Mark Twain said, “Everyone talks about the weather, but no one does anything about it.” In these days of climate change that’s no longer strictly true, but most people recognize the sentiment. And as much as weather, community is one of those things that everyone talks about and everyone feels strongly about.
Mostly people agree on what’s good and bad, but often they don’t translate their preferences into results. They shop at BJs and Kappys rather than Our Market, whiz past hitchhikers, and snap at overworked cashiers. But community is one of those things that just needs a push start and it will sustain itself. Think of the porches of up-Island stores, especially Chilmark and Alley’s. Even the early-morning ferry snack bar can be a congenial meeting place for workers who go off-Island for the day.
Juliann Vanderhoop’s bakery, the Orange Peel, is proof that community can be created. In the last two years, the bakery has gone from bare dirt to a family-size igloo of an oven, attracting writers from The New York Times and regular customers from all over theIsland. In just two years, the Orange Peel has become an Island must-see.
Granted, Juli’s pretty special. Grounded from commercial piloting by a heart murmur, single mom to Ella and Emerson Mahoney, she spends winters pulling scallops from the near-freezing waters of MenemshaPond. Her brother Buddy, charter captain to the stars, is on the cover of the most recent Martha’s Vineyard Magazine; her sister Faith just opened a Seafood Shack up on the Cliffs. Her mother Anne has always been the matriarch of Aquinnah and also runs a restaurant on the Cliffs. Her father Luther Madison recently succumbed to cancer after a long life as tribal medicineman. Juli grew up with seven siblings, one of a thriving extended family. And now she has chosen to nurtu re and grow that environment for everybody.
She credits her family, especially her father, with her success as a business owner and budding matriarch. Maybe that’s where she gets her work ethic. Most days of the week, she cranks out artisanal baked goods that range from tangy rye sourdough to airy baguettes and focaccia, along with fruit scones, cookies and dangerously delicious raisin-custard buns called snails. She has a small army of helpers, ranging from full-time tent-dwellers to occasional wood-splitters to other artisanal bakers with new skills and techniques that she’s never too tired to learn. Nineteen-hour bakes are common, with dough rising in bassinet-size food servicebins. But even with all hands on deck and the oven constantly hot, she’s barely keeping up with the demand. Each Wednesday at the farmers’ market, she comes close to selling out.
Pizza night is as close as Juli ever comes to taking a day off. Each Wednesday from 5 to 8 p.m., the oven’s cannibal-caliber capacity is turned to making the best pizza you’ve ever tasted. Drive by and it looks like a private party, but if you’re human, you’re invited. Get off the number five bus at the bottom of the hill, just past the Aquinnah tribal housing place, maybe pick up a sack of Gregory’s Greens from the cooler across the road from the bakery. Crunch your way up the scallop shell driveway, slide your toppings onto the prep table, nod to your friends if they’re here, or start making new ones. Don’t be shy; you’re not the only new person.
Pizza night was on the front cover of the most recent Edible Vineyard magazine. This brought a lot more people, including short-term Islandvisitors. Though it’s now more of a jostling party scene and less a few friends getting together to smoke and chat, it’s still easy to spot old friends and make new ones. Surely the long drive helps scare off the lightweights, but that can’t be all of it. There’s a spot for everybody. Wallflowers help stretch dough or chop wood, or gab in the back with the dough-twirling helpers. Tan-lined tourists strike up conversations with carpenters and masons, sipping and swapping plastic cups of wine; elders perch on lawn chairs; children dash or cling depending on temperament.
Schmoozing foodies swap recipes for caramelized cippolini onions or lemon-cucumber pickles; cell phones flash and beep as people furiously punch in new contacts. Juli holds court at the oven’s door, her head crowned with a bandana. If Brian O’Gorman’s brought his guitar, he’ll croon out classics; feel free to join in. Or if you’re shy, great! Go make a pizza.
The dough is made fresh that day, like the sauce: stretch, spread, squirt some olive oil, sprinkle the cheese, add whatever toppings you like. If they’re not fattily self-basting, sprinkle them with a cheesy blanket. Hand your creation over to Juli or one of her helpers; there’s a trick to shimmying a fragile, laden disk off the spatula-like peel and onto the tiled floor of the oven. Eight hundred degrees is pretty hot; after a few minutes and a twirl or two, scoop the pizza from the heat and shake it onto thetable. Let it cool a bit before biting in; the impatient are punished with scalded palates. On one recent pizza night, they made 100 pies and over $1,000 — donation only.
The Orange Peel is a singular combination of popular appeal and traditional, high-quality product. We’re used to thinking that good food must be expensive, finger food must be unhealthy, and locally-owned businesses must be elitist and snooty. The Orange Peel refutes all these stereotypes, reminding patrons of the old Humphrey’s in West Tisbury. The only difference is the new emphasis on traditional, organic andlocal. The Orange Peel’s recipes are sourced from all over the world; no great-grandma would recognize everything Ms. Vanderhoop makes, but most would recognize some of it.
Much of the artisanal baker’s skill cannot be learned from a book or described over the phone; bakers, like pilots and photographers, must gesture when describing their skill to the layperson. Something as simple as kneading becomes entirely different if the dough is batter-soft, as sourdoughs must be. You can always tell when Ms. Vanderhoop is training a new helper; check the ceiling for spatters. Some questions have exactly one right answer that changes from day to day: When is dough risen enough, but not too much? How wet should itbe? And when has it bakedthrough? You have to feel and heft and watch toknow. And let’s not even get into pastry with all its layering and chilling, its temperamental creams and oozy glazes. They call it artisan baking for a reason: art with an unusually demanding medium and an annoying lack of government subsidies.
Sourdough bread predates commercial yeast, and often precedes it into environments where packaged yeast is unavailable. Think of Alaskan gold-panningsourdoughs. Firing a brick oven is a lot more complex than turning on the gas stove; it takes skill, sweat and planning to produce an undenia bly better product.
And if someone grew up with Facebook and LAN parties, they may think that’s all there is to community. In today’s wealthy, wired world, the only reason traditions survive is that people know enough to seek them out and pay someone enough to learn the way around the finicky needs of wild yeast or family-style community parties or even hot bricks We have the choice of which traditions we wish to keep: which skills warrant the effort of mastery, and which can be safely let dieout. Most of us agree that community is worth keeping; what we often don’t know is how. Well, here’s a good place to start: come up to pizza night this Wednesday, bring some toppings and make some friends. Or come up any day of the week for some good company and great bread.
The Orange Peel Bakery is on State Road in Aquinnah, between Moshup Trail and Lobsterville Road. Pizza night is Wednesday from 5 to 8 p.m.; suggested donation $10 per person, bring your own toppings and beverages. No pets please.