There is something mystical about baking bread. Flour, water and yeast kneaded and given time to rise, is placed into the fire and then transformed. Throughout history women have presided over the hearth, the fire at the center of the home, and along with this task they oversaw the baking of the daily bread. This month I sat down with Margaret Hunter (a.k.a. Rosy) owner of the Sweetgrass Bakery, a woman who has immersed herself in the mysteries of baking bread.
“I dreamt many of my recipes. In fact I once dreamt that my ancestor came to me holding a bowl of gruel and said ‘You should feed them what we eat.’”
The dream, though initially obscure, inspired Rosy to develop new bread recipes, calling for the ancient grains related to those consumed by her ancestors. Reviving lost baking traditions and sharing nourishing food became a calling. Rosy admits her initial motivation for getting into the bakery business arose from the fact that she couldn’t find a decent piece of bread she wanted to eat. Rosy faced the fact that if she wanted good bread she was going to have to bake it herself (she had studied baking techniques in New York and DC).
Needless to say, when she first arrived in MT there wasn’t much talk about whole-foods, whole grains and organics. At some point in the mid-seventies though, everything seemed to come into alignment.
According to Rosy, this time brought about a unique convergence of many people in the whole food and art scenes in Helena. “We all landed together within a few years time frame.” At a workshop at the Featherpipe Ranch, Rosy met her future business partners and Susan Printz, owner of the Mammoth Bakery in Missoula. Printz helped the bakery in the initial stages, finding equipment and developing an organized workspace.
Rosy, Margret Benes, Ellie Rapp, and Joe Rudolph opened the doors to the Sweetgrass Bakery on a late summer day in nineteen seventy-seven and the smell of fresh baked breads have been wafting out of those doors ever since.
According to Rosy, generosity was the spark that helped the bakery to get off the ground in those early days. “…so many people pitched in, so many people cared about us.”
What we eat can either connect us to or distance us from the people and the landscape where we live. Sweetgrass’s longevity gives credence to the idea that a business, built on human compassion and respect for environment can thrive. In the same year the Bakery opened Rosy read E.F. Schumacher’s Small is Beautiful. His philosophy emphasized shortening supply chains and using resources close-at-hand. Montana, situated on the edge of the great grassland prairie happens to be one of the best places in the world to grow grains. It made sense to Rosy that we take advantage of our grain growing heritage in Montana. She also believed that the foods that grow around us are naturally also most healthful for us.
Acknowledging the abundance of nature and our interactive relationship with it has been great importance to her, “How nature gives to us and how we can give back”.
In addition to his visions for creating businesses that protect the environment, Schumacker also lifted up the view that the workplace should reinforce human dignity by giving people the opportunity to develop their gifts and engage in co-operative relationships with others.
“It is a joy to work in a place, where you know that this food you are making tastes good, it is good for your customers. The customer is thrilled to come in and buy it and that exchange makes every moment at the bakery more meaningful” says Rosy.
The layout of the Bakery was designed intentionally to be very open, allowing customers to see the amount of care that goes into making each loaf of bread. Rosy wanted the customers to appreciate the bakers’ hard work. Sweetgrass has former employees scattered across the globe and many make it a point to keep in touch. More than a few have commented to Rosy that their time at the bakery was a seminal point in their lives. “I’m so proud of the people who used their time at the bakery to re-shape their lives and the lives of the people around them”.
When I ask Rosy about the secret behind making great bread, she comments that bread needs “time and very little attention.” She offers refreshing advice for our modern lives, in which we so seldom make room for contemplation of bread and life’s mysteries. It seems that another key ingredient for making the perfect loaf comes from knowing the story behind how it was made. Rosy loves when people call her products “home-baked”. Customers see the Bakery as almost an extension of their own home kitchens, because they know where their bread comes from and the people who made it.
Much has changed since seventy-seven and Rosy’s son Nick Duda has taken on the many of the managing duties. In spite of the years that have passed, a visit to the Sweetgrass Bakery still reminds us that food and stories need to be shared, because even the most delicious loaf of bread, when eaten alone never tastes quite the same, as when it is enjoyed with the people we care about.
Forgotten Foodways is about reclaiming our lost food heritage and celebrating the wealth of culinary and agricultural traditions that have been kept alive by industrious people in the area. Merriam Webster’s defines Foodway as “…the eating habits and culinary practices of a people, region, or historical period.” In this column I talk to people who preserve and revive lost food traditions, thus offering a fresh take on local food culture, while providing tangible ideas for aspiring gardeners, foragers and cooks.