Last spring I was supposed to travel to the west coast of Ireland for work and return to one of the Aran Islands, Inis Mór, a place I had visited in my 20s. I have memories of a particular meal served in a whitewashed cottage on the rugged, windswept coast. A cook opened her house for one seat a night, and in the warm dining room by candlelight that morning, I ate caught and seasoned seafood from her garden, fennel and potatoes from her garden, and warm brown bread served courtesy of local goats. I recently read that the culinary offerings in the Aran Islands were thriving and I practically got to try this food all over again.
For me, the place has always been closely related to food. I worked in the food service for years, sent myself to college, and supported my early years as a freelance writer. I served hot dogs from a truck, waited for tables in upscale restaurants, and spent several peripatetic years on a tour bus seeing the country caterer for rock bands. I learned how to chiffon and braise, how to combine wines, but most importantly, I learned how carefully prepared meals resonate with people and how recipes offer insight into geography, history, politics and culture. When I travel, I look for off the beaten path places where the locals eat – or I speak into a private kitchen – because I believe the way we cook and what we have in our pantries is one the safest is ways to understand a place and connect with its people and their stories.
I never made it back to Ireland because of the pandemic. Instead, I stayed in my hometown of Baltimore, inland. My husband set up an office in the dining room, my daughter finished third grade online, and our puppy, annoyed with everyone being in his room all day, started eating the carpets. I started traveling in my head. I reread the books of the author Tim Robinson, who drew intricate maps of the Aran Islands he lived on. Robinson made his home the place of his exploration through a study called the “Deep Map”: he not only examined the current cartographies, but also examined the phyllo-layers of history, landscape, nature and folklore. (Unfortunately, his explorations ended in April last year when he died of Covid-19.) As the pandemic rewrote our movements, I longed for travel, for fresh landscapes – for a literal flow in nature, beyond the WiFi-enabled in headed my house. For me, travel has always meant fleeing the city I live in, but what if like Robinson was approaching Baltimore as a destination? Could I start seeing the scenery of my city again?
My first stop at the start of the pandemic was a bakery called Motzi Bread, run by husband and wife Russell Trimmer and Maya Muñoz, located in the Harwood neighborhood of northern Baltimore. When flour disappeared from shelves last spring due to global demand, I read the story of a 1,000 year old mill in England that went back to its roots and milled flour. I was wondering where my flour comes from. In Motzi (pronounced "MOAT-zi"), all bread and baked goods are made from grain grown in the Chesapeake Bay watershed and ground on site. This makes it one of the few shop bakeries in the country that only uses local wholemeal products.
On my first visit, I decided to take the slow route and walk instead of driving. Instead of following the grid of sidewalks that ran along busy streets, I followed the water. Baltimore is portrayed as the city of horror and crime so often that we can forget its rich topography. It is located in a fertile stretch of the Piedmont Plateau and is crossed by rivers and streams that make their way to Chesapeake Bay. Right off the busy four lane road near my home is a path that follows a creek called the Stony Run.
Maya Muñoz and Russell Trimmer, owners of Motzi, in the Harwood neighborhood of Baltimore.
Baking materials at Motzi.
“When it comes to something like bread, it should be accessible to people,” says Muñoz.
ABOVE: Maya Muñoz and Russell Trimmer, owners of Motzi, in the Baltimore neighborhood of Harwood. BOTTOM LEFT: Baking materials at Motzi. BOTTOM RIGHT: “When it comes to something like bread, it should be accessible to people,” says Muñoz.
I came off the path on the edge of the Homewood campus at Johns Hopkins University and from there passed the Baltimore Museum of Art, where the outdoor sculpture garden offers views of Alexander Calder and Auguste Rodin. In a car, Motzi is easy to miss. But when I left, the bakery hit me a whole block away with the exquisite smell of fresh bread. Then I saw the line of people, about 20 of them, waiting six feet apart on a busy city street. It wasn't until I turned the corner on East 28th Street that I saw the bakery itself, which was on the first floor of a row house at the end of the unit. A sign reminiscent of a European shop hangs over the door, and a large glass window offers a view of the narrow bakery, where a snow shower of flour covers wooden tables. Open racks held rising dough in bread pans. I watched Trimmer open the door of a professional oven to fetch several golden brown loaves with a wooden paddle.
