It beckoned like a porch light in a thunderstorm, across a row of market stalls heaped high with greens and crates of tomatoes on a humble little table spread with a crumb-covered cloth: a perfectly round loaf of bread, delicately stenciled with the shape of North Carolina, my new home.
Flour and ash dusted my palms as I carried the miche back home, careful to keep it flat and not muss the design on top. Nearly a foot wide, this loaf would keep my small family fed for weeks, but I dreaded making the first cut. What would the first bread to break in our new kitchen hold? Will it taste the same as what I knew before?
More loaves bearing ideas of home caught my eye at that Carrboro farmers market table for Chicken Bridge Bakery (chickenbridgebakery.weebly.com). Another round, crusty miche was dusted with a flour relief in the shape of barbed wire and the words “un mundo sin fronteras.” Three rectangular loaves were propped up to make an edible sign that read “bread not bombs.” An entire rack of whole wheat bread was baked with flour outlines of safety pins to show solidarity with the oppressed.
These messages are meant for consumption, for slathering with butter or dipping into bowls of soup, and for starting a conversation using something that connects us all: food. This bread functions as a political platform, expressed through the expert combination of salt, water, yeast, and floura medium deftly kneaded by Rob and Monica Segovia-Welsh and their two children, Simon and Milo, in their family-run business.
Their path to Chicken Bridge Road, the bakery’s namesake and the location of their first handmade wood-fired oven, took a few turns. Rob and Monica met at Northland College, an institution focused on environmental liberal arts and sustainability in rural Ashland, Wisconsin. He studied philosophy, religion, and history; she worked on conflict and peacemaking. They both took jobs at a local bakery and, as Rob says, “only baked to pay rent and student loans.” Expecting their first child, they settled in Carrboro after traveling in Central America. Rob landed in construction at first, while Monica worked as a head pastry baker at Weaver Street Market. Rob followed suit, taking a job at a local bakery.
“I was hired to fill a bakery position, but also to speak Spanish with their staff,” he says. The management did not speak Spanish and asked him to translate, creating a “really awkward” situation, one that placed him in an unwelcomed power dynamic based on language and ethnicity.Instead, he made two best friends, both third-generation bakers from Mexico who often spoke warmly of the “wood-fired ovens that their grandparents used back home.” One of his new friends was clearly homesick as he told stories about these ovens, his family, and their bread.
Rob then took a job at Weaver Street, where he made more friends, a family from Oaxaca, who shared more stories of baking bread back in Mexico. He also worked at the North Carolina Department of Labor, traveling the state talking to migrant farm workers about their needs. He hoped that by “working on the inside” he might help improve their working and living conditions. Despite his empathy and ability to communicate in Spanish, Rob questioned his value as a white man in that space after a few years of struggling with the workers’ demoralizing reality. He returned to baking in an effort to give back to the community in a more meaningful way..
That’s when the couple built their wood-fired oven. “Two loaves takes three days,” says Rob. “The oven is a living thing, and you have to feed it to create the fire and energy that will bake everything.” They created a community sourced bakery among their friends, but word spread quickly, and suddenly, Chicken Bridge Bakery was born.
The family now lives in Pittsboro in another old house with a retrofitted basement as its certified home bakery.
“Being at home adds an interesting flux,” says Rob. “There are no shifts.”
After a successful career as a pastry chef, including a stint at Lantern in Chapel Hill, Monica joined Rob.
“The needs of the bakery and the rhythm of our family’s life have become completely interwoven,” she says. “From the long firing of the oven, shaping of the dough, and slow fermentation process, to the late nights baking, we strive to create a sustainable living for our family. It takes all our hands.”
As Rob puts it, each bread has a “particular reason for being.” The Danish Seeded Rye, for instance, was baked for a homesick Danish woman that approached Rob with her old family recipe one day at the market.
“Baking is alienating, but the stencils help you feel less alienated,” says Rob.
The designs range from delicate lacework and bold shapes to messages of love and political protests in Arabic and Spanish. They are rallying cries etched in flour: a raised fist for Standing Rock, the words “Fight HB 2” next to a figure waving a heart-printed flag, and the phrase “bread not bombs” supporting the refugees of the Syrian war. Rob posts photos online to activate his Facebook and Instagram networks, too.
“This is my community,” Rob says. “If they disagree with me, maybe we can talk about it. Isn’t that the point?”
Monica explains that she is more practical: “Rob is the dreamer.” She believes in donating bread or money whenever people need it, like weekly donations to Farmer Foodshare, which distributes fresh food (not canned goods) to the hungry. Monica also started a fund for the Standing Rock legal defense team using proceeds from their market sales.
“The bread art is a reflection of what’s going on in society,” she says.
On top of a recent loaf, plain and rectangular, Rob stenciled the phrase “Work is love made visible,” a famous quote by the Lebanese-American poet Kahlil Gibran. It’s a universal truth, says Rob. “This is our labor and this is our love and it all goes into these loaves.”
Back at home with my miche, two days passed before I reached for a serrated knife. Unsure of how to proceed, I sheathed it and walked away, thinking over the ingredients I needed to whip up a homemade mayonnaise. Hours later I returned, newly steeled to slice the loaf, when a colander of green tomatoes caught my eye. I had closed up the house for the night and put the baby to bed, and suddenly realized a gnawing pit had hollowed out my stomach. Without thinking, the knife and I made quick work of the loaf, cutting long thin slices poked through with holes where yeast lived and died. It was time, I was hungry, and I finally felt at home.
This article appeared in print with the headline “Uprise and Shine”