Friday, May 23, 2008

The Hungry Ghost

In my ongoing effort to prove the obvious fact that Northampton, MA is, alongside Brooklyn, one of the greatest places on earth, I'd like to take today to highlight two of the town's wonderful features: The Hungry Ghost Bakery and its early morning employee, the food writer John Thorne.

The Hungry Ghost, run by Jonathan Stevens and Cheryl Maffei, is every hippy's dream. It's a tiny building with a huge orange oven, everything flour-dusted, warm, and wonderful-smelling. It's named for a Buddhist spirit of insatiable appetite, and more pertinently, for the yeast that resembles that spirit. I think I could cheerfully live there. Instead, I just linger around their doorstep hungrily when I pass through town, and have little fantasies about being one of their regulars and bigger fantasies about working there. Forever. Many people have written articles about them, many of them good, so I won't go into detail, but in case anyone was wondering, this is one of the things that fills my dreams before I go to sleep. Good bread, little town, invisible spirits.

And, as if good bread and perfect DIY ambience were not enough, The Hungry Ghost and others have started one of the most wonderful projects ever, the Little Red Hen. Longtime advocates of local flour, Stevens and Maffei have been working for a while to encourage local farmers in Western MA to grow wheat again. This year, as a combination publicity stunt and actual venture, they have asked their customers to do the same, in small plots in backyards and back fields. They will test out wheat strains and growing methods, and the whole will be scythed and collected by bicycle (and in case you were wondering, the downtown garbage collection contracts in Northampton are held by the same cyclists, the Pedal People). This is so good. So Good! I could spend my life dreaming up projects like this one. I hope I do. (See: finding my calling--to be continued).

There is one more debt that I owe (indirectly) to The Hungry Ghost, and to my mother, who found the article. A long article in Hampshire Life, the weekend magazine of the Daily Hampshire Gazette, the paper that records whatever it feels like and to hell with the rest, introduced me to John Thorne. Whenever I read up on a subject, in this case food, I start to find that there are classics of the genre or subject that everyone refers to and that I simply must read immediately.

My interest was piqued by the article, which focused on the fact that the well-known food writer works the early shift at The Hungry Ghost. I was intrigued enough to check out a few of Thorne's books from the library, and to subscribe to his newsletter, Simple Cooking. It soon became clear that not only was Thorne (who collaborates with his wife, Matt), one of those semi-hidden classics, a food writer's food writer, and an addictive essayist.

He's so smart, so non-elitist, and so curious. I can't do him half justice in the writing of this blurb, but my recommendation is unequivocal. Even if you are not a foodie reader, he's worth it. Most of his books are at the Brooklyn Public Library, or reasonable to buy. I especially recommend the Irish potato chapter in Pot on the Fire.

In sum, The Hungry Ghost and John Thorne. A match made in heaven, I'm glad I've come to know both of them, they inspire me to live simply, and to make good bread as a part of a community. Read his work, eat their bread, and revel in the happiness that comes when the perfect thing is graced with the perfect name. And admit it, Northampton MA may be one of the greatest places on earth. Paradise, maybe?

P.S. For those of you following my career, please note that Matt Lewis Thorne (John's wife) appears to work as a librarian at Forbes Library. As usual, I must be on to something.


Luke said...

Hi, this is Luke from Hamp. Ellen showed me your blog, but then I lost it, but then I found it again. Anyhow I love Hungry Ghost. Their Rosemary loaves are amazing. Is this the same Thorne that owns Thorne's Market? I think I used to deliver the paper to them! I also start a blog because it seems like that is what everyone is doing these days.

Katya said...

Hey Luke,
Nice to hear from you. Yes, I've been reading your blog as well, since Ellen sent it. I know, I know, everyone's doing it, but it amuses me.

And then i figure those who are interested in my cooking can read it and those who aren't don't have to be bothered. Sounds like you're doing well.

John Thorne isn't the guy who owns Thorne's, though there might be some connection because he mentions having nephews in the valley. I love the hungry ghost rye bread, but mostly I just love going in there no matter what I come out with.

Alex said...

And this is Alex from Hamp. I ended up here by facebooking old friends and got caught up on the bread posts, since I'm also a little obsessive about bread. I too love Hungry Ghost want/plan to write about it as soon as I have a chance. In the meantime, some farmer friends of mine here in Alabama told me they just came across an article about Hungry Ghost in an ag magazine. I guess they're all over the place. Go bread! Go wheat! Go ghosts!