Down the Aisle:Lexie Smith

Founder of Bread on Earth Interview and Images by Aimee Brodeur

I was first drawn to Lexie Smith when I came across Bread on Earth, her current project that explores the intersection between food, art, and cultural anthropology. Her studies in bread all share one dominant quality- a sense of humanity- raw, imperfect, and worked by hand. Vegetable-dyed flatbreads cooked over an open flame, purple yam brioche, scans of historic bread-art experiments, and bread as still life photography. What other food item is as widely shared, universally understood, and at the same time as culturally distinctive as bread? Her journey over the last 10 years has taken her all over the country, but as I soon learned from her, sometimes we need to go away so we can come back home on our own terms.

You’ve lived in a bunch of different places- Marfa, Maui, New York City. Can you tell me what worked for you, and why, over time, you left these places?

I started in New York, then went to Maui, then Marfa, then back to New York, with a few other places scattered in between. The places aren’t only inherently extreme on their own, but also in comparison with one another. I think- in the end- that worked for and against me as well, because I come from New York and was trying to go somewhere so different. I grew up in the suburbs- in Hastings-on-Hudson. I started working in the city when I was 15, then went to NYU. I wasn’t a city girl at all. I definitely was someone who sought out solitude, which worked for me when I went to Maui in 2010. Actually, I moved to Puerto Rico first, which was really extreme. I was farming in this isolated town on the coast. It ended up being one of the poorest places on the island. One of the biggest drug ports, too. It was really dangerous. I actually ended up having to leave pretty hastily, because I was in danger. I was 21. It was crazy.

Sounds like an intense experience you were not expecting to have. Did you feel the need to get back to a home base?

Actually, I went straight to Maui like five days later (laughing). I was Wwoofing. I was so new to farming, and it had been a dream of mine throughout college. I was at least trying to be mature in picking a spot that was technically the continental United States.

I ended up applying to stay on this farm in Maui called Hanna Farms, which is on the isolated end of the island’s valley. It was idyllic in a way that even an atheist, cynical New Yorker could enjoy. I stayed in a tent under a rainbow eucalyptus tree. They provided the food in exchange for work. We had a farmstand on the road, where I baked banana bread and various other Hawaiian-esque sweets. It was really my first baking job, though I wouldn’t really call it a job. I was barefoot. As someone who had gotten out of a couple of crappy situations in New York, it was incredibly invigorating to be there. I was really looking for independence, and was figuring out my next steps. I wanted to come back to New York and do Urban Agriculture. Life has a way of throwing itself upon you, and it turned out that I didn’t come back to New York for three years.


“It was idyllic in a way that even an atheist, cynical New Yorker could enjoy. I stayed in a tent under a rainbow eucalyptus tree. They provided the food in exchange for work. We had a farmstand on the road, where I baked banana bread and various other Hawaiian-esque sweets. It was really my first baking job, though I wouldn’t really call it a job. I was barefoot.”

 

Definitely. Sounds incredibly idyllic, but sometimes too much of a good thing can be overwhelming. What made you leave Maui?

I ultimately started to feel too disconnected from the rest of the planet. I have always been an isolationist, nevertheless I felt the need to affect a whole larger than myself. When I was in Maui, there were a lot of people there who were just there to indefinitely chill. I was like, “GUYS! What are we doing?” I was young, and it was good for me then, but I couldn’t imagine doing that now without a real plan. I went to Puerto Rico because I wanted to be part of community culture in a small town where it was really needed, but there was no infrastructure for me to do that (in Maui). I wanted to be working towards some goal like that. It was too isolated- it was more of a retreat. I wasn’t even there that long, but I felt like I had lived three different lives by the time I left.

I was set to move back to New York, but then met this man on the beach of Maui who was from Dallas, Texas, and we fell in love. He had a life in Texas so we both decided to move there together. I basically showed up with seashells braided into my hair and a backpack. He decided to quit his job in Dallas and we were both kind of like, “Fuck it, let’s move to Marfa.” 

I had a stand at the farmer’s market. There was no bakery there. I was also working at this little farm-to-table supper club restaurant.  We stayed there for six or seven months. That isolation was of a different sort, but probably more overbearing. It does insane things to a relationship to be in a community where you don’t have allies and you only have each other. I was also at that point itching for the real world.

And I didn’t have access to a lot of the things I wanted to bake with. It was during a time in Texas where there were wildfires and extreme drought and most the farmers had little to no produce. Now I would take this as an amazing challenge, but I was literally making hundreds of items in my kitchen, just trying everything out. I wasn’t really making money or getting feedback, I just wanted more of an education. We moved to Austin after that, which is where I had my first restaurant pastry experience at Elizabeth Street Cafe. I was working a cook job during the day and a bakery job during the night. I had no room left for anything else after that and eventually the relationship collapsed. Plus, I missed the extreme quality of life in New York.

