A Bicycle, A Banjo And Biscuits

A Bicycle, A Banjo And Biscuits

Baker takes to road to collect stories of the Ozarks


“I like stories,” says Martin Philip, a writer and Fayetteville native. “I find the lives that each of us lead — small, large, jackpot or broke — fascinating.”

So later this month, Philip is setting out to collect stories on a Northwest Arkansas “Baker Maker Roadshow,” taking only a 1930 Elgin cruiser bicycle, a banjo and a basket of ingredients he intends to use in kitchens along the way.

“The road show was (no kidding) a ‘shower moment,’” he says. “I had been thinking about the way that we — neighborhoods, cultures, counties and countries — have become divided. We live in social media buckets, divided by algorithms that show us more of the same. What’s lost in that equation is humanity, empathy and, I believe, community. I see food as the oldest source of community. Why not bring us back together using food as common ground? So the road show idea evolved — a bicycle, a banjo, biscuits. ‘Taxicab Confessions’ meets Johnny Appleseed.”

It’s arguably not the strangest twist in Philip’s life or career. If he hadn’t lived it, he might not believe his own story, he admitted, laughing. How does a small-town singer end up at the Oberlin Conservatory? How does that singer then morph into a successful investment banker in New York City? And how does that investment banker become a baker in Vermont? Speaking with Philip, it seems the answers to all three questions were the same: Serendipity, determination and hard work.

“You, me, everybody — you go back two generations, and we come from people who did things with their hands,” he said in a 2016 interview with Julia Reed. “We’re just not that removed from it, even if we have fallen out of it. Baking is my way of going back.”

That connection is what pulled Philip away from the lucrative halls of Wall Street to start over as a beginning baker at King Arthur Flour, a Norwich, Vt., business that dates to 1790. As he told it, the shock and horror of Sept. 11, 2001, made him realize he was disconnected from any meaningful work. And the years spent at his mother’s hip baking in Fayetteville prompted the idea of reconnection through yeast, flour and food.

“I bake because it connects my soul to my hands, and my heart to my mouth,” he says.

“I’m always impressed by Martin’s passion for baking and giving back to the community,” says Carey Underwood, director of mission-driven partnerships and programs at King Arthur Flour. “I can’t think of a time when he’s says ‘no’ to one of my sometimes unusual requests — from test baking with spelt and cornmeal from a young organic farmer in Wisconsin, to making hundreds of pizza doughs for farmer socials, to teaching at the Vermont Foodbank’s Community Kitchen Academy. The list goes on!”

That passion helped Philip rise to represent the United States in the 2016 Coupe Du Monde — sometimes called the “Baking Olympics” — held once every three years in Paris. Other competitors created brochures to go with their entries. But overachiever that he clearly is, Philip wanted to up the ante with a book to accompany his final round: five recipes, five loaves of bread, one chance to win. The result, “Breaking Bread: A Baker’s Journey Home in 75 Recipes,” brought Philip to teach and speak last March at Brightwater: A Center for the Study of Food in Bentonville. On that visit, he collaborated with baking and pastry chef instructor Vince Pianalto — but it was a reunion, not an introduction.

“Martin and I — along with his brother, Mike — worked for several years together at Muley’s [restaurant] in Fayetteville,” Pianalto says. “We all had different jobs: Martin was a line and prep cook, Mike bartended, and I was a server. That would have been in the late ’80s to mid ’90s.”

In the classroom, Pianalto says, “Martin’s knowledge base and technique are unsurpassed. But more so, Martin has a very calming approach when he speaks about baking. His passion for the craft, however, shines through his delivery of instruction. While seemingly calm, he definitely exhibits a true mastery of baking. Upon his last visit, he arrived with excel spreadsheets with a very regimented timeline!”

Pianalto says he learned from his old friend, just as his students did.

“As a baker and an educator, Martin and others have shown me that educating yourself is a lifelong process,” Pianalto says. “He and I both believe that, while many call Martin — and sometimes, me — an expert, knowledgeable is a more apt description because there is always more to learn.”

Philip’s road show is his latest effort to continue his unique education. After teaching again Oct. 19 at Brightwater — and drinking as much Onyx coffee as he can — “my plan is to start at Brashears” and ride toward Ozark, he says. “I hope to find friendly faces and folks along the way who are willing to spend time talking and sharing stories while I make biscuits, grits, a pot of beans or a loaf of bread. The road show will give voice to these stories, finding common ground, listening, bridging the gap between where I am and where I came from.

“I would love to have some scheduled visits,” he adds. “And I’m very curious to see how people might respond to a ‘cold call.’ I have a decent reputation as a baker and cook; I’m hoping people will take a chance that I can at least whip up something delicious.”

Since “Breaking Bread” came out in the fall of 2017, “it’s been a busy year with quite a bit of promotional work,” Philip says. “I’ve been able to travel some, visiting libraries, bookstores and festivals. I have met many engaged bakers — and readers, too! — and this is always a pleasure. The book won the grand prize at the New England Book Festival and [in September] was awarded the 2018 Vermont Book Award. It’s been interesting to watch my connection to it change — I might write something different if I began anew, today. And occasionally — but not always — I read it and enjoy some of the words and sentences.

“I think my baking has largely remained on its own trajectory,” he adds. “I continue to pursue flavor, beauty and the improvement of my own skills. The quiet world at the keyboard is removed from the heat and noise. Maybe that’s why writing has been such a gift. It’s so different.”

Philip admits that during his road show, he plans to “write a few chapters of notes on the experience and see if my publisher is interested. I’d love to return and compile a book-length collection of essays and remembrances.”

“Northwest Arkansas has changed substantially,” he says. “I miss the old but also celebrate the new.”

Courtesy Photo
As he told it, the shock and horror of Sept. 11, 2001, made Martin Philip realize he was disconnected from any meaningful work. And the years spent at his mother’s hip baking in Fayetteville prompted the idea of reconnection through yeast, flour and food.

Courtesy Image
Philip has titled his “baking, story collection and cultural journalism project” the Baker Maker Roadshow.



Get Involved

Martin Philip says the best way to connect with him during his “Baker Maker Roadshow” is to email him at martin@breadwright.com. He’ll arrive in Northwest Arkansas on Oct. 18. Look for more information on his website at breadwright.com.

Becca Martin-Brown is Features editor for the Northwest Arkansas Democrat-Gazette. Reach her at bmartin@nwadg.com or on Twitter @nwabecca.

Categories: Food