Bakery Girl

I wrote this creative nonfiction piece a couple years ago and sent it around to some lit mags but couldn’t get it placed. So I’m sharing it here.

This is dedicated to Roger, Mrs. C., Maria, Vladimir, and Mariann.

The longest relationship of my adult life has been with a local bakery: a Polish mom and pop in a Chicago suburb where I’ve been employed on and off since the early ‘90s, a few weeks before I turned 21. At the time I’d been working minimum wage jobs since high school, with no college degree and not much sense of where I belonged in life. But for fun I liked to bake cookies or whip up some fancy French toast the odd weekend, so I got it in my head to go to cooking school and become a chef or baker. Something like that. The local bakery seemed like a good place to start.

There’s a “sick burn” quote from the third edition of David Thomson’s A Biographical Dictionary of Film (1994) about movie goddess Michelle Pfeiffer: “She still carries the rather stunned, obedient air of an ex-checkout girl at the El Toro Vons supermarket.” Personally, I never noted such an “air” about Pfeiffer nor any of her screen incarnations, not even when she played a deglamorized diner waitress in Frankie and Johnny. But back in the ‘90s, when I was knee deep in mandatory hairnets and the impossible promise of guaranteed customer satisfaction, Thomson’s comment seared into my brain.

A film buff and bookworm, I spotted his book at the library, checked it out, and bulldozed through Thomson’s hundreds of acerbically funny and perceptive entries on Hollywood’s luminaries. Like the movies, Thomson’s wit was a welcome escape. But his entry on Pfeiffer unnerved me. Not because I was a fan of hers, but because it confirmed my fears that as far as the cultured people of the world are concerned, you can take the girl out of the working class but you can’t take the working class out of the girl. Or, in the case of any woman who’s worked a service job, that “smile and say ‘Have a nice day’ or you’re fired” reek of subservience. I mean, if the stunning — not “stunned” — Michelle Pfeiffer couldn’t convince someone she was born for better things than bagging groceries, even with all the transformative power of Hollywood’s dream factory backing her, what chance had someone like me, a Midwestern bakery girl of no special talents, looks, or connections?

Bakery girl. When I started cooking school (really, an associate’s in culinary arts program at a community college), I may have aspired to the title of chef or baker, but my domain at the bakery was always the store, not the bake shop in the back. And my title was “store girl.” That’s what the owners called all of us who set up the store starting 5 a.m., sliced and bagged the bread, boxed the donuts, weighed the butter cookies, stocked the shelves, rang up the purchases, made the coffee, carried out the cakes, answered the phones, took orders, wiped down the counters and tables, and swept and scraped (the latter on our hands and knees) the store floors before closing every night.

Store girl. Never mind that our ages ranged from 15 to early 70s.

There were no store boys, not in the 1990s. All the males worked in the back, meaning they did all the baking (and dishwashing and wholesale delivering). It sort of made sense, given all the heavy lifting and industrial equipment involved. The huge mixers, the lead-like buckets filled with custard and buttercream icing, and a wide-mouthed, revolving, floor-to-ceiling oven that warned away kitchen newbies with its perpetual fiery glow. It was heavy-duty baking, and heavy-duty baking apparently was no job for a girl. The only back of the house jobs any women did were packaging for wholesale, strawberry hulling (an endless job, fresh strawberries being the most popular choice of cake filling), and cake and pastry decorating.

The crew in the back wore bakery whites and heavy black shoes. We store girls wore a pink and beige smock with a matching hair scarf, white pants, and white thick-soled sneakers. The touch of pink was vital, underlining the distinction between us girls and the macho bakeshop crew.

We barely ever sat down — even on break, when there was a long enough lull to take one. My first day I brought a novel with me to read, imagining there’d be an official breakroom, like at the library job I’d had when I was 18, or somewhere private, like the popcorn room at the movie theater job I’d had when I was 17. But at the bakery there was no breakroom. Just a side room where baking tins and racks of fresh butter cookies were kept, plus some empty buckets you could pull out for a few minutes’ rest and a quick cup of coffee or instant soup. Never a donut though. You got sick of them fast. “I could never work here. I’d eat everything and gain a hundred pounds,” customers were always telling us. They didn’t seem to consider the concept of too much of a good thing, that even the smell of so much sweetness day after day put you off it all by the end of your first week.

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Old school bakery with bakery girl wearing uniform. Photo by DESIGNECOLOGIST on Unsplash

Not long after I started I changed my goal from baker to cake decorator. Partly because it was the decorators who impressed me the most. They were like wizards — creative, inventive, fast. They made it look so easy. Carving geometric shapes, faces, and household objects out of soft blocks of cake, squirting elegant calligraphy out of parchment pastry bags, molding the tiniest, most detailed features out of marzipan and rolled fondant, blending colors and fruits and flavors like alchemists mixing elements to make gold. And they were almost all women.

