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Upper Valley Baker and Writer Garners Vermont Book Award

  • Martin Philip scores baguettes before they go in the oven at King Arthur Flour in Norwich, Vt., on Nov. 2, 2017. Philip has written "Breaking Bread." (Valley News - Jennifer Hauck) Copyright Valley News. May not be reprinted or used online without permission. Send requests to permission@vnews.com.



Valley News Correspondent
Thursday, October 04, 2018

A chair in the Howe Library in Hanover has Martin Philip’s name all over it. Not literally, of course, but the baker and writer devoted much of his free time to working in the library on what would become Breaking Bread: A Baker’s Journey in 75 Recipes, published in 2017 by HarperCollins.

“There’s a cushion there I feel I should replace because I always sat in the same spot in the library,” Philip said in a phone interview from King Arthur Flour in Norwich, where he is head bread baker.

Last month, Breaking Bread became the fourth book to win the Vermont Book Award in a ceremony at the Vermont College of Fine Arts in Montpelier.

Philip was one of seven finalists for the award, which is given annually to recognize achievements in literature in Vermont. The finalists also included poets, and writers of nonfiction and children’s books. The award included a $5,000 prize and a marble and mahogany sculpture of a book by Montpelier artist Sean Hunter Williams. The panel of eight judges praised Philip’s evocative prose and “elegance of construction.”

“I wasn’t expecting it at all. I was, in fact, entirely surprised,” Philip said, who attended the gala evening with his wife and three children. They live in White River Junction.

Philip, who in his previous lives has been an artist, musician and investment banker, had never really intended to write about bread.

He’d studied the art, craft and history of bread baking at King Arthur under former head bread baker Jeffrey Hamelman. Hamelman’s book Bread is considered one of the leading resources for both the professional and serious home baker, Philip said. So when people asked him whether he had his own book about bread in mind, he initially demurred.

“What would I have to say that (Hamelman) didn’t already say?” Philip recalled thinking.

Still, the idea stayed with him, as he both compiled recipes and thought about his childhood in the Ozarks of northwestern Arkansas — a childhood in which baking and bread baking figured prominently, thanks to his parents and a grandmother.

Happy coincidence arrived in the person of best-selling novelist Jodi Picoult, who lives in Hanover and had taken bread-baking lessons from Philip. Picoult was intrigued by the premise of Philip’s book and introduced him by email to her agent. Philip had a contract soon after.

But then came the hard part: writing it.

Philip had taken a writing class in college but, apart from some smaller pieces, hadn’t tried his hand at a book. In a way, he said, that redounded in his favor.

“There’s a certain benefit to not having studied something, a certain liberation maybe,” he said. Perhaps he took more risks, which he might not have attempted if he had had more training. Sure, he could “chase this horizon of perfect writing and perfect bread,” he said, but that also might hinder him from reaching his objective.

He was also aided by his editor, Hartland writer Sarah Stewart Taylor, who was honest with him about what worked and what didn’t, he said.

The book contains recipes for the foods of his childhood, including molasses pie, bread pudding and butter biscuits, the food he learned to cook while living in New York City (bagels, brioche and pizza), and in Vermont (baguette and oatmeal bread).

But, the book is also a memoir about growing up in the Ozarks. He took the experiences of his childhood and adolescence, before he went to the Oberlin Conservatory of Music in Ohio, and melded those memories together with recipes. The book traces how Philip “went out and left and how I came back, using baking to return home,” he said.

“I came back to the things that I had, the flavors that I had as a child,” Philip said.

He wrote in the nooks and crannies of his everyday life, between his job and his family. The acts of writing and editing were “a good foil to a noisy, hot, steamy bakery.”

Philip has his next project well in hand, and he calls it The Baker Maker Road Show. It will take Philip back to Arkansas, where he will ride a vintage Elgin bicycle along the Pig Trail, a national scenic byway through the Ozark National Forest renowned for its hilly scenery and its hairpin turns.

Philip will bring with him a short scale Mountain Banjo, which he had specially made for the journey, and the tools of his trade. Along the route he will cold call at people’s homes, offer to play the banjo and make bread for them — and probably get into a conversation or two. It will be material, he hopes, for another book, and perhaps a documentary film.

“The idea is we don’t talk to people who are over the fence anymore. We don’t step out of our separate bubbles, our digital existence. I want to get back to analog, and have these face to face conversations and find humanity,” Philip said.

And, he added, what could be a better vehicle than food, “that original communication source, to connect with people?”

Nicola Smith can be reached at mail@nicolasmith.org.