My name is Graison and I am a baker in New Orleans. I wanted to write you about two things that may interest you or that you might help me with.
The first is a program that we are organizing around St Joseph’s day on March 21st. This year will be my third year baking for an altar in New Orleans; and, as part of my personal desire to elucidate and annunciate the traditions of working class food artisans, we are hosting an informal panel discussion about altars and altar makers. I had my first restaurant job at the age of fifteen in California; from a young age I saw how only the plate of food received attention or understanding. When, in fact, we are plagued in America with the celebrity of chefs and of eating out; yet few people understand the fact that Food is made by People, folks who don’t necessarily have agendas or capital or know-how. Cooks and bakers and all the other small people put muscle on the bone of the industry; yet people are only exposed to the richly painted fingernails and glittering smiles of the restaurants. Behind all that is an incredible architecture—both human and edible—that means much more to this country than anything else.
It is with these considerations in mind that I wanted to not only bake bread for an altar, but to bring people together to discuss altars. Particularly, I want to give a voice to the bakers and altar-makers who typically do not speak with words; our work is shared through our food, but sometimes it takes more than taste or visuals to truly comprehend and appreciate what we endeavor to share.
If you think that SFA is interested in participating in this event, I’d love to have you. I recently became a member, and am not sure how exactly the organization contributes to such events in the broader region. We don’t need money or financial sponsorship; but emotional, media, or participatory support would be most welcomed.
Bread and baking are very misunderstood crafts in America. People consider very recent trends and styles to be precedents, when in fact the country and region have an incredibly deep history of baking. For example, in New Orleans, the belief that Poor Boy bread is the paragon of baking is quite incorrect. White, fluffy bread became ubiquitous around the same time that other commercial, industrialized foods/products such as Campbell’s, Velveeta, Wrigley’s, and Model T’s became available. In the 1920s, credit and machines were easily available, hence the industrialization and commodification of food in the home, field, supermarket, and bakery. (Hence, white, industrially produced Poor Boy Bread).
My desire as a baker is to educate people about the rich regional tradition of bread and baking. At our bakery we are sourcing wheat grown only 500 miles away in Texas and we use Avery Island salt in all of our breads. We are one of a dozen bakeries in the country, and the only one in the Deep South, that stone mills all of its whole grain flours fresh. We are doing this work because we love it, and because it needs to be done: just as a vintner is concerned with their grapes, a barista with their beans, and a cheesemaker with their milk, bakers must be concerned with their grains.
If any of this interests you please let me know. It is imperative that the discussion and inclusion of cereal grains be included into the greater conversation of Southern Food. If there is someone you think I should get in touch with about that, particularly at SFA, please let me know. And, because we hold educational workshops in New Orleans, organized around the history and practice of baking, we would really like to participate in the oral history aspect of the SFA; a lot of the bakers are slipping away, and their stories are imperative if New Orleans is to retain its texture.
Thanks for all your time, I hope it didn’t disrupt your day. Be well and I look forward to hearing from you soon. Below is a description of participants in our panel:
- Sal Lo Guidice is the former owner of United Bakery on St Bernand Ave: a true anchor of the Sicilian artisan community.
a video of their work from the early 90’s is here: http://www.louisianafolklife.org/LT/Articles_Essays/SaintJosephDay.html
- My bakery and my ideas are found here: bellegardebakery.com
- Brocato’s Italian Ice and Bakery. The owner, and scion so to speak, of the bakery (Arthur) will be coming.
- Professor Kim Vaz of Xavier University. https://www.facebook.com/pages/St-Joseph-Altar-at-Xavier-University-of-Louisiana/230742310343168
- Dana Logsdon, head baker at Brocato’s, will be moderating. http://www.bestofneworleans.com/gambit/for-bakes-sake/Content?oid=1244457
- Sandra Scalise Juneau, one of, if not the, last practitioner and educator of the Sicilian lace cutting technique will be participating. http://neworleanspodcasting.com/SandraScaliseJuneau.shtml
- And we will have someone from the Mardi Gras Indian / Black Spiritual Church aspect of the altar tradition. Most likely that person will be Bishop Efzelda Coleman of the Spiritual Church.
Graison S. Gill
“Wheat is life boy. Don’t let anyone tell you different.”