Last spring I was supposed to travel to the west coast of Ireland for work, and while there I planned to return to one of the Aran Islands, Inis Mór, a place I’d visited in my 20s. I have memories of a particular meal, served at a whitewashed cottage perched on the craggy, windswept shoreline. A chef opened her home to one seating a night, and inside the warm, candlelit dining room I ate fish caught that morning and seasoned with dulse from the sea, fennel and potatoes pulled from her garden and warm brown bread served with cheese courtesy of the local goats. I read recently that the culinary offerings on the Aran Islands have prospered, and I could practically taste that meal all over again.
For me, place has always been intricately tied to food. I spent years working in food service, putting myself through college and supporting my early years as a freelance writer. I served hot dogs from a truck, waited tables at fine-dining restaurants and spent a few peripatetic years living on a tour bus, seeing the country as a caterer for rock bands. I learned how to chiffonade and braise, how to pair wines, but most important, I learned how meals made with care resonate with people, and how recipes offer a glimpse into geography, history, politics and culture. When I travel I seek off-the-beaten-path spots where the locals eat — or I talk my way into a private kitchen — because I believe that how we cook, and what we have stocked in our pantries, is one of the surest ways to understand a place and connect with its people and their stories.
I never made it back to Ireland because of the pandemic. Instead, I stayed landlocked in my hometown of Baltimore. My husband set up office in the dining room, my daughter finished third grade online, and our puppy, miffed that everyone was in his space all day, took to eating the rugs. I took to traveling in my head. I reread the books of author Tim Robinson, who drew intricate maps of the Aran Islands, where he lived. Robinson made his home the place of his exploration through a study that has been called a “deep map”: looking not just at what exists on current cartographies, but probing the phyllo layers of history, landscape, nature and folklore. (Sadly, his explorations ended last year in April when he died of covid-19.) As the pandemic circumscribed our movements, I found myself aching for travel, for fresh scenery — for a literal stream in nature, beyond the WiFi-enabled one piped into my home. For me, travel has always meant escaping the city where I live, but what if, like Robinson, I approached Baltimore as the destination? Could I begin to see the landscape of my city again?
My first stop early in the pandemic was a bakery called Motzi Bread, run by husband and wife Russell Trimmer and Maya Muñoz and located in the Harwood neighborhood of north-central Baltimore. When flour disappeared from store shelves last spring owing to global demand, I read a story of a 1,000-year-old mill in England returning to its roots and milling flour. It got me wondering where my flour comes from. At Motzi (pronounced “MOAT-zi”), all of the bread and pastries are made from grains grown in the Chesapeake Bay watershed and milled on-site, making it one of the few storefront bakeries in the country to exclusively use local whole grains.
For my first visit I decided to take the slow path and walk instead of drive. I didn’t follow the grid of sidewalks running aside busy streets, but followed the water. Baltimore is so often portrayed as a city of grit and crime that we can forget its rich topography. It sits in a fertile stretch of the Piedmont Plateau and is laced by rivers and streams sluicing their way to the Chesapeake Bay. Just off the busy four-lane road near my house is a trail that follows a stream called Stony Run.
I emerged from the path at the edge of Johns Hopkins University’s Homewood campus, and from there I cut past the Baltimore Museum of Art, where the outdoor sculpture garden offers a view of Alexander Calder and Auguste Rodin. In a car Motzi is easy to miss. But walking, the bakery hit me a full block away with the exquisite scent of fresh bread. Then I saw the line of people, about 20 of them, waiting six feet apart on a busy city street. It wasn’t until I turned the corner onto East 28th Street that I saw the bakery itself, tucked into the first floor of an end-of-unit rowhouse. A sign reminiscent of a European shop hangs above the door, and a large glass window affords a view inside the narrow bakery, where a snow shower of flour covered wood tables. Open racks held rising dough in bread pans. I watched as Trimmer opened the door of a professional oven to retrieve several golden-brown loaves with a wood paddle.
