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.
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.
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.