“You have to do what you love. You might have a hard time finding it but try to find what you love because it matters.”
What brought you back to the Martha’s Vineyard island to start your own bakery?
This is my territorial homeland as a native Wampanoag person. And after moving away and being away for probably about 25 years, I returned to bring my family back here so they could understand the community where we're from. It's very special. That was about 18 years ago, and I built my oven 16 years ago. I was looking for something to do. Bringing my children home to connect with the community was a huge thing. Building the oven was originally suggested to me. A friend who had traveled all over the world said, "Look, you bake all the time, check this out. Why don't you build this." And I was like, "Oh, you are insane," and actually, it was something that would work for me. So I went and did an oven build with some people. I fell in love with the process of building this particular oven.
Well this oven must be something special then. How did you build it?
What makes this (oven) special is that it came from France. I imported it, and it's the largest oven they make–it's 10 feet around. It's made out of this white earth they call "Terre Blanche" in France. Although I had been raised cooking on fires and drawn to fires, working with this oven–it's a wood-fired outdoor oven–was a whole other journey. I built it on a property that is known as Black Brook to my people. Black Brook is supposed to be known for its spirits and ancestors who are in the area because of the features of the water. My stepfather said between the water and the smoke from the fire, there's a connection that my ancestors can hear, and they stay close. And I didn't think about it at all when I was building the oven. This property was given to me–I was very young, in high school. And after traveling to meet with other native people, I learned about something called Mana. When something is given, handed down, and there's no monetary transfer, there is an energy pathway that is unbroken and carried over. It stays strong and has all positive energy around it. So then what I created was this wonderful thing; the food, the baked goods, and whatever we do with the oven are 100% positive. It is just a learning experience. It is of the earth. It's built from clay, and it's built with my hands. It's in the most beautiful spot where I could have possibly built it. I can't believe it.
“As a native, the most important thing for us is our land, where we draw from all things good. And we have to care about where we're standing and appreciate it and incorporate these things that surround us in our environment to stay healthy."
You mentioned being away for 25 years. What did you do before returning to your homeland?
Before I was a pilot, I was an early childhood educator and just traveler in general. But the oven has really grounded me back. I’ve always looked at what I do and the bakery itself as kind of like where people come to understand. As a native, the most important thing for us is our land, where we draw from all things good. And we have to care about where we’re standing and appreciate it and incorporate these things that surround us in our environment to stay healthy. It’s really important that we’re ingesting the plants and taking notice of the changes around us–not just for the health of things like our waterways and our shellfish but for our own health. If we do that, that’s another way to generate a positive light around you, your family, etc. With that, our lives are very full, very rich–the island is an amazing place. It’s become steadfast, a resort for the wealthiest people in the nation, but for us, it’s just home. Without the community that we know, it just would never be quite the same.
When some of our team members visited Martha's Vineyard, they were so inspired by you. Now getting to speak with you personally, I can genuinely feel that soul and spirit behind this sacred place.
I would never have come back, but I was not healthy, and I was looking to become healthy. As soon as I moved back, it was like a lightning bolt. I had a surgeon call me and say, "Why haven't I heard from you? Where have you been?" And I said, "Look, I don't need your help. I'm better." I was waking up at 3:30 a.m. every morning to the stream behind my house. I could hear the water running and sitting out on my deck in the middle of the night in the silence, just breathing and listening to owls and baby dear, and thinking positive thoughts out there like I was the only one on the island. It's been just a wonderful, wonderful journey.
And you grew up on this very same land where the bakery stands?
I grew up one mile down the road. My family had this little place as a rental property. I couldn’t find another place like this if I tried.
How does being here resonate with the rest of your family?
For my daughter, who’s an artist, she immediately felt it. She’s also a very old soul. She draws from the environment that’s around here. But my son was a sports freak and an absolute athlete. When he was 16, 17, 18, he started to pull his head out of wherever he was. It was ever since I got recognized by the New York Times he was like, “Well, that’s kind of big right?” And there’s times he would travel and see sunsets all over the world, and he realized that we have the same thing right here. Most nights, when there’s a sunset, you’ll find my house empty because we’re going down to the beach or the lighthouse, or we’re going to go to some point to appreciate that moment because it is spectacular. It doesn’t matter if it’s windy, stormy, nighttime, or whatever, it’s really just something special that we all look forward to sharing. Even with COVID, we know we’ve got this, and we can be outside and appreciate it and the health that it brings us is great. It resonates through us, and we’re just very fortunate.
How has the bakery evolved since you first opened?