In his book Kitchen Confidential, Anthony Bourdain expressed his admiration for “studly women” who could “hang tough” in the high-testosterone world of professional kitchens. When the book came out, I had friends in the industry recommend it. By then I was a couple years away from the bakery, finishing up a bachelor’s degree in English at a state university and working in a mall department store. I’d applied for both, the mall job and college, telling myself I was done with food service work — and hopefully, soon, service jobs of any kind. I thought I might want to teach. Or work in an office. Somewhere I could sit down, somewhere I wouldn’t have to wear a name tag, somewhere I could nurture the bookish side of me I’d been hiding for off-hours, somewhere my confidence could grow.

But out of curiosity I tried a couple chapters of Bourdain’s book. His macho tone turned me off, his implication that women don’t belong in the restaurant industry unless they act like men.

It would be years before I’d see in Bourdain what others idolized. Like the way he championed food service people whether they worked at a famous five-star restaurant or a Waffle House. And Bourdain, to his credit, eventually owned up to some of the problematic elements of his first book, writing an essay near the end of his life expressing regret for the machismo he’d once (perhaps unwittingly) celebrated, finally calling out food service sexism for what it is: “meathead culture.”

Bourdain didn’t lie. In the service industry jobs I’ve had over the years, this culture took the form of male co-workers who’d freely talk about “the price of hookers” and joke about the smell of female genitalia in earshot of women workers. There were guys who wouldn’t allow a female co-worker to do anything that required too much physical exertion — they meant well but their thinking was that all women were weak. And there were guys who’d ignore you if you did ask for help — their thinking being that you wanted to work in this job didn’t you, so do it yourself like a man supposedly would. Then there was the young, hot-shot and hot-headed chef I worked with who once threatened “She’s in danger of becoming a battered woman someday” about a teenage waitress he said asked too many questions, was too mouthy. (Later he said he was just joking. Hahaha.)

This was just the back of the house sexism. Out front there were male customers who’d hound you for your number or stalk you by waiting for your table or turn at the counter or calling the store or restaurant, convinced your friendly customer service was really flirting. Which was probably the worst part of the job, much more than being on your feet all day or scraping up crumbs. You had to smile through it all. Even while being leered at by a man “just reading” the name tag on your breast. Or being called “sweetie” by a well-manicured woman pretending you have no name at all.

Machismo is only one flavor of sexism, only one style of disrespect. Women, in their own way, can be just as guilty. From the young, self-described “foodie” bride-to-be who left a thousand-word bad review of the bakery on every online ratings site because her wedding cake samples came in plastic cups, to the middle-aged professional who threw a fudge-iced éclair at a store girl because she didn’t like the way it’d been handed to her. (The iced side hit my co-worker right below her collar, just above her name tag, leaving an oblong-shaped brown spot the rest of her shift. After getting the manager to fill the rest of her order, the customer walked over to the store girl on her way out the door and jeered, “Have a nice day, hon.”)

Or maybe rude customer behavior has nothing to do with sexism. Maybe there’s another ism to blame — classism, capitalism, narcissism. Or maybe some people have impossible expectations. Maybe some people are just jerks.

Maybe Bourdain, while wrong, was also right.

Deep down, Kitchen Confidential riled me because I’d come to believe I wasn’t cut out for professional kitchen work. I was too intimidated to a fault. I didn’t have the cockiness or confidence for chef’s work, baker’s work, industry work. I didn’t know how to hang tough. I was a store girl, extra, out of her element.

David Thomson and Anthony Bourdain exposed a truth, or at least a perception, about women like me that hurt to face up to, much less confront. When I went back to school, it was in a core lit class that I finally saw some representation of the life I’d known, the same life I was trying to get away from, but this time it was cloaked in comfort.

In an American lit course we were assigned a Raymond Carver story, “A Small, Good Thing.” The story is about a middle-class couple whose young son dies on his birthday after a hit-and-run incident. Bookending the story, however, are two visits to a bakery. In the first visit, the mother orders a cake for her son’s birthday. In the second visit, the couple go to finally pick up the cake, three days late. Actually, they go to confront the baker, who’s been prank calling them about the forgotten cake over the three agonizing days since the boy was hit by the car and left lingering in a coma. The story ends with the baker hearing about the child’s death, apologizing for his cruelty, offering stories about the supposed lonely life of a baker, and feeding the couple some of his freshly baked rolls. “You have to eat and keep going,” he tells them. “Eating is a small, good thing in a time like this.”

