On Bread, Idealism, and Paradise
It’s graduation season and these last few days I’ve found myself reflecting on my college experience (and how I’ve used my degree since graduating…). I spent four incredible years at Smith College in Western Massachusetts, and I owe so much of who I am to that time, that place, and those people. Smith was where I began to think about food differently, more critically. Up to that point, I had convinced myself that my interest in food would be a sidelined hobby as I pursued a stable, income-generating career path. At Smith, I learned that food can be used as a lens to study all different aspects of the world, from history to economics to sociology. Food was a common thread that, in my mind, united many academic disciplines and forced them to talk to each other. It shifted my trajectory entirely.
I also apparently learned to embrace uncertainty, as I’m still working out what all that means in terms of a career and an eventual end-goal. But I think that’s pretty typical for those of us who studied at liberal arts schools. We’re more interested in the journey, anyway (*eye roll*).
At any rate, I graduated two years ago and have been a little dust particle blowing around in the wind ever since. But certain things bring me right back to Smith in an instant, as if I never left. One of those things is the memory of Hungry Ghost bread.
My first year, I was lucky enough to be placed in Baldwin House (we call our dorm buildings “houses,” to the annoyance of non-Smithies), located right next door to Hungry Ghost. There were rumors in the house that the bakery was so close to Baldwin because it was originally built for Richard Nixon’s daughter’s bodyguards when she attended Smith and lived in Baldwin, the validity of which I can neither confirm or deny. That year, I’d wake up every day to the smell of bread baking in Hungry Ghost’s brick oven, yeast and wood and fresh herbs all mingling together and beckoning me into the day. It was absolutely euphoric.
Hungry Ghost bread was a mainstay at picnics near Paradise Pond, for special occasions of any kind or for no reason at all. Smithies devoured it, barbarically tearing off chunks at a time because the dining hall butter knives were no match for the thick outer crust of the loaves. I distinctly remember one spring day, splitting a whole loaf of their rosemary bread with a friend. It’s funny how food gets intertwined with certain moments, which probably seemed unspectacular at the time. Now, thinking about Hungry Ghost bread is like playing a highlight reel of some of my favorite memories at Smith.
For these reasons, Mari Uyehara’s piece in Taste “The Bread Has a Buddhist Spirit,” which covers Hungry Ghost, could not have been more timely. With Smith already on my mind, her description of the “Happy Valley,” the idealistic utopia of bleeding-heart liberalism in that little pocket of Western Massachusetts made me intensely nostalgic:
“The region extends through tracts of land surrounding a bend in the Connecticut River: a patchwork of verdant farmlands, small city centers with low-slung buildings, and modest tree-covered mountain ranges. When the weather is nice, Stevens bikes the ten-mile stretch from his home in the woods, among bears and moose, to the bakery. Black Lives Matter and Feel the Bern bumper stickers are a common sight on Route 9; NPR is the station preset on car radios; and Be a Local Hero canvas totes float amidst the Saturday Amherst farmers’ market. This is where you’ll find the kind of earnest idealism satirized in Portlandia, but also strong public schools and decent health care. It’s Rachel Maddow country, quite literally. She launched her radio career and owns a converted pre–Civil War farmhouse here.”
She also describes how Hungry Ghost is the product of those bleeding-heart values. “In the summer, there are cello concerts and herbalist talks in their garden. They pay workers a living wage and donate leftover bread to local nonprofits… They also brought local grain back to the Pioneer Valley, which was the country’s bread basket before agricultural behemoths centralized wheat-growing in the Midwest.”
I was unaware of this last part, the fact that Hungry Ghost was responsible for revitalizing the local grain industry in the Valley. In one of my first posts ever, when my blog was just a fledgling Instagram account, I talked about the challenges of creating and sustaining local grain production. Despite the growing interest in and demand for local fruits and vegetables, local grains are often left out of the equation. Given the incredibly high upfront costs and low returns as grain prices are so low, it’s worth pausing on this. Hungry Ghost, this small bakery producing between 150-500 loaves of bread on any given day, single-handedly resurrected a local grain industry that had been dead for nearly a century.
To me, Hungry Ghost is an example of what a strong community with a pinch of idealism can accomplish. It’s easy to scoff at the so-called “paradise” that Smith College and Northampton was and is for many people. It’s also important to be critical and self-reflective, because no place is perfect and no community is without its flaws. But this story was a reminder for me of the goodness in the world, in this case good people making good bread.
It’s graduation season, which means inevitable endings and uncertain beginnings. To any graduating Smithies reading this, I want to wish you the happiest Ivy Day and leave you with a few pieces of advice:
Hug everyone you love. Tell them how much you love them.
Thank your professors and keep them posted on your life in the next few months. They really care about where you go from here.
That idealism that four years at Smith bestowed on you? Hang onto it for dear life. Things are different and sometimes weird and sometimes hard outside the Smith bubble. But there is goodness, too. Learn to look for it, and where it’s difficult to find, know that you have the ability to create it.
Most importantly, grab a loaf of Hungry Ghost before you leave. The smell of their bread is going to literally haunt you for the rest of your life.
Categories: Food Musings