This was my 16th year in service. Never advertised and I'm probably the most recognized place on the island–and I'm teeny! The bakery itself is 18x24, and the outdoor space isn't large either. But when we throw it down with our outdoor stage or our pizzas, I mean people show up by the hundreds. And it's just amazing.
Your employees must feel the magic working for you as well.
What I’ve impressed upon a lot of the people that work with me is that first of all, if someone comes up to me and says, “I want a job,” I go, “OK, maybe I’ll call you soon.” But if they come in and say, “I love baking. I love what you’re doing. I’m not great at it, but I’ll try to help you. I want to help,” that’s the person that I want because you have to love something about it. It has to speak to you and your soul. I’ve trained a few youths around the bakery, and I constantly tell them, “Do what you love. You have to do what you love. You might have a hard time finding it, but try to find what you love because it matters.” Everybody that walks through the door of the bakery looks around and goes, “Oh my god, I’ve never been here before. This is so cool!” And I say [to the staff], “Are you listening guys?” because they’re rewarding you with positives. Positive words allow that on the longest day to carry us forward.
My [staff] always says, “My bread loaves don’t look as good as yours,” and I’m like, “Don’t worry about it. That’s your signature, and yours doesn’t look like mine.” If you go into a bakery and everything looks the same, something is wrong. I’m not going to teach you how to do it exactly the same, but what I want you to do is to make it taste delicious. I don’t want to take that special mark away from someone and say, “I just want it all to look the same.” The lesson is to go outside of what the norm is to stop by these little places along the way and to let yourself explore the unique portions of the world that you might not otherwise know. We’re really trying to break people’s thoughts down and make them think about being more creative, going with small business, why we do what we do for this community, all that stuff. So it’s really pretty cool.
“Do what you love. You have to do what you love. You might have a hard time finding it, but try to find what you love because it matters.”
Did you always possess a passion for baking, or did that love develop later in life?
Yeah, I always did. My mom owned a restaurant, my dad was a baker, and I would just watch them all the time. Whether it was peeling apples or stealing apples, that was me just watching them and getting these points like, "Don't make the pie crust too thick," "You got to let it bake more to let the juices come out." I was drawn to watching them and then building on what I knew already. I also always wanted to be outside. As I traveled, I would just build fires and be in the backyard with a bunch of sweet potatoes and beef on sticks and roast them on an open fire or make a big stew on the fire, corn, whatever it was, roasted vegetables, learning how to use that fire, that was always a calling to me. This Christmas, my family called me and said, "What are we going to do? We can't gather?" And I said, "Look, I will light a bonfire at any moment you just tell me." They just laughed because they knew it was true. The fire department does not come. They know me, and I light the fires wherever I am, and they're very much fine by that. It's really an important part of just meditation for myself. When it brings people together, it's even better.
"I light the fires wherever I am… It's really an important part of just meditation for myself. When it brings people together, it's even better."
What are some of your favorite things to bake?
I like baking bread, whether it's a baguette or focaccia that's filled with vegetables, something that's just beautiful that you can hold in your hand and eat. Then again, things with fruits–apple crisp is absolutely irresistible to me, and fresh blueberries and using whatever fresh nettles instead of basil for the pesto or herbs from the garden to put into the bread, which is fantastic; lemongrass and mints, just really trying to mix up the flavors and creating something on a crust with fruits and herbs that might draw another taste in another direction. It's just wonderful.
"If you want to take this journey, I have to turn it over to the oven, and if you're not on your toes, it's going to teach you the lessons that you need to know. And you need to unfold it yourself because I can't tell you how to do it."
That's truly an art to work with so many flavors and master when to use what and how.
Yeah, I think over time, what develops is the artistry of what you want. In just being drawn to something that's that beautiful. I always remind people who say, "Oh my god, my bread came out, and it was really terrible." And I go, “imagine that bread was just bread and then someone left the bread on the counter because they had to go out and do something and it turned into a sourdough, and that was just an experiment.” Just like these experiments, you further your knowledge when you're thinking about it. Now teaching another professional, the first professional I've hired on the oven, the only way I can teach her anything further is for me to walk away and leave her with this oven, which she has a slight knowledge of. And I'm like, if you want to take this journey, I have to turn it over to the oven, and if you're not on your toes, it will teach you the lessons you need to know. And you need to unfold it yourself because I can't tell you how to do it. My staff understands that when I go near a fire, I can feel how hot the coals are. And I know how long of the course of the day that I stoke that fire and let it build, so I know how much is behind all of that heat, and it's a knowledge that I can't tell people, it's innate, and it's developed into a skill. And most of that is the love of being next to it because it is extremely hard.