Motzi started out in 2019 as a subscription-only bread shop from the couple's kitchen. People signed up for a bread for a week and picked up their orders from the porch. In spring 2020 they opened the bakery on their renovated first floor. Now the couple, both 30 years old, sell over 450 loaves of bread a week and deliver to restaurants at the same time. Muñoz, wearing a mask, holds the line for one user at a time, but on many days things are slow as this is more than just a transaction. Muñoz knows the customers – both neighbors and bread lovers from all over the city and the county – and most of them want to chat and feel the joy of a simple human exchange that is so rare these days.
Later the three of us sat in the bright warmth of the bakery. Photos of farms line the white walls. Trimmer had worked on a small Maryland farm that grew crops and practiced sustainable agriculture. This was part of an alliance of farmers striving to reclaim the soil from decades of industrial farming before it began baking in restaurants. "I saw that there was a need for bakers who could work with whole wheat flour," he said. "These really weren't in the wheelhouses of most of the bakers they want to experiment with."
Many flours, even many whole grains, are often sifted free of the outer bran. "Why bother growing great grains to throw away the most nutritious part?" Said Muñoz. "The reason is that it's harder to work with a product. Bakers often prefer the white merchandise material because it's more consistent and it's a blank canvas for the flavors they put in."
Motzi's breads are flavored primarily from the flour itself, which they ferment, creating a range of options from crispy sourdough to slightly sweeter, fruity breads. I went for einkorn, a nutty-flavored bread made from a traditional wheat grown in Pennsylvania. Then there are the pastries: crispy, flaky croissants with a robustness from the grain; Pain au Chocolat with a vein of rich, dark chocolate.
Motzi now offers subscriptions where customers can buy credits for bread each week and use their credits to buy bread for others, which the couple will then donate. "Pay-it-forward breads happened when we started transitioning in the middle of the pandemic," said Muñoz. "We know there is always food insecurity in Baltimore, but right now, and we wanted to respond to that." You have an average of 80 donated loaves per week.
As the pandemic persisted, they offered a price at the bakery where you can pay what you can. "When it comes to something like bread, it should be accessible to people," she noted. Interestingly, Muñoz said that sometimes customers feel like they can't pay a lower price. "People are not used to receiving that kind of power."
The couple named their business after Hamotzi, the Hebrew blessing given on bread. In the Jewish tradition this is more than a prayerful thank you for a meal; It is a recognition of the labor that has grown the grain and of the divine grace that "brings bread from the earth". It is a blessing for a meal together, for the land and work that made it possible, and for the hope that everyone will share in the gift.
One of the restaurants serving Motzi bread is Larder, a 15-minute walk southwest of the bakery. It is located in the Old Goucher neighborhood in a unique complex of historic buildings rented by Lane Harlan and partner Matthew Pierce, who also have a nearby taqueria called Clavel and a bar, W.C. Harlan. The complex known as Socle was designed by Harlan and Pierce as a modern beer garden and wine bar called Fadensonnen. It has grown into a dining collective of larder and sophomore coffee, all built into a 19th-century residence and carriage house with an outside deck and wood stove in between. Harlan recently added a store specializing in natural wines called Angels Ate Lemons. Larder, which opened in 2019, is the vision of 43-year-old chef Helena del Pesco, supported by her spouse Joseph del Pesco, 45, an art curator. The del Pescos moved from San Francisco Bay to Baltimore in 2016, where Helena was an artist and cook who spent time in kitchens like Alice Water's famous Chez Panisse. One of her first things to do in Baltimore was touring farms. "There is such an amazing little farming collective in Maryland," she said. Larder uses organic and locally sourced meat to prepare meals for Socle's customers and other businesses.
I went over a day and spent an afternoon wearing a mask in the kitchen with Helena and her three wives. Cookbooks and glasses of shiny canned fruit and fermented vegetables stood on wooden shelves. I was picking fresh parsley leaves as the staff in the tiny kitchen moved and neatly maneuvered around each other as if it were choreographed.
