It’s 6 a.m., but the energy feels more like noon at the Orange Peel Bakery in Aquinnah. Music is blaring, the sinks are full of dirty pots and bowls, the mixer is going and the counters are covered with vats of bread dough and pre-ferments (wild yeast) that are so active they are pushing the lids off the containers.
Juliannne Vanderhoop looks up from lighting her outdoor stone oven that could house a character from a J.R.R. Tolkien story, and recalls how it all started.
Eight years ago she was very sick. “I went to all these doctors and no one could figure out what was wrong with me. After months and months of seeing doctors, I called my mom and said, I’m coming back to the Island for the summer. I just want to be home. I decided not to leave in August. By September I was fine. The doctors said if it happens again, call us.
“But there’s been no need to call the doctor.”
She goes back to tending to her Le Panyol 180, a wood-burning oven that took her (with the help of friends) eight months to build and is hearth and home for the Orange Peel Bakery, which Juli founded six summers ago.
She wipes her hand on a clean white dish rag and heads into the bakery’s kitchen, which is tiny by commercial kitchen standards — about 20 feet by 15 feet. Formerly Juli’s garage, the space is now filled with two giant sinks, counters for mixing, shelves stuffed with baking supplies, a large refrigerator, a bench (a large wooden surface for prepping bread), a mini-stand that sells the bread and baked goods, and a giant, battered green steel mixer. “I got that from a bakery that was going out of business in Connecticut,” she says.
One of Juli’s assistants, Natalie Makarevich, a 23-year-old economics student from Belarus, arrives and begins measuring out flour for the bakery’s signature baking powder biscuits. Juli starts to prep the dough for 45 baguettes. “People don’t realize how physical this work is,” she says. “I chop wood for the oven, lift and move hundreds of pounds of flour and dough a day. I don’t need a gym.”
Juli’s pastry chef Kayla Mederios arrives, tying on a fresh vintage apron, and chimes in: “Yeah, after just two months of working here, I have muscles.” She flexes her arms to show off her new bulging biceps.
“Kayla is only 19, but she is my right hand,” Juli says. “She studied at Le Cordon Bleu and is amazing. I just stay out of her way.” She glances at the clock. It’s 7:30. “Okay, we’re ready to start this day.”
“It’s supposed to rain today,” Kayla says “Last week the rain was a nightmare.”
Juli looks at the 20-foot gap between her covered oven space and the bakery’s door and then at the open sky above. “Yeah, it’s crazy when it rains. Where’s V? It’s time to wake everybody up.” She grabs the phone and begins dialing as she and Natalie roll out the dough for baguettes. Their hands match, like synchronized swimmers.
This becomes the pace of the morning: phone, dough, check the fire. “It’s Friday, we’ve got a big first bake so I’ve got to get the oven up to 630 degrees,” Juli says. Berta Welch calls to ask if she can make her son Giles a birthday cake. Without being asked, Kayla begins making frosting for the cake as she preps dough. As the team works, each one making two, three, even four things at a time, they answer customers’ questions with ease and without skipping a step in their recipes (though not one is in sight), and laugh with friends and family who stop by.
V, real name Veronica Hooker, arrives. A self-described 30-year-old drifter, she came to the Vineyard this summer by chance. “A friend stopped by to see me in Moab and said she was headed here, so I just hopped in her truck and here I am,” she says.
At 11 a.m., the oven is ready. And so is the food. Trays of bread dough and raw baked goods fill the racks and cover almost every surface of the kitchen. Juli nods, “Okay, let’s do this bake together.”
First the biscuits go in. Minutes later they come out, steaming with butter soaked into every ounce of flour. Next the baguettes. A few are lost as Juli loads the loaves onto the peel — the wooden paddle she uses to load and unload the oven, and the inspiration for the bakery’s name. She takes it in stride. For the next three hours, Juli and Kayla work the oven. There is no timer, they don’t glance at the clock, and a couple of hours in, when it seems they’ve forgotten what they’re doing and are immersed in some other batch of something, they head back to the oven to pull out loaves of perfectly baked bread. It is all instinct and experience.
Juli reflects for a minute. “When I first moved back, everybody wanted me to get into politics,” she recalls. “But I didn’t want to get involved — be a go-between, negotiating between the town and the tribe. This land that the bakery is on was a gift from my mother, Anne Vanderhoop Madison. It is on the Black Brook, which is a spirited place. Very special to us. I wanted to honor it by creating a place that everybody could agree on. This bakery — especially pizza night — is my politics. Every Wednesday night 100 people from all walks of life, from all over the world, come to eat pizza with each other outside. They get half the pizza they make and have to let others try the other half of their pizza. Sometimes people get upset and ask, ‘why do I have to share?’ Honestly, some four year olds know how to share better. But that simple act of sharing food and time together has become something really special. I didn’t know half my neighbors before I opened. Now I know them all. And I’ve connected people, introduced neighbors from around the state. Oh, you live in Lexington? Let me introduce you to these folks who also live in Lexington. It’s amazing.”
Juli’s 17 year-old daughter Ella appears to report that if all goes well on her driver’s test, she’ll have a license before school starts. She and her 15-year-old brother Emerson are headed off-Island today to see their dad. Juli continues to bake through the conversation.
As the first bake begins to slow down, Sophie Geiger, who is Juli’s former babysitter and visiting from Germany, comes outside with food for the crew. “Sophie is the reason I started the bakery. When she came back to visit us six years ago, she looked around my house, saw it covered with baked goods and said, ‘Juli, you should start a bakery.’ ” Sophie waves the credit off and heads inside to clean up.
Juli starts the fire for the next bake and then makes a brief visit to the Aquinnah Shop to see her mom. Anne tells her daughter: “It’s going to rain at around six.”
The afternoon is much like the morning, but with one added team member: Nick Chan. “My best crew ever,” declares Juli as she preps for another baking marathon. The skies grow darker.
“Association and memory are what make food taste so much better. That’s why I love apple cake so much. Every time I walk into my mom’s house, there is apple cake. Apple cake means home.” She continues the thought. “I was a junior in high school when I read Ralph Ellison’s The Invisible Man. There is a passage in the book where the character buys a sweet potato in Harlem.” She tries to recite one sentence from the novel and gets most of it.
Ellison wrote: “I took a bite, finding it as sweet and hot as any I’d ever had, and was overcome with such a surge of homesickness that I turned away to keep my control.”
“That line has never left me,” Juli says.
At six, the crew is halfway through the second bake, and as her mother predicted, the skies open up. Kayla is dismayed, “Two Fridays in a row!”
Juli, ever the leader and optimist, replies, “It’s not a problem. We’re getting there.”