By burning wood and breading dough, Juli Vanderhoop bakes more than bread

Community by Fire

by Geraldine Brooks

Community by Fire

Elizabeth Cecil

Sweet Snails. Baker Juli Vanderhoop brings out one of Orange Peel's most popular pastries, a sweet raisin-studded roll she calls the Snail. The pastries are consistently popular not just with her neighbors,but with her mom, too.  

“Bread today! Please stop by.” The chalk sign near the very end of South Road in Aquinnah is a welcome sight on any day, but on a chilly March afternoon, it radiates especially alluring warmth. Pickup trucks brake, reverse, and turn into the shell-strewn driveway of Juli Vanderhoop’s Orange Peel Bakery. Their drivers, clad in the heavy gear of outdoor winter work, inspect the offerings in Juli’s display cabinet. Today there are dome-shaped, crusty wheat berry loaves and flat rounds of cranberry bread that ooze rich fruit as they’re sliced.

There’s a jar for payment, so she doesn’t have to break the rhythm of rolling and shaping baguettes for the afternoon’s baking. But there’s plenty of banter as her floury hands deftly set the finished loaves onto heavy linen for their final rise. The customers all know Juli, and that’s one of the reasons she started the bakery.

When she returned home to Aquinnah a few years ago, after a stint off-Island working as a commercial pilot, she was struck by how few of her neighbors she knew. “In the off season, between six and seven in the morning, thirty or forty cars would go by, and I had no idea who was in them. It was scary,” she recalls.

“Scary,” because Juli had grown up in a very different Aquinnah. Daughter of pillar of the church Ann Vanderhoop and step-daughter of Wampanoag medicine man Luther Madison, Juli Vanderhoop’s childhood was steeped in tribe, community, and neighborliness. “You need your neighbors here,” she says, since in winter it’s a fifteen-mile drive down-Island to pick up a quart of milk or a dozen eggs. She wanted to somehow restore the spirit of connection she remembered. Some Italian friends, visiting for a summer, had already planted the seeds of the bakery idea. “They’d been here a few weeks, and one day they came in, frustrated, having been shopping all over, and said ‘This Island has no bread.’”

Juli was already an accomplished baker, having learned the secrets of Luther Madison’s famous pies while working beside him at his Aquinnah shop before she went off-Island to pursue her flying dreams. An unexpected diagnosis of a heart murmur had disqualified her as a solo commercial pilot. So, on her return to the Island, she started researching traditional outdoor, wood-fired bread ovens like the ones she’d seen on her travels in Europe.

“On the internet was a site with 500 pictures of how to build this thing,” she says, but it wasn’t until she traveled to Rehoboth, Mass., to help build an oven for the renowned bread artist, Ciril Hitz, that she felt ready to construct her own oven.

The result is a massive, beehive-shaped structure that recalls the oven at the witch’s gingerbread house in Hansel and Gretel. Clad in Aquinnah stones and lined with French terre blanc tiles—“the purest clay in all the world”—Juli built the oven with the help of a mason, and then set about learning its peculiarities. Every wood-fired oven is different, and other factors such as the external wind temperature can radically affect what happens inside.

The bakery opened in August of 2008, and “It was hard to find a day I wasn’t selling out,” she says. A typical day starts at 4 am, “Five, if I’m really lazy.” The oven takes “less wood than you’d think” to reach the ideal bread-baking temperature of close to 600°F over four or five hours. She uses only hardwoods. “Cottle [lumber yard] saves their untreated stuff for me, and people who love the bakery will tell me when there are piles of wood on their property that I can have.” Another fan of the bakery has donated a bike with a bread rack, and sometime soon Juli hopes to have a delivery service to bring her breads down-Island. But for now, she’s content that the bakery gives the people of Aquinnah “the feeling that we have something special up here.”

That feeling is enhanced by Wednesday pizza nights. People bring toppings, and for a $10 donation Juli bakes the crusts and provides sauce and cheeses. “People bring their guitars and we’ll sing, and I’ll take bets on who can guess the oven temperature.” She usually wins; she’s developed a sense for it. She can check the guesses against a laser thermometer whose thin red beam can measure the heat in various spots in the oven. The hardest thing, she says, is to convince passersby that the pizza night is open to all comers. “They see everyone having a good time and they think it’s a private party.”

On this particular afternoon, Juli is baking a special order for an evening event at the Wampanoag Tribal Council. As well as crispy baguettes, there will be “snails”— swirled croissant pastries filled with vanilla cream and raisins (“Everybody loves those”) and chocolate chip cookies.

She loads the risen baguettes onto the peel—the giant wooden spatula from which the bakery takes its name. Before she eases them into the oven, she runs a razor blade in swift diagonals across each loaf, so that the crust will curl and feather.

Outside, she scrapes the burned-down coals out of the oven and flings handfuls of cornmeal onto the surface of the hot tiles. There’s an instant, sharp aroma of parching corn. Scent is powerful; this one, most evocative. Parched corncakes were a staple food of the Wampanoag, so Juli Vanderhoop is bringing back a fragrance that once permeated these woods. As wisps of smoke travel through the bare winter branches, it is easy to imagine that her ancestors are well pleased.