Editor’s note: In This State is a syndicated weekly column about Vermont’s innovators, people, ideas and places..
Historian. College dean. Author, writer, consultant, professor and lecturer.
Michael Sherman, former executive director of the Vermont Historical Society and one-time dean of Burlington College, has led a life steeped in renowned scholarship and academia. Co-author of the 700-page “Freedom and Unity: A History of Vermont” and editor of Vermont History Journal, his accessible explorations of history in the Green Mountains won him a lifetime achievement award in 2014 from the Center for Research on Vermont at the University of Vermont.
But despite a comfortable life in the hallowed halls of academe, Michael Sherman also decided he needed to make a little dough. Actually, a lot of dough, as in the kind that turns into bread, the staff of life.
Second-act careers are not uncommon, of course, but Michael Sherman’s alter ego is one of the more unusual. He swapped roles for rolls, going from thinker and academic to mixer and baker, from white-collar to not quite blue-collar – or “pink collar” as he jokes about his “semi-skilled” work.
“Why did I do it?” he responds to a question. “Well …” he says, then pauses to compose a thoughtful answer, reflecting long ties to a life of the mind instead of the action of the hands.
Trying to give an answer is not so easy on this Friday morning. Sherman, a fit and fast-moving 69-year-old, is in the hectic midst of an aromatic choreography at Manghis’ Bakery in the state capital, dancing with purpose between a massive black Blodgett oven, tray racks, a wooden dough-forming table and electronic timer, and a young co-worker, Ben Merrylees. If all goes well he’ll end up with 11 delicious-smelling trays, each filled with 36 nicely browned sweet rolls.
At the same time, there’s also bread loaves to make. While baking, he forms and rolls out oatmeal dough, plopped onto a table from big five gallon buckets, cutting out chunks that he weighs and drops into well-blackened bread pans plucked from tall inverted stacks.
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Not a minute of his time is wasted: If you want a demonstrated definition of multi-tasking, Sherman is pretty much it. He’s not so sure about the well-planned choreography, though. “It’s more like bumper cars,” says Sherman, who is quick with quips and can swiftly riff on a thought, revealing the intellect beneath the flour-dusted ball cap.
Wearing a T-shirt, shorts and an apron on this warm July day, Sherman first began his dual work life back in 1996, signing up to bake in the yellow converted home that has housed Manghis’ Bread. As he tells it, after many years as a scholar and teacher of history and American studies, he simply decided he’d “had enough.”
“I’ve worked in my head all my life,” explains Sherman. “This is a very different kind of work from the academic world.” What appealed is that each day he produces a product that people love and that makes them happy, and when he’s done, there’s no work to take home. He’s worked full-time and part-time on and off and now works three days a week, a schedule that allows him to continue to do writing and editing – and also kick back and enjoy some time off.
“It’s very liberating,” he says. And then he adds, “It’s also very social.”
Manghis’ has been a downtown Montpelier institution since Elaine and Paul Manghi began it together in 1981, quickly endearing themselves to the community both by product – a large variety of homemade old-fashioned loaf breads, sweets and seasonal specialties – and location, which is where the social part comes in. Housed right behind the bustling Kellogg-Hubbard Library and close to the city’s elementary school, kids, mothers and fans stop by every weekday to pick up fresh-baked goods still warm from the oven and inhale the air, redolent with the aroma of a bake shop.
“That’s one of the things I really like about it. People really like the bread,” he says, from toddlers to now grown-ups who have been coming to Manghis’ since they were kids.
Sherman was a longtime friend of the Manghis, and their kids grew up together. His second career started as sort of a half-baked idea from a casual conversation with Elaine Manghi.
“She said we need to find a new baker, and I said, ‘Oh, that sounds like something I’d like to do’,” he recalls. Both of them had some trepidation at turning a friendship into a boss/employee relationship, he says, but it has never been a problem.
When Paul Manghi died unexpectedly in 2010, it was a shock to the community and the enterprise. But Paul and Elaine Manghi’s daughter Maria Manghi Stoufer and their son-in-law Steve Stoufer, both New England Culinary Institute grads, stepped in to help keep the bakery going, and this May took over ownership, assuring a cherished institution remains part of the community.
It turns out that having an accomplished historian and writer working on the staff has some unexpected benefits. When Elaine Manghi retired in May after 37 years of baking, who better than Sherman to cook up a nostalgic profile of the bakery in the local paper, the Montpelier Bridge.