I liked a lot of the stories I was assigned in my lit classes, but this one I actually appreciated. I read it more than once — not for study purposes, but to decide what I really thought about it, how authentic it was based on my experience. I couldn’t wait to talk about it in class.

I remember wanting to talk about some of the more contrived aspects of the story. Like why didn’t the baker, someone who’d clearly been in the business awhile, make the mother pay for the cake upfront, at least put down a deposit? Like we did at the Polish bakery. And why didn’t he just mention the cake in any of his phone calls to the couple? Or just say, “This is the bakery calling.” Again, like we store girls did at the end of the day with any orders still waiting pick-up.

But we never got to the story in class discussion. I never got to talk about it with anyone. It just became one of those stories of the American canon that I was supposed to file away and make sense of — its perfection, its meaning, its influence — on my own, like an interrupted dream or a lost ambition.

I decided it was good. What I liked was how dynamic the baker character is, how much he becomes the emotional heart of the story, evolving from the unyielding front he shows the mother at the story’s beginning, to cruelty and self-pity in its middle, to remorse and compassion by the end. To giving.

I decided his prank calling of the couple, unlikely in real life, was his assertion of his own value, of his worth as a worker and human being. He took the time to take this woman’s order, to make the cake just like she wanted, to put in the time and labor for a family he didn’t know and a child not his own. Never mind his “I’m just a baker” apology to the couple. He’s the only character in the story with something to offer the mourning parents beyond condolences or platitudes, something they can hold in their hands, smell and eat, nourish and comfort themselves with. Even their son’s doctors couldn’t give as much.

So Carver’s baker isn’t, in my experience, a perfect, authentic representation of bakery life. Maybe nothing is other than the life itself. But in terms of working-class respect, Carver’s story certainly beats Thomson’s quip. Carver himself grew up working-class, his father a millworker, his mother a sometime waitress and retail clerk. She could’ve been a woman I worked with. She could’ve been me.

(This past year of pandemic, like people the world over I’ve had a lot of sleepless nights. Nights of worrying and fear. Nights that lead your mind to the past, because the future is so uncertain. My mind would sometimes stray to cooking school, to my first days at the bakery, to Carver’s baker… Could I have been Mrs. Carver’s son? Or Bourdain, with more ambition and talent, more confidence and dark sorrow? How about the dead boy’s mother in “A Small, Good Thing”? What contrivances or curveballs would have to be written into a story or a life to make Carver’s lonely baker turn out a worldly legend like Bourdain? Or to make Bourdain turn out like Carver’s baker — lonesome but surviving, overlooked but still alive?

Or to make me a baker, any baker, instead of the girl who rings up the baker’s orders?

How about Michelle Pfeiffer? In the ’90s she seemed straight on the Oscar path. Decades later she’s yet to get there, nevermind her knockout looks or knockout performances. Was it something on her resumé? That supposed miscasting as the diner waitress in Frankie and Johnny? Or maybe the time she played, for real, a supermarket checkout girl. As Thomson said, maybe she played that role too well, too obediently. Unlike lonely bakers, who can find their way back to human connection, working girls can’t expect to live their common beginnings down, not without an enduring confidence or a long fight.)

Two things life teaches you is that plans barely ever pan out and rescues almost never lead you to the promised land.

After college I got the office job I thought would rescue me from service work for life. It was a bargain cookbook publishing job, and surprisingly, I was told they were more interested in my community college culinary arts degree than my brand new university B.A.

I didn’t adjust well. There were no windows in the part of the building where my cubicle was marooned. There were days when I had maybe ten minutes of work to occupy an 8-hour day. And it turned out offices have their own brand of hell situations to survive, from gossip and cliques to the farce of performance reviews, to back-stabbing. None of the working-class camaraderie I’d known in every service job I’d had, the got-your-back bonding that transcended even the sexism and male chauvinism when it came to surviving especially brutal busy days of churning out high-volume orders and facing throngs of customers.

There were nice breakrooms though, that was a plus. But also self-described “foodies” who’d hunt me down in those breakrooms. Offices, I learned, are filled with foodies. People who’ve never worked in a restaurant or professional kitchen a day in their life, but who watch lots of cooking shows, or read lots of gourmet magazines or restaurant reviews, or spend lots of time in the aisles of specialty grocery stores. Not that there’s anything wrong with all that. You wouldn’t be human if you didn’t enjoy the satisfaction of a good meal or the thrill of a cut-throat cook-off. But foodies are people who like to show off what they think they know. And the minute they hear you’ve worked in the industry or gone to cooking school, they want you to prove it. Which means, in the spirit of office passive-aggressiveness, they want to compete with you. Which means being hunted down anywhere in the office for recipe secrets or arcane ingredient advice or the low-down on local hot restaurants I couldn’t afford to eat in or chefs I didn’t know — then being challenged or negged on any experience or opinion you do share.

