By Michelle A.L. Singer
Martin Philip’s Breaking Bread: A Baker’s Journey Home in 75 Recipes is part cookbook and part memoir—ingredients unique enough to earn this year’s Vermont Book Award.
Philip, who is the head bread baker for King Arthur Flour, is the first author of a creative nonfiction/memoir book to win the award, which was founded by the Vermont College of Fine Arts (VCFA) in 2015 to recognize extraordinary literary merit in Vermont authors. Previous recipients have won for books of poetry or short stories.
VCFA President Thomas Christopher Greene and past Vermont Book Award winners Kerrin McCadden and Major Jackson recently presented the award to Philip, calling the book “evocative,” “moving,” and—especially—“surprising.” They praised its prose and “elegance of construction.”
At 400 pages, the book was a year-long endeavor to translate into prose the hold that making, specifically baking, has had in Philip’s life. “It’s nice to stand outside of it and think about it from a higher level,” he says. “Why is food important, where food sits within communities—writing affords that.”
Philip describes the book as a journey “out and back: home, away from home, and back to home.” He goes on to explain, “The book begins in the Ozark Mountains of Arkansas with my grandmother, who was very precise—she quilted with 10 stitches per inch—and her adherence to the recipes of her family, and my mother, on the other end of the spectrum, baking without any recipes, and measuring baking powder, as I describe in the book, ‘between the heart and lifeline crease of her palm.’ It begins in this place where there’s encouragement and endorsement of throwing things together on one side, and on the other side with precision and formality and what grows out of those experiences.”
To find the narrative of the book, he says, “I just needed to walk through the chronology of what I ate as a kid, what I ate when I left home, and then the foods and baked things I’ve introduced to my community and to my own family.”
Breaking Bread is Philip’s first book, and in addition to the Vermont Book Award, it was also the Grand Prize Winner of the 2017 New England Book Festival. “I think my strength is being willing to write what I’m feeling, and I think people respond to that,” he says.
“What lifted the book into the award-worthy category was the writing itself,” says Hugh Coyle, a Vermont Book Award judge. “Martin Philip evocatively conveys the sensuous appeal of baking: the feel of dough between his fingers, the scent of bread as it bakes in the oven, and the taste of butter being released from the folds of a croissant. Furthermore, he opens up his heart to tell his own story, providing a narrative arc that few books in the nonfiction category, especially cookbooks, ever hope to achieve.”
Philip wrote the book while he worked full-time at King Arthur. He was able to adjust his work week, “since bakeries are seven-day beasts” he says, to accommodate a writing schedule and his life as a father of three. “A writing work day for me was on Tuesday and Wednesday from 10 am, when the library opened, until 2:30 pm, when I picked up my kids, so I had four-and-a-half hours to get it done. Baking is a night-time trade in a way, so when I’m working at baking on the weekends, I can be home by 1 or 2 pm.”
He lives in the Upper Valley with his wife, Julie Ness, and their children. “I think Vermont fosters sincerity in a way that is a good thing for writers,” says Philip. “You don’t have to have your guard up, it’s easier to connect. I’m glad I’m here.”
At the September 22 award ceremony, Philip took home a beautifully carved sculpture by Montpelier artist Sean Hunter Williams, made of pure white Imperial Danby marble from Vermont. Philip’s father and grandfather grew up in Vermont, and his grandfather went to Norwich University. His great-grandfather, a granite worker in Scotland, immigrated to Vermont in the 1880s to work in the quarries, where he died of exhaustion. The award itself was a moving tribute to his roots in Vermont. He also received a cash prize of $5,000. “The prize is doing exactly what it’s designed to do, which is to foster additional work,” he says.
His next project, tentatively called The Baker Maker Road Show, involves a bicycle from the 1930s, a handmade banjo (he’s been playing banjo since he was a kid), baking ingredients, and a road called the Pig Trail in the Ozarks, near where he grew up. He’s embarking on an adventure down the 52-mile road in rural Arkansas to touch base with the building blocks of community: food, music, and conversation.
“I’m going to cold-call homes and see if people will let me come inside and bake—bread, scones, grits—you name it,” he says. “We need to get back to talking. Let’s put down the handhelds, let’s get rid of this digital thing, and let’s get back to analog. Let’s find some common ground because I’m in my bubble, and you’re in your bubble, and how can we find some commonality? For me, food is commonality. Food is where community began. Food is what brought people together in a circle, and that is a strong form.”
Eight judges selected Philip’s book from among works by six other Vermont authors and poets: Katherine Arden, Jason Chin, Greg Delanty, Adam Federman, April Ossmann, and Tanya Lee Stone.
Michelle A.L. Singer lives in East Montpelier and can be reached at email@example.com