Motzi began in 2019 as a subscription-only bread business out of the couple’s kitchen. People signed up for a loaf a week and picked up their orders from the front porch. In spring 2020 they opened the bakery in their renovated first floor. Now the couple, both age 30, sell over 450 loaves per week while also supplying restaurants. Muñoz, wearing a mask, keeps the line moving one patron at a time inside, but many days it’s slow going because this is more than transactional. Muñoz knows the customers — neighbors as well as destination bread lovers coming in from all over the city and county — and most want to chat and feel the joy of a simple human exchange that’s so scarce these days.
Later the three of us sat in the bright warmth of the bakery. Photos of farms line the white walls. Trimmer had worked on a small Maryland farm that grew grains and practiced sustainable agriculture, part of an alliance of farmers endeavoring to take the soil back from decades of industrial farming, before he began baking in restaurants. “I saw that there was a need for bakers who could work with whole-grain flour,” he said. “These really weren’t in the wheelhouse of what most bakers are willing to experiment with.”
Many flours, even many whole grains, are often sifted free of the outer bran. “Why go through the effort of growing great grains just to throw out the most nutritious part?” Muñoz said. “The reason is it’s a harder product to work with. Bakers often prefer the white commodity stuff because it’s more consistent, and it’s a blank canvas for the flavorings they put in it.”
Motzi’s breads are flavored primarily from the flour itself, which they ferment, creating a range from puckerish sourdough to slightly sweeter fruit-inflected loaves. I took to the einkorn loaf, a nutty flavored bread made from a heritage wheat grown in Pennsylvania. Then there are the pastries: crisp, flaky croissants with a robustness from the grain; pain au chocolat with a vein of rich, dark chocolate.
Motzi now offers subscriptions where patrons buy credits for bread each week, and they can use their credits to buy a loaf for others, which the couple then donates. “Pay-it-forward loaves happened when we were starting to transition in the midst of the pandemic,” Muñoz said. “We recognize that there’s always food insecurity in Baltimore, but especially now, and we wanted to be responsive to that.” They average about 80 donated loaves a week.
As the pandemic persisted, they began offering a pay-what-you-can rate at the bakery. “When it comes to something like bread, it should be accessible to people,” she noted. Interestingly, Muñoz said customers sometimes feel like they can’t pay a lesser price. “People aren’t used to being given that kind of power.”
The couple named their business after hamotzi, the Hebrew blessing given over bread. In the Jewish tradition, this is more than prayerful thanks for a meal; it is a recognition of the work that went into growing the grain and the divine grace that “brings forth bread from the earth.” It is a benediction for a communal meal, for the land and labor that made it possible, and for the hope that all will share in the bounty.
One of the restaurants that serves Motzi bread is Larder, a 15-minute walk southwest from the bakery. Located in the Old Goucher neighborhood, it sits in a unique complex of historic buildings leased by Lane Harlan and partner Matthew Pierce, who also run a nearby taqueria called Clavel and a bar, W.C. Harlan. The complex, known as Socle, was conceived by Harlan and Pierce as a modern biergarten and wine bar called Fadensonnen. It has expanded into a dining collective that includes Larder and Sophomore Coffee, all fitted into a 19th-century residence and carriage house with an outdoor patio and wood-fired oven in between. Harlan also recently added a shop specializing in natural wines called Angels Ate Lemons. Larder, which opened in 2019, is the vision of chef Helena del Pesco, 43, with support from her spouse, Joseph del Pesco, 45, an art curator. The del Pescos moved to Baltimore in 2016 from the San Francisco Bay area, where Helena was an artist and cook who spent time in kitchens like Alice Waters’s famed Chez Panisse. One of her first endeavors in Baltimore was touring farms. “There is such an amazing small-farm collective in Maryland,” she said. Larder uses organic, locally sourced produce and meats to make meals for patrons as well as the other businesses at Socle.
