When Jules Rabin lost his job teaching anthropology in 1977, he and his wife, Helen, turned to baking to keep their family afloat. For 37 years they’ve baked sourdough bread that people in central Vermont can’t seem to live without
The year before Jules left Goddard College, he and Helen built a replica of a 19th century peasant oven, hauling 70 tons of fieldstone from nearby fields. The stones covered an igloo-shaped brick baking chamber 5 1/2 feet in diameter.
The Rabins started selling bread made with sourdough starter; it soon developed a cult following. The business supported the family for 25 years.
“I’m simply the oven man,” 90-year-old Jules tells me while tending the last embers of a fire that has burned for 24 hours. “My work is crude. It involves some skills, but Helen is the heart of this work.”
At first the Rabins’ bake house was outdoors. But they put up a building around it so they could work during Vermont’s harsh winters. As Helen, 73, mixes flour, water, salt and sourdough starter in an industrial-size mixer from the 1920s, she belittles her contribution to the enterprise.
“The formula for the bread itself and the flour and the sourdough is really available to anybody,” she says, “but if our bread is different — and I think it’s somewhat different from what most other people make — it has to be the oven.”
The 38-year-old wood-fired oven at their home in Marshfield, Vt., is based on one they saw at a commune in France while Jules was on sabbatical. Knocking on a wood food counter used for forming loaves from the dough, Helen says, “I’m especially proud because after 35, 40 years, it hasn’t fallen down.”
Helen is still able to lug 50-pound sacks of flour and grain around the bake house. The Rabins use King Arthur white flour but grind their own wheat and rye flour in a small electric mill.
The tools used for the fire have a DIY edge to them: A broom, hoe and mop used on the oven floor are attached to 6-foot-8-inch tree limbs. The mop is a burlap coffee sack that Jules refer to as a shmatte, using the Yiddish word for rag.
“This whole enterprise is based on shmatte technology,” he says.
Helen scoffs at the notion that it’s kind of cool that she’s kept her original batch of sourdough starter going since the late 1970s. She points out that the bacteria used in the starter are everywhere in the natural environment. Her daughter, Nessa, says it’s definitely cool.
Nessa is a proud union baker at the Hunger Mountain Food Co-op in Montpelier. The union is the United Electrical, Radio and Machine Workers of America, and Nessa is a pastry chef. She’s been taking Fridays off during the summer to go help her parents bake.
The Rabins retired in 2002, but son Julian’s need for a summer job four years ago provided the impetus for them to come out of retirement.
At the Plainfield farmers market, the only place where you can buy Rabin bread, Nessa greeted a customer who joked about getting to the market late and still scoring a loaf of Rabin bread.
The weekly trip to the farmers market is a time when the Rabins socialize with their fans and friends, who are often one and the same.
“We’ve been buying this bread since they started baking it,” said Lorrie Goldensohn, whose husband, Barry, taught at Goddard with Jules. “We’ve had great bread in Paris and Austria and this has always been right up there.”
Clutching a loaf of sourdough rye, Eleanor Randall remarks, “Oh, my God. This is so good. It’s just moist and grainy and makes you think you’re in France for a little while.”
To which her husband. Leonard Irving, adds: “There’s no better bread than Jules and Helen’s. … And, of course, it’s baked the same morning. You can’t beat that.”
The bread that many in central Vermont can’t live without will be available for two more Fridays at the Plainfield farmers market. The Rabins say that they’re not sure if they’ll bake again next summer.
Manhattan-based radio reporter Jon Kalish has reported for NPR since 1980. Links to radio documentaries, podcasts and stories on NPR are at Kalish Labs.