baker. Not that I was an expert, although I'd spent plenty of time in restaurant kitchens and traveled in Europe and San Francisco enough to know what I was looking for—and that we didn't have anything like it around here. Three years of trial and error, apprenticeship, and several false starts later, we started the bakery at Weaver Street Market, and my life has been better ever since. One of my food mentors, Edna Lewis, chef at the Fearington House back in the early 1980s, said about the rice that she would cook up for herself: "It tastes so good, it's like your body just needs it." That's the way I feel about good bread.
But one bread effect I didn't anticipate was the passionate community that grew up around us at the bakery. For one thing, when we opened, our bread oven was barely an arm's length from the retail counter, and customers loved to share their appreciation and tell their own bread stories—what they grew up eating in the old neighborhood or the old country, why the crust was too dark or not dark enough, a particular bread they had in Italy, etc. Also, since bread is not something you stock up on, customers came by three or four times a week, usually on a regular schedule, so we were on a first-name basis with many of them. There were the "early adopters" who experienced an epiphany similar to a first taste of exceptional ice cream or chocolate or coffee, and there were the transplanted cosmopolitans who were tempted to stop complaining that the food was always better wherever they had moved from—usually New York or Europe.
In 2000, seven years after opening, Weaver Street's bread production moved to larger quarters next door in the market. While the bakers lost some of our direct contact with the bread community, we were able to make better and more consistent breads in the larger, heavier deck oven that came over in pieces on a ship from Italy and was built on site. The oven, an Agiv-Forni, maintains a constant 450-475 degrees from morning to night, whether empty or loaded with a hundred pounds of dough.
In olden days, when good ovens that would stay hot were harder to come by, folks would bring their dough to the local oven to bake the bread that would sustain them all week. Each family's loaf was cut with an identifying mark as the oven was filled. The oven was a center of village life—the heart or hearth of the community. Even now, when bread bakers get together, one of the first questions is always "What oven are you using?" The oven is key and is one reason why home-baked bread will never duplicate what a skilled baker can get from a $20,000/20-ton stone deck oven.
In 2002, some bread bakers at Weaver Street Market wondered if they could revive the tradition of a community oven. For a couple of years, about one Sunday evening a month was "Community Oven Night," and for passionate bread bakers who have to keep their day jobs, this was nirvana. Working on heavy wooden tables with 100-pound flour bins and a room-size oven can do wonders for building bread confidence.
But over time, overscheduled lives prevailed, the passion waned, and there was more interest from people who just loved to eat bread and wanted to know more about the mysteries behind this product. Subsequently, Community Oven Night morphed into an occasional Bakery Open House featuring activities that get everyone involved: kneading dough, shaping the longest baguette in Carrboro (about 8 feet), or exploring the biology and chemistry of bread baking. By far the most popular open house was the near-chaotic Pizza Making Night, with more than 50 people tossing and turning dough into pies; but when the pies emerged from the oven, rustic, golden and crusty, everyone was happy.
Since I'm no longer a baker, people often assume that I must enjoy baking bread at home. In fact, with the exception of pizza dough, I rarely bake my own bread. Why should I, when I can be part of the community of folks who dependably enjoy dropping by Weaver Street in Carrboro or Southern Village, or now Chatham Marketplace in Pittsboro, to regularly get their staple starch? I'm reminded of what someone once referred to as the espresso paradox: Many people who bought their own little espresso machine for home use found that it was less satisfying. Perhaps it was the machine's inadequacy; or perhaps it was that a critical element of the experience is enjoying it with the rest of your coffee community.
Later this year, Weaver Street's Bread Bakery will make its third major move—this time to a larger space in Hillsborough—and the oven will move with it. (This is no small feat since it is like dismantling your house, transporting it, then rebuilding and moving in immediately.) The bread community will expand again. People will continue to line up for their fresh baguette, ciabatta or rustic, and in the meantime talk to the person next to them about the incredible tomato, olive and arugula sandwich they made yesterday.