Larry Smith is as famous for his sticky buns and salted baguettes as he is for his warmth and kindness. Amy Bloom loafs around with a South Dakota yeast god.
The best bread in the world is not in Paris. It' not in San Francisco, and it's not being made in some chic little bakery–art gallery in SoHo, either. The best bread in the world is waiting for you right at the front of Jones' Food Center, 812 Cottage Avenue, in downtown Vermillion, South Dakota.
Larry Smith is the baker. Larry Smith is also, in the eyes of many University of South Dakota students, the "bread god." Real Vermillionites don't go in for such hyperbole. They just line up at noon to buy Larry Smith's bread as soon as it comes out of the oven, and they have been known to offer to help bag the loaves to speed up the process. When I walk through downtown Vermillion by myself, it seems like a nice enough place; when I walk with Larry, people express such warmth and gratitude, it's as if I've found the sunny side of the street. After a few days in the bakery, I begin to think that the best bread in the world is not just a good thing, but a healing and ecstatic thing. Clearly, the blushing middle-aged cashier, who says "Baking sticky buns today?" and claps her hands when Larry says "Yes," knows something about joy. Likewise, the guy in the orange hunting vest and feed cap, who says, "Hey, Lar, baking?" And lights up when the answer is yes.
At 6 A.M. we walk into Jones'. Larry introduces me to a neighbor as a friend from back east, and her eyes grow wide with alarm. "You're not taking him back, are you? I don't know what we would do without Larry in this town." Larry shrugs and smiles and steers me to the kitchen. We have buns to make. And salted baguettes. And their rosemary-Parmesan variation. And Badlands ciabatta. Larry is already mixing the dough before I have found an apron and gotten out of the way of a fast-moving trolley full of early morning doughnuts (they're not bad but they're not Larry's, and like everyone else, I am waiting for the sticky buns). Leo, the assistant manager, is doing everything he can to get the lesser baked goods (all the prefrozen dough bits that turn into mediocre pastries and croissants) into the oven and to make room for Larry's arsenal. Monica, the cake lady, already piping HAPPY BIRTHDAY and placing little plastic circus clowns on an iced sheet cake, watches Larry carefully. She is admiring—and she is quietly taking notes.
Without any chef's attitude and without any chef's attire, Larry, tall and lanky, is in nondescript jeans, anonymous sneakers, and an old polo shirt that will soon be so floury that what's left of its original color disappears entirely. "Some people say, "Oh, we must use fresh springwater from the Alps and sea salt from France, but, you know, practically speaking, we don't have much of that in the Midwest. The only thing that's essential is good flour; King Arthur is my favorite, and if you can't get that, North Dakota Mill bread flour is good. Get it unbromated and unbleached. Bleached flour is good for cookies—bad for bread. Murmuring "Easy, easy" to the dough, he throws the wet ingredients on top of the dry ones, and after ten minutes in the mixer, it is a soft, pliant ball.
Linda from the courtesy desk comes by to check on the sticky buns' progress: "Awesome. There's nothing on earth like his breads." She lingers to see if anything is about to come out of the oven, but we're still in the mixing and rising stages and she leaves, sighing.
As the sticky buns rise, Larry has his hands deep in the poolish, also known as starter. "This is the stuff," he says, smiling as if he is smelling it for the first time, not the thousandth. "Smell." It smells like life: yeasty and warm, somewhere between heated earth and opening flowers. Larry makes buckets of the stuff—for baguettes and pizza dough, for ciabatta and peasant rounds.
"If you have this, you can make great bread anywhere." He tosses a rough cupful into a giant mixing bowl and begins adding flour for the baguettes.
A few more people inquire about the sticky buns and go away disappointed.
"People cook the way they are," he says. "There are people who like to cook and people who like to bake. We choose one or the other, based on the rewards. For me there's a romance to baking." He strokes the sticky buns, caressing them into platonic smoothness. "Like a baby's bottom," he says. "The most perfect thing in the world." I make the brown sugar filling, while he snaps a knife through the rosemary-Parmesan dough and puts a damp tea towel over the soft rising loaves.
"Some people are afraid of yeast, and so they don't take the risk of baking. Anyone can learn how—how to judge the feel of the dough and its readiness. That's all you need. That and desire and the willingness to make mistakes." As with so many things.
The sticky buns are done. Sticky buns doesn't really do them justice. They are huge molten spirals, brown sugar and pecans tumbling out of the centers, spilling, hot, shiny, and dark, onto the tray. They cool, and the air that was warm and tender with dough is now shimmering with sugar. We frost them, much to Larry's dismay. He prefers them pure, but in South Dakota a sticky bun without a big glob of cream cheese frosting is naked. Impartial and open-minded, I try one of each. For your grown-up brunch, leave the frosting off or in a nearby bowl for surreptitious dunking. For children and sweet freaks, bring it on. Either way, prepare for laughter and tears and people following you home.
"Oh, yeah, they say the dough waits for no one. Or that you always have to wait around for your dough. I don't know—if you do it right and time it right, you and the dough work together. It rises up to the edge of the bowl, ready to bake." He lays the baguettes into their bread pans, long, pale yellow triplets, and smoothes the dough gently, peering carefully to make sure the wrinkles and fissures have been erased. He pinches and pats their ends like a fond lover and tosses them into the hot oven.
"Fifteen years ago, I was doing some cooking for the family. To go with dinner, I bought a salted peasant loaf made by Judie's European Baked Goods [a Connecticut bakery]. I loved it and thought, Maybe I can do this. And I tried and tried and tried. And I came close, and then I let it rise in a bowl full of olive oil and used kosher salt. And that was it, that's all anybody wanted. They loved it."
He tosses handfuls of sharp Parmesan and rosemary into the baguette dough. Does he import Dean & DeLuca's finest? No, both the cheese and the dried rosemary are from Jones'; Larry believes in cooking where you're planted.
He baked when he was a police captain in Connecticut; he baked for friends and family as he contemplated early retirement; and he turned to baking as a vocation when he found himself in South Dakota, having accompanied his wife, Betty, to her new job as a political science professor (she is as admired at the university as he is in town). He has baked all the way through illness—he was diagnosed with Parkinson's ten years ago—and the ensuing, enduring tremors and stiffness, about which he sometimes jokes and never complains. He bakes to live and to love—and it works.
Having struggled with illness and loss, Larry Smith wakes up every day and chooses kindness and celebration—mixed with determined grace—and all of that is in these loaves. "We all have to make dinner, so you might as well make a nice one, sure. But you never—in our culture—have to make bread. So to choose that, it's an act of giving. An act of love, I think. Every loaf. And when you're living someplace isolated—whether it's a small town or a big city—it's an act of community, too."
After a full day's baking, Larry comes home to make pizza. He rolls out the dough quickly and firmly, figuring out his measurements for me, watching the onions melt in the pan and putting together a party's worth of pizza in minutes.
It is not your usual pizza. The crust is light and airy, a baker's dream, and the topping—mascarpone, caramelized onions, and roasted broccoli—enhances rather than crushes the dough. In heaven, this is the pizza they serve. Betty and I eat more than we would have thought possible and sigh, like all of Larry Smith's friends and family, students and customers—fed and loved and slightly improved.