“What does bread baking smell like in heaven? It smells like bread baking. How could the afterlife possibly improve on the aroma of 540 identified volatile chemical compounds that defy scientific imitation creating the most universally accepted and loved smell in the world?”
— Martin Philip, “Breaking Bread: A Baker’s Journey Home in 75 Recipes”
If you’d been driving around Franklin County in October 2018, just south of where the Mulberry River meets the Pig Trail Scenic Byway, you might have seen him — a lithe white man in a newsboy cap and overalls with a banjo strapped to his back in a gunny sack, steering a 1930 Elgin bicycle up winding hills, with an attached wicker basket containing some flour, molasses and buttermilk. His mission? To find people who, in his words, did not live, think, vote or pray the way he did, and to feed them.
By the time Martin Philip set out on this venture — dubbed the “Baker Maker Roadshow” — it had been a couple of decades since Philip set foot in Franklin County. He’d grown up just northwest of those mountains, in Fayetteville, and left in 1988 for a spot at the prestigious Oberlin Conservatory on a pre-professional path in vocal performance. In the interim, he’d met his wife, Julie Ness — a fellow voice student at Oberlin. They’d carved out a pre-professional living in the Bay Area, riding on the crest of their vocal talents — and on the rare securities of young artist programs like the one at Opera San Jose, ones that actually paid their singers. They’d moved to New York City to find agents and auditions — the next logical steps for two young singers in pursuit of stage careers. They’d kept afloat for a while, despite student loans, little to no health care and, as Philip put it, “years of dealing with poor solvency as a singer.” Philip finally turned to lucrative but soul-sucking corporate work at a Wall Street firm, punching in for a 5:30 p.m.-1:30 a.m. shift in which he transformed investment bankers’ Excel spreadsheet data into sleek graphs and refined pitches. Philip and Ness, too, had endured the ash and grief and chaos of 9/11 as residents of the city, still raw from having lost their first child during pregnancy only six weeks earlier — a tribulation Philip describes in detail in an essay called “We Slept in That Day.” They’d mourned. They’d kept working. Philip filled in “the cracks of his week” with classes at the Art Students League of New York. And Philip and Ness started a family, with the arrival of two children.
And then, Martin Philip pivoted. Hard.
“I was about 30,” he told me, “maybe early 30s, when I started having this recurring thought. It was like, you know, I’m gonna go back to doing everything I did when I was 16. That was some good stuff. There was some stupidity, for sure, but there was also some pretty good stuff. I’m not gonna grow a mullet, but yes, I’m gonna get a damn banjo.” His mother had “intuited,” he said, that what a 16-year-old Philip needed was a five-string banjo. “It came in a box for my birthday, and I played it and played it and played it. And then I put it aside and I went to college and I tried, in a way, to access the culture of every country but my own.” So, he remedied that. He found an instrument and played Scruggs-style at first, then shifted to the modal tunings of the clawhammer style — quintessential mountain music, and about as geographically and stylistically distant from his classical baritone repertoire as they come.
And he started baking. “My mother had always baked. My grandmother baked,” he said. “I just started returning to those things.” With some kitchen experience at a Cleveland wood-fired pizzeria behind him — and a cache of sensory memories from the whole wheat loaves his parents cranked out in bulk every weekend during his childhood — Philip devoured the craft. “I think that people don’t quite understand that if you have worked in classical music,” he said, “everything else is freaking easy.” He took bread-making classes. He built a portfolio of sorts. And, unlike his vocal studies or his art classes, he found himself able to commit without “working the fun out of it.”
“It’s a staple,” he said. “Baking can be a staple in your life. Music can be a staple in your life, too. But it’s like, can an aria from ‘Rigoletto’ be a staple in your life? I don’t know. … Somehow baking was different. You can eat your mistakes.”
Evidently, most of those mistakes were stepping stones to triumphs of flour and fermentation; after applying three times, Philip landed a job at the oldest and most widely respected flour company in the United States: King Arthur Flour, est. 1790. He threw himself into his work, wearing a path between shaping bench and mixer and oven — and spending astronomical amounts of time perfecting five bread recipes for a chance to compete in the Coupe de Monde competition held every three years in Paris, often called the “baking Olympics.” He didn’t make it, but it didn’t really seem to matter. Philip was a refiner and a perfecter, a marathon runner, and the exacting process of recipe development suited him well, anyway. If he had made the Coupe de Monde, though, one of his secret weapons would have been the boxcar loaf, which he describes in his 2017 book “Breaking Bread: A Baker’s Journey Home in 75 Recipes” as follows: “Cracked corn, toasted rye berries, and smoked barley malt are swelled with whiskey and molasses and mixed with caramelized pecans and whole wheat flours. Searching for a wisp of smoke, I use the smoked Chinese tea, Lapsang souchong, for its intense pine smoke character.” He’d taken the name and inspiration from a boxcar he and his five siblings played in one day while attending an auction in Northwest Arkansas, and the things he imagined it once carried — “a marriage of wood, smoke, whiskey and leather.”
