all are welcome

(Photo by A.V.Crofts)
(Photo by A.V.Crofts)

In a primary season with sharp language around immigration, two articles beg to be read widely. Both feature programs that use the shared experience of food to strengthen the bond between immigrants to their new hometowns.

The first article profiles Hot Bread Kitchen, a top-shelf bakery committed to producing high-quality loaves of all kinds. The brainchild of New York baker Jessamyn Waldman-Rodriguez, Hot Bread Kitchen employs recent immigrants and trains them in all aspects of the bakery: from making dough from scratch to pulling fresh-baked loaves out of the oven at the perfect time. Not only do their breads sell to some of the fanciest restaurants and shops in the city, all of their bakers are placed in full-time positions after completing training.

Two hours south by train from New York sits Edible Alphabet, a project under the care of the Free Library of Philadelphia and in partnership with Nationalities Service Center. This program offers a new twist on English language training by blending language acquisition with cooking. Ingredients are the vocabulary lesson and each class ends with a shared meal. NPR recently showcased some examples of dishes, all designed for affordability and the varied tastes of Philadelphians, wherever they come from.

Baking—and breaking—bread together is a form of welcome. Given the less charitable sentiments that keep surfacing in the bluster of the primary season, I pledge allegiance to programs like Hot Bread Kitchen and Edible Alphabet who happily celebrate many flags.




a persian maple leaf

Persian sangak bread at Afra Bakery & Market in North Vancouver.  (Photo: A.V. Crofts)
Persian sangak bread cooling at Afra Bakery & Market in North Vancouver. (Photo: A.V. Crofts)

Earlier this month I packed my passport and headed north to Canada. Destination? Vancouver.

In the 20 years I have been taking weekend trips across the border, this city has never failed to hold me spellbound. Natural beauty and enviable access to forests, mountains, and water play a role. Then there is the public transit system that makes almost any US city look hopelessly antiquated by comparison. Film crews seemingly on every corner leave me starstruck. But a big part of the allure for me is how international the city is: Van appears to fit the entire world into its metro area.

One upshot of such diversity is incredible food.

My latest culinary swoon took place at Afra Bakery & Market, a Persian grocery and bakery in North Vancouver. (“Afra” means maple leaf in Persian–a fitting name for maple leaf mad Canadians.) My friends were established fans so knew that the action takes place in back at the bakery.

Afra produces sangak, a traditional Persian flatbread that dates back to the 15th century, when it was the bread of choice for the Persian army. Baked in enormous rectangles the size of tea towels, sangak is portable and adaptable–not to mention delicious, though one can imagine that it becomes more like hard tack as days pass. Afra bakes the bread in a ferociously hot oven on beds of small river rocks (sangak translates to mean “pebble” or “little stone”), ingeniously designed to turn on a center axis, so that the baker inserts the bread through one oven door and it emerges a minute or two later having made one rotation, at which point a second baker removes the bread from the oven and hangs it to cool on the wall.

Customers are welcome to enter the bakery and peer into the oven, which I naturally did, bewitched by the meditative quality of positioning the dough on a large paddle, the thwack of placing it on the hot oven floor, and then the seamless motion of extracting the bread and tacking it to the wall, creating a clothesline of edibles. Once cool, the bread is bagged and rolled. In our case, destined for a picnic up on Grouse Mountain.

The attributes that make sangak the food of choice for an army–portable and adaptable–resonate with the qualities of the Iranian diaspora, no doubt now producing this bread in neighborhood bakeries all over the world. Many Iranian Canadians left their homeland in haste, taking only what they could carry. But the brain is our most glorious suitcase of all. For many it holds entire cookbooks, an inventory of recipes to fill a library.

Afra Bakery & Market is more than a grocery store. It is an edible archive that links Iranian communities not only in Vancouver, but across the globe.


Photo by Medhi

With Easter just around the corner, the number of articles trumpeting holiday dishes has skyrocketed: Easter pies in New Jersey, buckets of oranges and aquavit in Norway and Sweden, and a host of specialty button and braided breads from Greek to Polish.

I’ve had bread on the brain, so tomorrow I’m dusting off a recipe for mazanec, a Czech sweet Easter bread that a visiting scholar from Prague passed on to me many years ago. The version I was taught involves raisins, three braids coiled in a Dutch oven, an egg wash, and then dusted with toasted almonds just like the loaf photographed above.

My impatient streak means most bread recipes and I part ways when my eyes glaze over at the words, “Let the dough rise a second time…” I’ve perfected the “no need to knead” bread recipe that Mark Bittman wrote about in the New York Times five years ago–but even with this simplified version I cut out half the steps and just scrape the dough from bowl to dish and bake. Hasn’t failed me yet.

But once a year (or once every five years or so) I’ll willingly roll up my sleeves and take on a recipe that requires more ingredients than I can count on one hand and multiple risings. The flour will fly, I’ll scrape at the bowl with vigor to introduce air into the dough, and we’ll see how well I remember how to braid four strands (thankfully, I drew myself visual aids lo those many years ago). This cousin of the hot cross bun is worth the effort.

Veselé Velikonoce!

bread as a bridge

Photo by adactio

I just returned from four days in Philadelphia, where I stayed in my childhood home and remembered what it feels like to be warmed by the summer sun. I also got to revisit a childhood taste memory: ice-cream made with milk from local cows and sold by the same creamery. Goodnoe opened in 1955, and it was our go-to destination after Quaker Meeting on Sundays. Sure, they served full food fare, but you went there for the ice cream. Goodnoe closed its doors a few years ago–lore has it one customer bought as many pre-packed gallons as she could for her deep freezer–but miraculously, the younger generation of the Goodnoe family decided to revive the business, so they’ve opened a new location just this past year that scoops up their trademark enormous cones the size of softballs that won’t dent the wallet. My maple walnut single-scoop never tasted so delicious.

On outings, the taste of a Goodnoe cone is a touchstone for me. But if we’re eating in, the house I grew up in is one where we break bread–loaves and loaves of it. That’s not to say that my mother doesn’t have a healthy supply these days of ice cream in the freezer–she could serve a dozen unexpected guests sundaes without leaving her kitchen–but in the house where I grew up, bread rules the roost.

Bags of it occupy the cutting board, now famously concave from years of sawing through bagels and slicing chewy rye for sandwiches. It takes up space on the top shelf of the refrigerator, where bags relegated to the chill await their fate as French Toast, having used up their shelf-life on the cutting board. More loaves await defrosting in the freezer, both purchased and in the case of banana bread loaves, baked by my mother. No matter how many social engagements I cram into a visit home, Mom’s always got a loaf I can grab as a gift for a host. It’s a magical never-ending supply.

Little wonder then that the Boston Globe article on Lynne Christy Anderson’s new cookbook, “Breaking Bread: Recipes and Stories From Immigrant Kitchens’’ (University of California Press) caught my eye.

To be fair, Anderson’s cookbook goes well beyond the realm of bread. The story is a great one: as a professor she used food as a topic of conversation to engage her immigrant students–a classic nod to the universality of cooking and eating, even if what we eat and cook is distinct. The term “breaking bread” immediately brings to mind hospitality, community, and cooking. Happily though, in the breaking of bread, bridges of understanding are built.