Helena spent three years of her childhood in a Tennessee community learning the principles of community and activism through food. "It emphasized what you ate as part of the social change you can make in the world," she told me as she put together a robotic coupe to chop up radishes. While studying arts at Minneapolis College of Art and Design and the University of California Graduate School at Berkeley, she became interested in what is now known as social practice, which promotes human interaction and discourse. She devised participatory public art projects with food, including one where she cooked a 12-course meal for 12 people based on their individual immigrant stories.
At Larder, Helena not only brings traditional methods such as fermentation into her menu, but also uses the space as an infrastructure for the community. Prior to the coronavirus pandemic, she and Joseph opened the kitchen to Baltimore-based international chefs for pop-ups and held classes on lacto fermentation and pickling.
Since opening, Larder has offered tiered prices for their groceries so people can pay for what they can afford. Amid various city orders to close restaurants during the pandemic, the couple launched a CSR last fall – a community-sponsored restaurant. Customers pay a month in advance and collect the groceries along with fresh produce from local farms every week. On the day of my visit, Helena and her staff were busy preparing a duck cassoulet for the 80 CSR members (there is a waiting list). Helena's dishes are traditional riffs – calming and complex at the same time. I've seen the secret is in the layering of flavors. The duck cassoulet, for example, has a creamy coco bianco base and resembles a real French cassoulet, but hers is topped with their quarantine herb, a surprising, savory addition. While experimenting with a vegan dressing, I watched her loosely follow a recipe but add her own ingredients, including a salty, slightly tangy brine made from pickled habanada peppers. Helena makes her own dry spice mixes from local ingredients and sells them in her shop. Every spice, every dish has a story. For example, the bay leaves she put in a steaming pot "came from a neighbor on the block who had figured out how to create a microclimate in his garden and grow a bay tree," she said.
Helena has developed a relationship with all of the farmers she works with and when I asked her who I should visit next, she sent me to someone who wanted to tend the local landscape.
Helena del Pesco, 43, is the cook at Larder, which opened in 2019.
Desserts at Larder.
Prior to the pandemic, Larder opened the kitchen to international chefs who lived in Baltimore for pop-ups and classes.
ABOVE: Helena del Pesco, 43, is the cook at Larder, which opened in 2019. BOTTOM LEFT: Desserts at Larder. BOTTOM RIGHT: Prior to the pandemic, Larder opened the kitchen to international chefs living in Baltimore for pop-ups and classes.
Marvin Hayes is Program Director of the Baltimore Compost Collective, an organization that collects leftover food from residents of several neighborhoods in South Baltimore and composts it at Filbert Street Community Garden. I don't know anyone who “went to a composting site” on their travel wish list, but this place is very different – and it's definitely worth it. The community garden in the Curtis Bay neighborhood of South Baltimore was established in 2010 as part of the city's Adopt-a-Lot program. It's on a hill, surrounded by houses, overlooking the water. I knew I had arrived when I saw the monumental Curtis Bay Water Tower, an Art Deco marvel from the 1930s that was built from over 20 bricks. The garden is next door.
I got there early and waited for Hayes in front of the fenced-in garden that is the width of a city block. On the other side, several miniature goats were basking. Ed, a black and white goat that I would soon get to know, is an indescribable attention seeker. I ran my fingers through the link and rubbed his muzzle. Within minutes a cinnamon brown tabby came by, gave Ed a disdainful look, and rubbed the fence for my attention.
"I see you met Pumpkin Spice." Hayes is a tall 48 year old and his energy is infectious. When we entered the garden, the animals perked up and began to chat. A Shetland sheep named Eedee jogged by immediately.
Calling this hectare of land a "garden" feels like a misnomer. It's a wonder what happens on this humble lot, which is open for tours, yoga, movie nights, and classes in animal husbandry, composting, gardening, and beekeeping – when there isn't a pandemic. "Over there are the raised beds for the residents," stressed Hayes. “The people in this area live in a neighborhood with insecure diets and apartheid. It takes most people more than 30 minutes to get to a market. There is no fresh food and the air is polluted. "Hayes is referring to the city's incinerators, which are puffing up clouds of smoke not far from here.