Then, “in 2016, the election happened,” Philip said. He’d been at the Macdowell Colony in New Hampshire that summer, working on what would become “Breaking Bread.” He returned home to Norwich, Vt., where King Arthur is headquartered. It’s quaint and picturesque, with a link to the grand Appalachian Trail, the Montshire Museum of Science and a historic inn. The county it sits in, Windsor, voted for Hillary Clinton by a 61.5 percent margin. “I came back from [Macdowell],” Philip said, “and we were in full swing of the election. And everything was incredibly divided. And each day on the news you’d see some clip of some person in the South spewing something that’s biased and horrible as it relates to any number of things — against women, against people of color. Like, everybody was getting torn up. And the divide was just sort of … divide-ening. And I was like, ‘OK, how do I understand this? Because I see in it that the culture that I came from is spiraling downward.’”
So, he thought, “I’m gonna go down there and see what’s going on.”
“I had this idea, like, I’m not gonna go in a car. A car is aggressive, if you pull into someone’s driveway. It’s like you’re there to collect a bill or something. And I thought, well, I could walk, but walking also in some ways could be an inconvenience for someone because then they think, ‘Oh, I gotta give this person a ride,’ or something. So I decided to do it on a bicycle. And I needed an offering; I couldn’t just roll in with my hand out or my ears open. So I decided that I would take the ingredients to bake with.”
And so it was that Philip found himself on the front porches of Jethro and Red Star and Brashears, eager to secure an hour or two with residents of an Ozark Mountain culture from which he felt increasingly alienated. People who — were it left to the sophisticated filtering mechanisms of Facebook algorithms — Philip might not have ever encountered.
He considered his route. He took out an ad in the Huntsville newspaper. He put up flyers to let the locals know, as he put it, “Hey, this guy is out there, and it might even be all right if you let him into your home.” There was the wardrobe to be considered, too. “If you show up with a Dallas Cowboys jersey on, that says one thing. If you show up in Mossy Oak from head to toe, that says something. And if you show up and you’ve got an ‘Act Up’ T-shirt on, that says something. And I thought, how can I be generic, in a way? Like, what is generic at this point? There’s really nothing. What could I do to sort of strip away anything that would give me away as being part of a place North or South, East or West? Part of a time — now or a hundred years ago? What could I do to be neutral, but without being invisible?” He settled for the overalls and newsboy cap, with a jacket, “like I rolled out of some Steinbeck thing. … Neutrality is not plausible, but I just wanted to not peg myself as being part of a tribe that would create some sort of a wedge.”
But nobody bit. Maybe he was naive, Philip admitted, to think a waving hand and a biscuit would unlock the doors of rural Franklin County for such a feat of inquiry. Instead, as he put it in a yet-to-be-published essay: “I knock at the door, the dogs go nuts, I see movement — a flick of a curtain, a shadow jumping behind the house — but then … nothing.”
It was difficult to imagine that the Martin Philip who was rendered a conversational pariah along the hairpin curves of the Pig Trail and the Martin Philip I reached via telephone were one and the same. Ten minutes into our interview, he’d covered substantive and varied ground — about his wife Julie’s current project covering Joni Mitchell’s “Blue” from start to finish. About how his dad ended up in the military during Vietnam, having enlisted to make good for some minor teenage mischief involving beer cans and a local golf course. We’d traded memories of growing up without much money in picturesque Benton and Washington counties — taking family vacations at Devil’s Den State Park instead of Disneyworld, driving the backroads as entertainment. Talk drifted, as it often does, to the brisk reshaping of the landscape of Northwest Arkansas over the last decade. New, treeless subdivisions line state Highway 264 near Lowell, and my cloistered, bucolic hometown of Cave Springs has been outed, its name emblazoned across a giant green ArDOT exit sign for state Highway 612, est. 2018. “It’s weird,” Philip said. “It’s almost like, it can access a part of the world that we shouldn’t have a fast road for.”
Eventually, Philip unlocked those doors. Within an hour of setting up a banjo in front of Turner Bend Outfitters — a camping and convenience store near the Mulberry River — he’d booked his entire week. Even then, though, it was hard. Showing up to cook in someone else’s kitchen meant you were on “posted land,” as Philip put it, every new topic of conversation to be navigated gently, and with deference. And, perhaps unsurprisingly, the thrust of those talks ended up being about how to cook beaver and backstrap more often than they touched upon political divisions. “People wanted to talk about their families,” Philip said, “and the challenges that they have.”
The Ozark stops are, he hopes, the first chapter in a set of five, in which biscuit-fueled conversations are to occur at a series of waypoints along the Arkansas River, from headwaters to the confluence with the Mississippi. He’ll document those experiences and, if all goes as planned, follow up his Vermont Book Award-winning “Breaking Bread” with another book title. “Biscuits for Strangers,” maybe.
“Food, I felt, like, is where we can come together. It’s what we all do. And we have to restore some of that common ground, just to get back to treating each other with some level of humanity. And also, we have to have some willingness to acknowledge that bias is deep, and even invisible. So the project was really about that,” he said. “And I found that it’s really not us and them. It’s all us. We are all us. And that sounds a little bit trite. But if you strip back all the ways in which we identify ourselves, there’s something that is deeper. There’s a place we can connect. And I believe it’s the first community. The first community was food. It was the way we came together over a fire or over a meal.”
Follow Martin Philip’s work at breadwright.com and find his book “Breaking Bread: A Baker’s Journey Home in 75 Recipes” at breadwright.com/martins-book