I walked over one day and, mask on, spent an afternoon in the kitchen with Helena and her staff of three women. Cookbooks and jars of gleaming canned fruits and fermented vegetables lined wooden shelves. I picked fresh parsley leaves as the staff moved about the tiny kitchen, deftly maneuvering around one another as if choreographed.
Helena spent three years of her childhood on a commune in Tennessee, where she learned the tenets of community and activism through food. “There was an emphasis on what you ate as a part of the social change you could effect in the world,” she told me as she put together a Robot Coupe to shred radishes. It was while studying art, at the Minneapolis College of Art and Design and in graduate school at the University of California at Berkeley, that she became interested in what is now called social practice, which encourages human interaction and discourse. She conceived participatory public art projects using food, including one where she cooked a 12-course meal for 12 people based on their individual immigrant stories.
At Larder, Helena not only brings traditional methods like fermentation to her menu, she also uses the space as an infrastructure for community. Before the coronavirus pandemic, she and Joseph opened the kitchen to international chefs living in Baltimore for pop-ups and have hosted classes about lacto-fermentation and pickling.
Since opening, Larder has offered a sliding scale of prices for their food so that people can pay what they can afford. Amid various city orders to close restaurants during the pandemic, the couple started a CSR — a community-supported restaurant — last fall. Customers pay for a month of meals in advance and pick up the food each week along with fresh produce from local farms. The day I visited, Helena and her staff were busy preparing a duck cassoulet for the 80 members of the CSR (there’s a waiting list). Helena’s dishes are riffs on the traditional — comforting and complex at the same time. I saw that the secret is in the layering of flavors. The duck cassoulet, for instance, has a base of creamy coco bianco beans and is similar to a true French cassoulet, but hers is topped with her Quarantine Kraut, a surprising, piquant addition. As she experimented with a vegan dressing, I watched her loosely follow a recipe but add her own ingredients, including a salty, slightly spicy brine from pickled habanada peppers. Helena makes her own dry spice blends using local ingredients and sells them in her store. Every spice, every dish, has a story. The bay leaves that she added into a steaming pot, for instance, “came from a neighbor up the block who figured out how to create a microclimate in his yard and grow a bay laurel tree,” she said.
Helena has forged a relationship with all the farmers she partners with, and when I asked her whom I should visit next, she sent me to someone with an eye-opening take on nurturing the local landscape.
Marvin Hayes is the program director of the Baltimore Compost Collective, an organization that collects food scraps from residents in several South Baltimore neighborhoods and composts those scraps at the Filbert Street Community Garden. I don’t know anybody who has “visit a composting site” on their travel wish list, but this place is wholly different — and entirely worth it. The community garden, located in South Baltimore’s Curtis Bay neighborhood, was founded in 2010 as a part of the city’s Adopt-a-Lot Program. It sits on a hill, surrounded by houses, with a view down to the water. I knew I’d arrived when I saw the monumental Curtis Bay Water Tower, a 1930s art deco marvel constructed from over 20 shades of brick. The garden is next door.
I was early, so I waited for Hayes outside the fenced-in garden, which stretches the width of a city block. Several miniature goats sunned themselves on the other side. Ed, a black-and-white goat who I would soon learn is an irascible attention seeker, ambled over. I laced my fingers through the chain link and rubbed his snout. Within minutes, a cinnamon-and-brown tabby stalked by, gave Ed a look of disdain and rubbed against the fence for my attention.
“I see you’ve met Pumpkin Spice.” Hayes is a tall 48-year-old, and his energy is infectious. When we entered the garden, the animals perked up and began to chatter. A Shetland sheep named Eedee immediately jogged over.
To call this acre of land a “garden” feels like a misnomer. It is a wonder what’s happening on this modest parcel, which is open to the public for tours, yoga, movie nights and classes in animal husbandry, composting, gardening and beekeeping — when there isn’t a pandemic. “Over there are the raised beds for residents,” Hayes pointed out. “The people in this area live in a food-insecure, food apartheid neighborhood. It takes most people more than 30 minutes to get to a market. There’s no fresh food, and the air is polluted.” Hayes is referring to the city’s trash incinerators that belch clouds of smoke not far from here.
