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The Weekend Shift

Part-Time Baker

Martin Wells

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Wood-fired, Made with Love
(Martin Wells)
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It's nearly dawn and drizzling in Hastings, Neb., a Midwestern college town of 25,000 surrounded by farmland.

In a brick alley downtown, the glow of a street lamp illuminates a small sign that reads:

Back Alley Bakery.

Inside, Bryce Wiebe stokes up a wood fire in a handmade brick oven. He wears jeans under a white apron and a tight knitted cap pulled down over his brown hair. Wiebe's face glows in the firelight as he checks the temperature. "This for me is prayerful activity," he says. "It's quiet, it's focused, and I think its something that connects me to the divine, or with God or with whatever you want to say, because it's creative."

Wiebe was raised in the Mennonite church, which is similar to the Amish faith, but less suspicious of modern technology. Mennonites highly value life's simplicities and hard work.

Wiebe grew up in Hastings, he attended Hastings College and got a job as the director of its local Big Brothers/Big Sisters chapter after he graduated.

He is a busy man during week, but on Friday, Wiebe skips a night out so that he can be fresh for his early Saturday morning shift. "I felt there was something better about waking up and accomplishing something in a day than finishing late and waking up hurting the next day," he says.

Wiebe says that the simplicity of bread attracted him to the bakery. The loaves are only made using organic flour. The majority of their ingredients are locally grown. The bread is free-form baked, right on the floor of the wood-fired brick oven and without tins or pans.

Wiebe discovered baking early in life. During family holidays, he was the only little boy allowed to help in the kitchen. His mother and grandmothers taught him how to bake cakes and pies, but his weekend passion is bread.

"Bread is essentially a balance between your solid, your flour and moisture, he says. "If you get the proportions wrong, you wind up with a disaster on your hands."

Wiebe showed up at the Back Alley Bakery one day and begged to be brought on as a volunteer. The bakery's owner, John Hamburger, says Wiebe was initially like a lost puppy, but "he really took off. It wasn't long before we trusted him to start making fires and coming in at four o'clock in the morning."

Right now, Wiebe works on what will become a batch of sourdough baguettes. All the Back Alley's bread is sourdough, made from an original batch that is several years old. Sourdough is an organism that grows on its own and replenishes itself over time--yet another way of reclaiming old traditions.

The baguettes come steaming out of the oven when they are done. Wiebe explains that he can tell when it's done by listening for the steam crackling through its crust. "If you can squish it a little bit with your fingers and it crackles then it's good," he says.

It IS good. The crust is crunchy, and the soothing aroma of the escaping steam fills the air. The bread is moist, fresh and flavorful. It tastes like someone put their heart and soul into it. Wiebe says there's something spiritual about baking bread. "When you allow yourself to invest in something and be a part of something then you have to let it go," he says.

"You have to let it do its own thing, and you watch it, and you wait for it, and then you finish it. And when you're done, you have something that feeds people, you have something that nourishes people and...that's really important to us - that we give someone, give people something good to hold onto."

  • Music Bridge:
    Too High To Move
    Artist: Quiet Village
    CD: Silent Movie (!K7)
More stories from our The Weekend Shift series

Comments

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  • By Bryce Wiebe

    08/16/2008

    Glen, you are correct.

    By Glen Wiebe

    From MN, 08/16/2008

    I believe the name should be spelled Wiebe

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