Raised by (Wild) Bakers

Growing up in a bakery inhabited by flour-dusted men and icing-flecked women.

by Bakery Boy

When I tell people I was “raised by bakers,” they always seem to hear “raised by wild bakers.” Somehow the phrase conjures images of a feral child living with wolves (Mogli in The Jungle Book) or apes (Tarzan in deepest Africa) or sheep (the mysterious Sheep Boy of Ireland). Despite the shock factor, it is a pretty good conversation starter.

Working dough by hand builds muscles.

I was indeed raised by bakers in my family’s place, known as the Dutchess Bakery in Charleston, West Virginia. The men all had Mark McGuire arms, their biceps bulging not from steroids or athletic training but from endlessly working dough into loaves at long wooden workbenches. The women always seemed to have smudged rainbows of cake decorating icing on their aprons and under their fingernails.

Some were actual family members—my grandparents, parents, siblings, uncles and cousins. Others seemed like family because several generations of employees worked with several generations of shop owners. I was a teenager before I realized otherwise.

For years my clan lived in a cramped apartment upstairs from the original bakery, which has since been razed to make room for a hospital expansion. Later they made the jump to suburban living and “commuting” more than a down a flight of stairs to get to work. There was a high school across the street and an elementary a few blocks away, so we were never far from home and hearth.

Four generations of my family have used this giant oven, which can hold hundreds of loaves of bread on six rotating shelves.

I mean hearth literally: A giant Ferris wheel-style Middleby-Marshall oven with six long rotating shelves radiated intense heat at the heart of our bakeshop. Before I was tall enough to see inside, I learned to flip a lever and stop those spinning shelves on a dime for bakers loading goodies in and out—a 5-year-old following in the family tradition. In winter that oven was a comfort. In summer it provided incentive to arrive early, finish quickly, and head to some shady swimming hole by noon.

As for whether the bakers who raised me were “wild” or not, that’s a subject for future posts. Certainly not wolf-boy or ape-man wild, though I did grow up hearing plenty of hair-raising stories about Depression-era survival, World War II-era brawling, and Cold War-era worries from the men and women who shaped my worldview. As a relatively wild young man myself, I did my share of sleeping off Friday nights by crashing on hard flour sacks in the storage room in order to be on hand for work Saturday morning.

I launched this blog to share stories of growing up as a bakery boy and as an excuse to continue visiting bakeries every chance I get. In my extensive travels (I’m a journalist and travel writer by profession), my bakery fascination has led me to hundreds of them, where I often meet others who were raised by bakers, and we start swapping stories. If you like bakeries too, feel free to share your favorites here…wild or otherwise.

3 responses to “Raised by (Wild) Bakers

  1. Hi there. We are thinking of leasing a bakery space w/ an oven like the one above. No one in our area seems to know much about this. This oven has been in this space about 20 years and the purchaser/user is no where to be found at this time. The landlords inherited it. It has not been used in at least 4 years. The question….how the much gas does this use and what is the best use of this? We would be baking some breads, cookies, pan bars, cakes, pies, etc… We just don’t know if firing this thing up makes economical sense, vs. buying a new convection oven w/ mulitple shelves, etc.. This sure looks cool. Any thoughts or info would be fantastic! Have a great night.

    • Jill, you’ve stumbled upon a real treasure. But it might end up costing you a fortune.

      The big six-shelf Ferris-wheel style oven at my family’s bakery (we also have a four-shelf version as a backup) does indeed burn a lot of gas, even though it’s fairly well insulated. If you’re baking a large volume of products, running two or three work shifts around the clock like we did in our heyday, it’s worth putting your heirloom oven back into use. If you’re just getting started and you’re only baking small amounts for a few hours a day, it might not be economical to crank that big beast up, because it takes a while to reach the temperature you want, and when you’re done for the day you lose all that built-up heat. If you have enough room, maybe you should get a newer/smaller oven to start with, and keep the huge Middleby-Marshall on hold (and in working order) until your business builds up enough to justify pressing it back into service.

      By the way, if you ever have to relocate that huge thang, declare bankruptcy and slink away or move to Siberia or something! We moved ours, piece by piece, across town after an urban renewal project took our original location for a hospital expansion. Enormous amount of work, and messy, and dangerous because the old insulation is actual glass shards. Never again!

      But you’re right, those old ovens sure do look impressive, don’t they? If nothing else, while the oven’s not in use, get your whole crew inside, poke your heads through that long narrow slit of a door, and get someone to snap a portrait. I wish I’d done that before the earlier generations of my clan passed away. If you do, send me a few shots so I can blog about it.

      Good luck in your venture. – Bakery Boy

  2. Mary Jane Vandale Wood

    Your family business moved my great grandparent’s house around the corner to either make room, or more room, for the bakery. This must have happened in the early 1930s. My dad remembered the move. He was born in 1914. Moving a house must have been most impressive to a young boy. He told me the story in 2002. He also worked in the bakery as a teen ager.

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