He took me to a chicken coop, where the waterfowl – ducks, geese, turkeys, and chickens – cheerfully alerted us as we approached. Most of the eggs produced weekly are given to the neighborhood. The duck eggs are the most popular. "We call them our snobby eggs because all bakers want them, they have so much egg yolk," said Hayes.
There is a goat house, an apiary with almost 70 beehives, a tire house with a winter harvest of kale and sweet salad. On a tool shed there is a green roof made of sedum and solar panels that can be used to fire garden tools. Curtis Bay, like some other Baltimore neighborhoods, is an internet wasteland – more than 40 percent of city dwellers don't have reliable internet access – so solar energy fires off a wireless router.
All animals here will be rescued, including many bees collected by Filbert Street staff after alerted residents called the city's 311 system about swarming. Hayes' namesake arrived in November after a shelter found an emaciated duck that was abandoned and wandering through South Baltimore. Now Marvin the duck is croaking excitedly in the midst of the brood that is demanding lunch.
To occupy a corner is the compost lot. Hayes built two three-bin systems with the help of volunteers. Large wooden containers are filled with a mixture of leftover food, worms, hay and leaves. In four months, with the attention and care of Hayes and the teenagers he hires and trains in composting, the waste turns into what he calls “black gold”. Hayes and his youth worker crew discharge 400 to 500 pounds of waste from the incinerator and landfill each week. Hayes hopes that his humble business will spread to community gardens across the city, that people will learn to compost their leftover food, and that he can help make Baltimore a city free of waste. "I'm going to starve this incinerator with every piece of food waste I compost," he said.
It crumbled some of the damp humus in my palm. It smelled of clean, wet earth. It was jet black and smeared my skin like a grease stick when I rubbed it on my fingers.
Then we went through a small orchard with pear, peach, apple, hazelnut and fig trees. Hayes & # 39; favorite are the papaws, which are native to the mid-Atlantic. “I call this the urban mango. They're delicious. "The honeycombs they harvest from the bees smell of the pollen of the fruits and flowers they grow here, including the native black-eyed susan. You can taste the landscape in the honey. When I walked, my fingers off stained black gold, I thought of the French fiercely protecting the notion of terroir, and in a city like Baltimore we forget we have it too.
Marvin Hayes is the program director of the Baltimore Compost Collective, which gathers scraps of food from several parts of South Baltimore and composts them at Filbert Street Community Garden.
Beehives in the garden.
Goats in the garden.
TOP: Marvin Hayes is Program Director of the Baltimore Compost Collective, which collects leftover food from several parts of South Baltimore and composts it in Filbert Street Community Garden. BOTTOM LEFT: Beehives in the garden. BOTTOM RIGHT: Goats in the garden.
Across the water from Curtis Bay is the waterfront historic Fells Point neighborhood in East Baltimore, as the crow flies. This is a place I thought I knew well. This is where my family's own story in America began. My maternal grandfather grew up on Ann Street, just blocks from the water, and spent his career at nearby American Can Co. My maternal grandmother's family emigrated from Germany through the port of Baltimore. I can trace my interest in cooking to the sauerbraten, slow-cooked beef, and my grandmother's dumplings, which I made for her at every feast.
Parts of Baltimore, especially the land here along the Chesapeake Bay, belonged to the Piscataway and Susquehannock tribes before colonization. During the 1940s through 1960s, East Baltimore was also home to large numbers of Lumbee Indians from Robeson County, NC. They migrated north to escape the Jim Crow South, where many rushed to their former tribal home and were unable to start a life. So many Lumbee people lived within a handful of blocks in East Baltimore by the mid-century that it was called a "reservation". Food has always been an important part of Lumbee history in Baltimore, but few Baltimoreans know about that history today.