He brought me to a chicken coop where the waterfowl — ducks, geese, turkeys and chickens — clucked in cheerful alarm at our approach. Most of the eggs produced each week are given to the neighborhood. The duck eggs are most popular. “We call them our snobby eggs because all of the bakers want them, they have so much yolk,” Hayes said.
There is a goat house, an apiary with nearly 70 hives, a hoop house filled with a winter harvest of kale and sweet lettuces. On top of a tool shed is a green roof made of sedum and solar panels to fuel garden equipment. Curtis Bay, like some other Baltimore neighborhoods, is an Internet desert — more than 40 percent of city residents don’t have reliable Internet access— so solar power fires a WiFi router.
All of the animals here are rescued, including many of the bees, which were collected by Filbert Street staff after alarmed residents called the city’s 311 system about swarms. Hayes’s namesake arrived in November, after an animal shelter found an emaciated duck abandoned and wandering South Baltimore. Now Marvin the Duck quacks excitedly amid the brood clamoring for lunch.
Occupying one corner is the compost lot. Hayes built two three-bin systems with the help of volunteers. Large wooden containers are filled with a mix of food scraps, worms, hay and leaves. In four months, with attention and care from Hayes and the teenagers he hires and trains in composting, the scraps turn into what he calls “black gold.” Hayes and his crew of youth workers divert 400 to 500 pounds of waste from the incinerator and the landfill every week. Hayes has a hope: that his modest enterprise spreads to community gardens across the city, that people learn to compost their food scraps, and that he can help move Baltimore to a zero-waste city. “I’m going to starve that incinerator with every scrap of food waste I compost,” he said.
He crumbled a bit of the damp humus into my palm. It smelled of clean, wet earth. It was deep black and smeared like a grease pencil across my skin as I rubbed it in my fingers.
After, we walked through a small orchard of pear, peach, apple, hazelnut and fig trees. Hayes’s favorite are the papaws, which are native to the Mid-Atlantic. “I call these the urban mango. They are delicious.” The honeycomb they harvest from the bees is scented with the pollen of the fruit and flowers they grow here, including native black-eyed Susan. You can taste the landscape in the honey. As I left, my fingers stained from black gold, I thought of how the French fiercely protect the notion of terroir, and in a city like Baltimore, we forget that we have it, too.
Across the water from Curtis Bay, as the crow flies, is the historic East Baltimore waterfront neighborhood of Fells Point. This is a place I believed I knew well. My family’s own history in America began here. My maternal grandfather grew up on Ann Street, just blocks from the water, and he spent his career working at the nearby American Can Co. My maternal grandmother’s family emigrated from Germany through the Port of Baltimore. I can trace my interest in cooking to my grandmother’s sauerbraten, slow-simmered beef and dumplings that I watched her make at every holiday meal.
Portions of Baltimore, particularly the land here along the Chesapeake Bay, belonged to the Piscataway and the Susquehannock tribes before colonization. From the 1940s to ’60s, East Baltimore also became home to a large population of Lumbee Indians from Robeson County, N.C. They migrated north to escape the Jim Crow South, where many were sharecropping on what was once their tribal homeland and unable to make a living. So many Lumbee people lived in a handful of blocks in East Baltimore at mid-century that it was dubbed “the reservation.” Food has always been an important part of the Lumbee story in Baltimore, but few Baltimoreans today know anything of this history.
I met Ashley Minner one day on South Broadway, in the heart of what was once the Lumbee “reservation.” Only a few Lumbee people live in the original neighborhood now; most moved to the suburbs decades ago, like Minner’s Lumbee family. Minner is an artist and a public historian, and since 2003 she has been collecting oral histories and artifacts related to Lumbee history in Baltimore, while mapping their existence in East Baltimore. Her scholarly work for her PhD program at the University of Maryland at College Park, and her time working as a folklorist, has resulted in a new Lumbee archive named the Ashley Minner Collection, which will be housed within the Maryland folk-life archives at the University of Maryland Baltimore County’s Albin O. Kuhn Library.