And extremely powerful, I'm sure. You're giving your everything to working with this profound element.
Yes, it's very multidimensional. It depends on the winds, the seasons, the moisture in the air. It depends on so many things that you don't necessarily have the time to calculate all of them at any one moment. But I love that it brings me closer to the elements and that I have to force myself to be in tune with my environment.
"I've been carrying it for a long time, and if I didn't love it so much, then I probably wouldn't have the energy to do it. But it's the love."
When you're not working with fire and creating the most mouthwatering baked goods, what do you enjoy doing?
I love to walk with my group of walkers, moms, teachers, and just people–we get out and go in whatever direction we choose that day. That's one of my favorites. Of course, my love is the community. I serve on many non-profits like the Martha's Vineyard Shellfish Group and affordable housing. I am one of the three select people in town, so also serving my community. I just resigned from the tribal education board, which I've sat on for about 20 years. I'm one of the most outspoken native women on the island for many things on any forum, whether that's a Martha's Vineyard commission or museum –just making sure my people are highlighted as the first people.
That's amazing. You really live and breathe community in every sense of the word.
For the longest time, people have come to the island, and they didn't even recognize a native presence here. And that was just always unfortunate. Our thing is that we are still here. We are healthy, strong, and coming back in numbers. And although our community has been broken, many of us still have private land. We need to try and hold on to what we have and help each other stay here because it's getting harder and harder to stay here in the communities that are our territorial homelands. It's just so important and so devastating when many of us have been forced to leave. As a small businessperson, getting other generations to follow my lead. I'm like, "Just be creative. Come on, guys. Do what you do. You do great things. How can I create space for you? How can I help your business?" And really reaching out to the youth to say, "We need you. We need you here politically. We need your voices." We're a matriarchal tribe, so asking these generations who have left for professional reasons to come back and re-enter the community on different levels is important. Also, how we work with other people outside of our community because our community is so small and our voice in the outer community is so important that we don't stop. And it's exhausting. But I've been carrying it for a long time, and if I didn't love it so much, then I probably wouldn't have the energy to do it. But it's the love. I'm pretty famous around here for what I've created and how I speak. I never mean to offend, but sometimes people do get put off, but I'm just tired of being pushed to the last position at this table. So the pushback is a little hard sometimes, and people definitely have to learn. I definitely hold that space for my people. It's important.
Have you seen the younger generations coming back to help the community?
Yes, we just won an election. We've replaced three seats on our tribal council, which is huge. We're really happy, and we're starting to move forward. In January, we'll have three seats out of 12 taken back. We're moving into the next election, which is 2023. It won't be easy to unseat the people that are there, but it's definitely time. This is a push that I've been really supporting and mentoring in whatever way that I can.
Working with fire, the earth, your community, your family and beyond, it’s easy to see that your bakery is more than just a bakery; it's a movement.
It really is, and when people stop by, they definitely want to hear about what's going on, and we have long conversations. And lots of times, it's by that fireside and more positive than anyone can think of. And it's just always handing that good off to someone else is the feel good.
"Sustainability is very much a life practice for me. Using what grows around me to promote health and wellness is something that I do very well."
Preserving our planet and working in harmony with the earth and its natural elements to create the most sustainable offerings is a deep-rooted passion of Outerknown. In what ways do you try to give back to the planet and put forth the most socially responsible practices?
Sustainability is very much a life practice for me. Using what grows around me to promote health and wellness is something that I do very well. Often my family is found foraging our dinners throughout the year. Currently, I serve on the board of island-grown initiatives, and everything we do circles around food, food education and recycling food waste. We have a strong teaching component that goes out to every school on the island, and we promote healthy eating by introducing and growing the food that children eat. Also, when we recycle that food, how does it get rest repurposed? Setting examples is important. Here on my property, I have gardens and chickens. Within my community, we are growing a food forest that surrounds a playground. On the 6 acres of land, we have a portion designated for affordable housing where affordable homes are built there.
I also am on the board of the Martha's Vineyard Shellfish Group. Being a native person, my father and his father and many before them were sailors and fishermen, so preserving the waters around me and keeping them pristine is of the utmost importance. Doing what we can to see the effects of climate change and hold them back, if not reverse them, is an enormous, almost insurmountable problem.
“Doing what we can to see the effects of climate change and hold them back, if not reverse them, is an enormous, almost insurmountable problem.”
Speaking of sustainability, do you have any favorite planet-friendly Outerknown pieces? I loved the photos of you in our green Chroma Blanket Shirt!
I love my cashmere sweater, and I did love the chroma blanket shirt as well. I can't wait to get more!!!