A few years ago, my friends, Mark and Shannon, owners of a small artisan bakery, needed help working their stand at the weekend farmer’s market.
“It’ll be easy,” Shannon said.
“Piece of cake,” Mark agreed, pleased with his pun.
“You’ll get to eat as many cookies and macarons as you like,” Shannon promised.
“You can even have a lemon trollop,” added Mark. “But just one.”
“It’s like a lemon tart,” Shannon explained, then she and Mark exchanged mischievous grins.
“But trollop is a much nicer word than tart!” they singsonged in unison.
Before I go any further, I must tell you that Well-Bred Bakery, the name of their business, prides itself on its quirky wordplay. There is the “Quentin Tarantino Danish,” aptly named because the pastry resembles a gunshot wound, and their wildly popular “Butch” bread, with a tagline reading, “Gay Bread for Straight People.” There is also the famous Killer Brownie, claiming that “People have died.” You get the picture. Pastries and puns. Good times.
“I’ll do all the money transactions,” Shannon said. “All you have to do is be friendly and put things in bags for people with a pair of tongs. Plus, you’ll make a hundred bucks for a 4-hour day, and we’ll send you home with goodies.”
One hundred bucks sounded pretty good. So, did the goodies. And if Shannon and Mark were going to do all the hard stuff, I figured it would be a breeze.
It was not a breeze; it was traumatizing, mostly because Well Bred bakery makes and sells mostly bread. Artisan bread. Sourdough, slow bake, artisan bread. This means they don’t use traditional yeast, choosing instead, a fermentation process that takes a full 24 hours. The breads end up being very old-timey and substantial. And all that’s fine; the not-fine part of this story were the customers. Who knew bread aficionados were such freaks? Seriously, they asked me a zillion questions that I was completely unprepared to answer. Questions like, was the flour organic, and, if so, could they have the name of the wheat farmer? Someone else asked if the butter used for the pastries was made from happy cows. I even had a woman ask me if the coconut we used was locally sourced. Um… we live on Vancouver Island; last time I checked, there were no coconut growers in these here parts, lady.
To top it all off, there were the customers who said things like, please could I give them the chocolate croissant on the…NO!…not THAT one… the one beside the dolphin-shaped one. It has more chocolate. No! The OTHER one. Here…just give me the tongs!
Stuff like that. In no time at all, I was a nervous wreck.
At the half-way point in my shift, a tight-lipped woman with one of those I-want-to-talk-to-the-manager haircuts, picked up one of the slender, golden baguettes from the wicker basket on the table.
“The Falice,” she said, scrutinizing the label on the bag. “Where in Italy is Falice (she pronounced it “Fah-lee-chay")? I’ve never heard of this region.”
I blinked at her, and felt my cheeks redden. “Um,” I said. “I believe the baker was just having fun with words.”
“Excuse me?” the woman said, confused.
“Falice,” I said. “But it can also be pronounced Phallus — it’s a reference to the bread’s…um… evocative shape.”
The woman dropped the baguette back into the basket as though it had suddenly ignited and went on her way.
It didn’t help that Merribeth Watts — a notorious cranky vegan who lived near the market grounds — shuffled up in her beat-up Birkenstocks looking for wheat-free options. She picked up a heavy-looking cake from the bottom shelf of the bread rack and bellowed, “Is this gluten-free?”
Not going to lie; I’d had it. Only moments before Merribeth’s arrival, I’d had to shoo away Kale and Uvula, two feral children who had thought it would be fun to paint on the glass display-case window with their chocolate-smeared fingers. (I’m not sure if their names were actually Kale and Uvula; I’m just guessing. I suppose I could have asked “Mom,” but she was too busy smiling at her busy little Picassos over her Unicorn-infused Kombucha.)
Anyway, back to the gluten cake.
“So, is this gluten-free?” Merribeth asked again.
I narrowed my eyes and told her that, no, the gluten cost money, just like all the other items. (Honestly, who asks a vendor if their products are free? Such gall.)
Merribeth did not appreciate my comment. Instead, she called me a smart ass and said my customer service was sub-par, which I took great offence to because, while I am admittedly ignorant on the subject of artisan breads, I am certainly always polite. Well, except for this one time.
“I’ll buy the cake if it’s gluten-free,” Merribeth said, fixing me with a cold stare. “Also, there’s no tag. How much is it?”
The cake in question looked a bit like stollen, only without all the Christmasy embellishments. Pretty sure it was more expensive than the bread, too, but Shannon was six stalls down, talking to a man with a long beard who looked like Gandalf, about llama fleece, so I couldn’t ask her. I didn’t know where Mark was, but I was told he often disappeared for hours at a time during the markets.
I was hoping Merribeth Watts would carry on next door to the vendor selling beeswax candles, but she didn’t. Instead, she leaned against our (still chocolate-smeared) display case and asked me very pointedly if the baked items were produced in a nut-free kitchen. I don’t think she really cared; I think she was just trying to rattle my chain. So I informed her that Mark was, indeed, a bit of an odd duck, and it was my understanding that he was responsible for the bulk of the baking. So, no, the kitchen was most definitely not nut-free. That’s when Merribeth shook her multi-ringed index finger in my face and told me that peanut allergies were no laughing matter and how would I like to cart around an epi-pen in my fanny pack 24/7?
I have concluded that farmer’s markets are interesting places and while the people watching is pretty good, at the time, I didn’t think I was cut out to sell baked goods regularly. I just didn’t understand the lingo, and I got tired of people asking things like, “Does the maple butter tart have fewer calories than the lemon tart and is there butter in the pastries?” I mean, come on; if you’re concerned about calories, you might want to bypass the baked goods altogether and peruse the peas and parsley at the veggie stalls on the corner. It isn’t exactly rocket science.
Still, I got one-hundred bucks for my four-hour stint, along with five killer brownies, three lemon trollops, a few “Fat Boy” cookies (Harley Davidson meets Cookie), and a bag of buttery croissants.
I later concluded my day had certainly not been “a piece of cake,” as Mark had promised, but it had been an interesting study into the human condition.
It had also given me a renewed appreciation for gluten… and nuts. Especially nuts.
Note* Despite my first experience as a seller of artisan baked goods, I ended up becoming Well Bred’s regular “Saturday helper.” I’m still doing it. And while not much has changed — I still get asked the same strange questions — I’m now a seasoned veteran of sourdough and a serious scholar of scones. Just try and throw me off my bicycle. Just try!