Just a few blocks south, luxury hotels and oyster houses and bars with herb-infused cocktails line the cobblestone streets along the harbor. It’s a far cry from the working port my grandparents resided in, or the Lumbee people arrived to. But here, on the edge of the encroaching gentrification, there’s still evidence of a diverse city: a Brazilian market, an Ecuadoran restaurant, a Guatemalan grocery with a Spanish-speaking radio station running inside.
We stood in front of South Broadway Baptist Church, an 1840s Greek Revival building that the Lumbee bought in the 1970s. “I like to start my tour here because this is one of only two remaining buildings the Lumbee ever owned,” Minner told me. “This church has always had a Lumbee preacher from North Carolina in charge, and there are stories of people stopping in during services, and they think the guy’s speaking in a foreign language, but it’s just Lumbee.”
Fells Point has always been a place of diversity and food, courtesy of its history as an active port. The Lumbee were known for their cooking back in the day, Minner told me, and they brought their brand of barbecue — which is served chopped and in a vinegar-based sauce — to East Baltimore. A restaurant called Hartman’s BBQ Shop served the working-class neighborhood from 1959 to 1961. “They would feed construction workers, not just Indians but everybody, and it was on the honor system. People would come and get their lunches every day and come back on Friday to pay,” Minner said.
Barbecue helped to buy their church. “Lumbee are pervasively Southern Baptist and Methodist, and church was the first thing they needed to feel safe in this city,” Minner said. “Working-class Lumbee raised $90,000, and they raised it through plate-food sales.”
As Minner has been keeping the Lumbee-Baltimore story alive through historical research and oral histories, her cousin Rosie Bowen is keeping it alive through food. Bowen has owned Rose’s Bakery in the Northeast Market for several years, but she began collecting Lumbee recipes as a kid from her grandmother. Fried cornbread. Sliced collard green sandwiches. One dish, the Lumbee chicken and pastry, reminds me of a chicken version of my grandmother’s sauerbraten. Bowen returns to Robeson County each year to buy cornmeal and sweet potatoes and pecans for her recipes, and for the Lumbee diaspora hungry for a taste of home.
As Minner and I continued our walk north along Broadway, heading toward the former site of Hartman’s, she told me that she calls this her ghost tour. “Most of the places we’ll visit have either been razed by urban renewal or no longer exist as a Lumbee business.”
“What makes it important to you to map what’s gone?”
“Being in the skin I’m in, people look at me and assume I’m everything but what I am,” Minner told me. “When you don’t see yourself represented in the landscape, when you don’t see yourself represented in the media, it messes with you. You start to wonder: Am I really Indian? Am I really Lumbee? But when you see pictures of what was and understand for yourself by walking how much there was and how many of us there were — just to know you have that history here — is important.”
To walk across our overbuilt urban terrain, Tim Robinson wrote in his book “Stones of Aran: Pilgrimage,” is to remember that “every step carries us across geologies, biologies, myths, histories, politics. ... To forget these dimensions of the step is to forgo our honour as human beings.” Traveling my city these past several months with people like Minner has reminded me of the myriad ways we are shaped by the landscape, both present and past.
Travel, at its best, shakes us from the stupor of everyday life and returns us home again more alert and aware. It reminds us of who we truly are. How extraordinary, then, to find that same potential at home, to transmute everyday life into an adventure. I opened myself up to my city with the curiosity of a tourist and the wonder of a traveler, and I realized that what I really want isn’t just foreign adventure, but to feel invigorated again by daily life. To feel connected to the place I live. It wasn’t all those years of leaving and returning that got me there. It was the staying.
Elizabeth Evitts Dickinson is a writer in Baltimore.
Design by Clare Ramirez. Photo editing by Dudley M. Brooks.