Sherman begins his job at 6:30 a.m. and can go into mid-afternoon, depending on the day. He moves with the accomplished assurance that comes of repeated routine and studied understanding of the subtle vagaries of the bread making art.
“Every grain, every dough, even the same bread on different days, is different,” he says. “We try to keep it moving pretty quickly, because the bread rises on its own,” he notes. “It’s got its own life, it’s a living thing,” he says with a smile as he moves a tray of sweet dinner rolls from the bread table into the oven.
Bread, as it turns out, is part of his own personal history. Growing up in the Bronx, he fondly remembers the hearty Russian rye and dark pumpernickel breads his father brought home from a neighborhood bakery called Phillips. But eventually he was “forced into the world of Wonder Bread.” His father was a wholesale meat merchant who worked “ungodly hours” and that tradesman mentality also took hold in his psyche and imagination. Baking fit with his memory banks, his sense of a virtuous work routine and own interests when he got into bread baking with crusty baguettes in the late 1960s and early ’70s.
“I had baked bread at home but not like this – for fun,” he says, adding with a grin, “That is very Zen-like. It’s not like that here.”
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For him, it’s a false dichotomy to separate intellectual work and physical work, and in a way, bread bridges both worlds. Compared to the solitary life of an academic or running a historical society or college, working in the bakery “gives you some idea of the respect for the team.”
“Also Pavlov’s dogs,” he jokes.
He admits there’s a relentless assembly line aspect, and the comforting yet enervating rhythm of routine. “But you still have to use a certain amount of judgment” and stay on top of things, or you can end up with burned or dense rolls in the oven. “I’ve left some orphans in there,” he jokes.
“Routine is part of it but it’s not all of it,” he says, “It’s somewhere between art, science and just plain old drudgery.”
But at the heart of his second career is a simpler, deeper satisfaction.
“I love to eat good bread. It’s nice to be involved in making it.”
From the Rabins, a summer revival of the sourdoughs that changed Vermont
Professor and baker, deep thinker and sourdough scholar.
The original Vermont model for the double life in the worlds of academe and baking is Jules Rabin of Plainfield, a Goddard College professor who traded in the lectern for the oven in 1978, starting the hearty artisanal, sourdough wood-fired oven revolution that transformed the bread landscape of Vermont.
He’s now a spry 90, but Rabin and his partner in prandial delight, Helen Rabin, along with daughter Nessa, are back at it, reprising the Upland Bakers breads that once had to be rationed because they were so remarkably tasty and in demand. (One store in the 1980s had a sign that said: “To prevent RIOTS and acts of TERRORISM, we ask you to please limit your purchase of Upland French Bread to no more than three loaves.”)
The Rabins show up with 80 loaves of sourdough French, wheat and rye every Friday from 4-7 p.m. at the Plainfield Farmer’s Market in the village, and the breads still draw raves and longtime fans, who walk away with several loaves for the week.
The Rabins were the first to go back to the future, baking their breads in a massive, wood-fired brick and fieldstone oven, weighing 75 tons modeled on a design of an authentic French peasant oven that Helen Rabin copied down on a visit to France. Using only the simplest ingredients, flour, water, salt, and sourdough starter, their crusty breads introduced to Vermonters and tourists to an amazing depth of character and flavor. Their breads also inspired and tutored a host of bakers around the state to go off and start their own bakeries and sourdoughs, and to build the now-ubiquitous wood-fired ovens that fire up in bakeries and restaurants statewide.
The impetus for a summer bakery revival, says Nessa Rabin, came four years ago when her teen-aged son Julian Sobeano couldn’t find a summer job. They hadn’t baked for seven years at the time.
“We also wanted to support the farmer’s market,” adds Jules, who says of his role, “I’m the oven man.” He fires up the wood-fired oven starting at 4:30 a.m. and the whole family pitches in to mix and shape the naturally leavened bread, a slow process that begins the day before.
The folks who come by do more than buy bread: They chat, exchange hugs with the Rabins, talk politics and family, reflecting the fact that Jules and Helen Rabin are themselves beloved institutions in the central Vermont community.
How long they’ll keep at their eight-week summer revival isn’t certain, so if you want the original Vermont sourdough from the folks who started it all – not to mention divine bread which arrives at the farmer’s market still warm to the touch – drop by the market. But get there early – sometimes they sell out.
Andrew Nemethy is a journalist, writer and essayist from Calais, Vt. He can be reached at [email protected]