I met Ashley Minner one day on South Broadway, in the heart of the former Lumbee reservation. Few Lumbee people now live in the original neighborhood; Most moved to the suburbs decades ago, like Minner's Lumbee family. Minner is an artist and public historian. Since 2003 she has been collecting oral stories and artifacts related to the Lumbee story in Baltimore while mapping her existence in East Baltimore. Her research for her graduate program at the University of Maryland in College Park and her time as a folklorist have resulted in a new Lumbee archive called the Ashley Minner Collection, which will be housed in the Maryland Folk Folk Archive of the University of Albin O. Kuhn Library Maryland Baltimore County.
Just a few blocks south, luxury hotels, oyster houses, and bars with herbal cocktails line the cobblestone streets along the harbor. It's a far cry from the work port where my grandparents lived or where the Lumbee people arrived. But here, on the verge of impending gentrification, there are still hints of a diverse city: a Brazilian market, an Ecuadorian restaurant, a Guatemalan grocery store with a Spanish-language radio station.
We stood in front of the South Broadway Baptist Church, an 1840s Greek Revival building that the Lumbee had bought in the 1970s. "I like to start my tour here because this is one of only two remaining buildings Lumbee has ever owned," said Minner. "There was always a North Carolina Lumbee preacher in charge at this church, and there are stories of people who stop by during the service and they think the guy is speaking in a foreign language, but it's just Lumbee."
Fells Point has always been a place of diversity and food thanks to its history as an active haven. The Lumbee used to be known for their cuisine, Minner told me, and they brought their brand of grill – which is chopped and served in a vinegar-based sauce – to East Baltimore. A restaurant called Hartman & # 39; s BBQ Shop served the working class neighborhood from 1959 to 1961. “They fed construction workers, not just Indians, but everyone, and it was on the honor system. People came for lunch every day and came back on Friday to pay, ”Minner said.
Barbecue helped buy their church. "Lumbee are ubiquitous Southern Baptists and Methodists, and the Church was the first thing they needed to feel safe in this city," Minner said. "Working class Lumbee raised $ 90,000 and they raised it through the sale of plate food."
Because Minner kept the Lumbee Baltimore story alive through historical research and oral lore, her cousin Rosie Bowen keeps it alive through food. Bowen has owned Rose's Bakery in the Northeast Market for several years, but as a child she started collecting Lumbee recipes from her grandmother. Fried corn bread. Sliced green sandwiches. One dish, the lumbee chicken and pastry, reminds me of a chicken version of my grandmother's sauerbraten. Bowen returns to Robeson County each year to buy cornmeal, sweet potatoes, and pecans for her recipes and for the Lumbee diaspora hungry for a touch of home.
As Minner and I continued our walk north along Broadway and headed to Hartman's former location, she told me she calls this her ghost tour. "Most of the places we will visit have either been destroyed by urban renewal or no longer exist as Lumbee businesses."
"What makes it important for you to show what is gone?"
"Since I am in the skin that I am in, people look at me and assume that I am anything but who I am," Minner told me. "If you don't see yourself portrayed in the landscape, if you don't see yourself portrayed in the media, this is a mess for you." You ask yourself: am I really Indian? Am I Really Lumbee? But when you see pictures of what was and understand for yourself, by walking, how much there was and how many of us there were – just to know you have this story here – it matters. "
To walk through our built-up urban terrain, Tim Robinson wrote in his book, Stones of Aran: Pilgrimage, that “Every step takes us through geologies, biologies, myths, stories and politics. … To forget these dimensions of the step means to forego our honor as human beings. “Traveling in my city over the past few months with people like Minner has reminded me of the myriad of ways the landscape has shaped us, both in the present and in the past.
Travel at its best shakes us out of everyday life and brings us home more alert and conscious. It reminds us of who we really are. How extraordinary, then, to find the same potential at home and turn everyday life into an adventure. I opened myself to my city with the curiosity of a tourist and the wonder of a traveler, realizing that what I really want is not just an adventure abroad, but that I feel revived from daily life. Feeling connected to the place where I live. It wasn't all the years that I went and came back that got me there. It was the stay.
Elizabeth Evitts Dickinson is a writer based in Baltimore.
Designed by Clare Ramirez. Photo editing by Dudley M. Brooks.