My first office job, I lasted less than a year before bolting for a full-time job in the deli and kitchen of a Whole Foods. It set a pattern for years to come. Ping-ponging between offices and kitchens, between jobs with health insurance and jobs with surprise health inspections, between higher-status “real jobs” and lower-status jobs that the world really can’t do without.

At some point, after a few years, I went back to visit the Polish bakery. It was during the Christmas season. I’d been working in publishing, but for not as much pay as I expected I’d be making back when I thought an office job was the answer. The bakery staff said they’d welcome any extra help to handle the holiday crowds. So I worked a few shifts, including Christmas Eve day.

It was just like old times, easy to get back in the groove of boxing donuts and slicing bread.

Yet things had changed. One of the brothers who owned the bakery had died. The other brother’s kids had grown up, were being groomed to take over. Prices had gone up. Almost no one wrote checks anymore — everything was put on debit cards. And all those cooking and baking shows that had flooded cable TV in recent years meant customers coming in with more elaborate orders, show-stopper cake designs, foodie-fed dreams of over-the-top sweet tables and multi-tiered cupcake trees and gourmet donut buffets. God knows what Carver’s baker would’ve made of such demands.

And there were store boys. Mostly high school kids. They wore paper caps and aprons. The store girls wore aprons now too. The pink long scrapped for maroon. The bakeshop foreman I’d known in the ‘90s was also long gone — he’d left to start his own business. There’d been a series of male, classically trained, high-end hotel pastry chefs who’d been chewed up and spit out by the bakery’s heavy-duty production rate. Now, in their place, was a Greek woman and a familiar face, one of the lady pastry wizards who had dazzled me back in the day. She wasn’t studly, she didn’t hang tough or make gross jokes about female anatomy. She was a mom and a new grandma.

Maybe seeing how a mom and pop bakery could change planted a seed in me that I could change too. That maybe class isn’t destiny — at the very least, not identity.

Working in cubicles, I did a lot of daydreaming. About being my own boss, maybe starting a business of my own. Back in the ’90s I used to work extra shifts to earn money to travel. In cooking school, I spent a few summers working abroad in Ireland in hotels and cafes. I hit on a travel business idea — specializing in group tours for women. I was thinking of women who didn’t feel like they fit in on family tours or couples tours. Or maybe women who just didn’t feel they fit in period and wanted to get away for a bit, to stretch their sense of adventure, to test their confidence. I intended to turn my back on office life and the rescue and dream that it never was forever.

As I researched the travel biz, became a certified tour manager, set up a business and website, started organizing tours, all along the bakery was there for me. Three years on, when the business failed, the bakery was still there. I felt like a failure, again, but my bakery colleagues waved that off. “You tried,” the store girls said, without a trace of snark, as we stood at the counter folding boxes. “That took courage, starting a business,” one of the older women said.

There were more changes anyway — the kind that kept you from dwelling too much on failure even as they broke the bakery family’s heart piece by piece. One of the wizard decorators, who started at 16 as a store girl, opened a competing bake shop. A fire burned down the restaurant next door and left us working out of a temporary facility for months. The matriarch of the family who owned the bakery died. A young man who worked in the back and a dear friend to all of us was murdered. And one November, two days before Thanksgiving, a longtime store manager said goodbye to us one night at closing: “OK, I’ll see you tomorrow, girls.” She never came back.

She’d been with the bakery since it opened doors in the 1970s. Truly, the original store girl. My first day, back when I was 20, she’d been the one to take me around the bakery and explain every single pastry to me, every flavor and filling, every shape of roll, every kind of bread.

That day before Thanksgiving, when she didn’t show up to work for the first time in decades, we still had to serve the crush of customers. We were stunned, obediently quiet to the news of death. But we store girls and store boys still had to smile, still had to say, “Have a happy Thanksgiving,” over and over and over again. We took turns going in the back to cry. So many of us had never known a Thanksgiving at the bakery without Mariann.

The crew in the back set up a buffet on one of the workbenches. Some had brought tacos. The owner roasted a turkey in the revolving oven. His daughter sliced a loaf of buttercrust white and one of seeded rye. Somebody added cans of cold pop, a bag of chips, salsa, a slab of butter, some butterflake rolls. Front of the house and back of the house took shifts eating from paper plates, standing up at the workbenches and back counters, sitting on empty buckets.

The bakery would be closed the next day for the holiday, but the store would be packed with customers ’til closing time, waiting for their pies and breads, waiting for us. They were counting on us. So we ate to keep going, to endure.

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