Letter from Plainfield Vermont

Regional ReviewSummer 1997
by David Budbill

What happens when two socialist communitarians go into business and suddenly face raging capitalist success? Helen and Jules Rabin have found themselves on the horns of this dilemma for twenty years, since they opened Upland Bakers, in Plainfield,Vermont. Helen and Jules first saw a wood-fired brick oven in 1972, while visiting a commune in southern France. It was used, among other things, for baking wonderful crusty bread. Back home in Vermont, four years later, Helen and Jules built an oven similar to the one they'd seen in France, thinking they'd bake their own bread and then invite the people scattered over the surrounding hills to come and do the same. The oven would be part of their vague and larger communitarian dream.

Shortly, however, it grew apparent that what worked on a commune in southern France was impractical in the Vermont hills. As Jules explains, "The population on our hill was just too sparse to make practical use of a community oven."

Two years later, Jules lost his teaching job at a nearby college and the Rabins began baking bread in their wood-fired brick oven to earn a living. What lay before them, just over the next entrepreneurial hill, was a genuine surprise. For they had created a bread like no other anywhere around.

Made only from flour, salt, water, and a sourdough starter, their bread is hearty, chewy, and nutritious, but most of all incredibly delicious.

Rabin rye tastes like rye, whole-wheat like whole-wheat, and unbleached white like the best so-called French bread you've ever eaten. Their crusts are like nothing else; they make your teeth and jaws remember what they're there for. It's a delight to watch people eat Rabin bread for the first time. They bite, they chew, and chew, and chew and chew, and then they look up, with wonderment on their faces, and say something like, "My god, who makes this!"

Almost overnight, more orders descended upon the Rabins than they, by themselves, could possibly fill. They would have to expand, hire workers, and bake every day to meet the burgeoning demand. But they also discovered they could sustain themselves and their two young daughters by baking just three days a week.

The Rabins chose to stay small. The bakery is part of their household, their family routine. "The social and economic inequalities of the employer-employee relationship, in such a small and private space, would feel out of place," says Jules. "And by working less than forty hours a week at our livelihood, we gain time to do and make and grow things ourselves." The "back to the land" movement of the 1960s repopulated New England with a new generation of individualists, no matter how liberal and communitarian their ideologies. They like to go-it-alone and do for themselves.

Staying small also means the Rabins' bread remains local. It goes only to a handful of nearby stores, food coops, and a few restaurants. As Jules puts it, "Down familiar roads, five, ten, twenty miles away, live the various people who eat our bread. Two hundred times a day or so, our bread shows up on different tables. The bread has made the life of this jumble of hills and valleys a thread more convivial."

Which is what the Rabins want.

David Budbill's most recent play, Two for Christmas, premiered in Vermont last December; his latest book of poems, Fifty Poems from Judevine Mountain, will be published this fall.

 

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