Now that you’re back in NYC, what is working for you this time around?

It’s so different now. I’ve changed so much. I’ve accepted my path, and that has crystallized things for me. I wasn’t comfortable with my community when I was younger here. I wasn’t inspired and I felt I couldn’t stake my claim. I had to go and figure out who I was so I could come back and say, “This is who I am!” When you’re in New York and you’re “trying to figure it out”- which we all are- it’s really fucking hard.


“I aim to be able to stand behind all of the people, places, and things that I have been lucky enough to be involved with… We are living in a world where everything is being broadcast and lives like nuclear waste on the internet. I think it’s important to make your choices wisely. I mean, all we really have to give other people…is our time. That is the most valuable thing to offer others.”

 

How does your philosophy around buying food relate to other parts of your life?

I think acting with intention and taking responsibility for the things that you buy and the people you support is as close as you can come to having control over anything. I try and steer away from big industry food and big industry agriculture as much as I can. I want to be able to look back at the things I have done and not feel any sense of regret or shame. I aim to be able to stand behind all of the people, places, and things that I have been lucky enough to be involved with. In a way it’s like creating a resume. I don’t want to be associated with everybody or every person who wants to be associated with me. We are living in a world where everything is being broadcast and lives like nuclear waste on the internet. I think it’s important to make your choices wisely. I mean, all we really have to give other people…is our time. That is the most valuable thing to offer others.

What are your go-to markets here in NYC?

I come to the Union Square Market once a week- mostly for the grain stand. The point is to get things freshly milled. They provide access to mills all along the Eastern seaboard. It’s a really good way to get freshly milled grains if I am not milling them myself. Also, Brooklyn Bread Lab is a great resource.

Are you as adventurous when you go to the market as you are in life?

Yes! One of my favorite games is to go to the market with a friend, pick out four disparate items, then take them home and figure out how to make something with them. The way to familiarize yourself with new flavors is to bring them into your kitchen. I like reading and educating myself with recipes more than actually following them.


“One of my favorite games is to go to the market with a friend, pick out four disparate items, then take them home and figure out how to make something with them. The way to familiarize yourself with new flavors is to bring them into your kitchen.”

 

Is there a market that you’d be devastated to see close?

I am a little devastated that Essex St. Market is going through a whole transition. I’m sure it’ll get a facelift, but I think there are some vendors that won’t make it through, unfortunately. I’ve relied on the Essex St. Market so much in my life, particularly when I was working at El Rey. We’d go there a lot to get through service.

There’s an old Italian market in my neighborhood in Ridgewood called Valentino’s. They have sawdust on the floor, this great butcher counter and big buckets of olives. Super old-school. I like to go there, but there’s not much organic stuff. You go into this old-school neighborhood and I feel annoying being like, “Where’s your organic produce?”  But I do enough reading about the state of agriculture that I wish that it was a bit more valued. I wish there was more access to high-quality produce [in my neighborhood]. There’s less access the further you get from the city.

I lived in Bushwick before Ridgewood and the market prices were crazy. You could tell they were taking advantage of you. As much as I love grocery shopping, I hate super markets. They’ll have 17 different kinds of soy milk, and I think to myself, “What’s going on here?…” I kind of just want to move to the middle of nowhere and be entirely self sustaining. I still prefer the Farmer’s Markets more than anything. I recently went to Parrot Coffee in Sunnyside. It’s very small but has items I have never seen before.

What items are you always picking up from the store?

I always have organic fruit- hopefully stuff that’s seasonal, and whatever looks good. Tons of greens. My boyfriend and I were just in Kentucky and foraged for all of our greens, and now he’s going foraging in Vermont. When it’s not seasonal, I realized that I eat a ton of oatmeal.


“I love the jungle, but I also love the desert. I think it is incredibly poetic and full of mystery. Especially now- I’m so in love with bread and I feel drawn to the sandy textures.”

 

How do you make your oatmeal?

I usually ferment them overnight, soaking them in water. It gives them tang. You can even ferment them in yogurt, which helps them break down. I often prepare them savory, with mushrooms.

Any other items that are in constant rotation at your house?

As long as we have coffee, oats, butter, olive oil, and anchovies, we are good.

Would you say your eating patterns have changed depending on where you’ve lived?

When I living Maui, I was eating entirely off the land. I felt so healthy. I could live off of fruits, vegetables, eggs and yogurt and be fine.  It’s funny because the guys who worked on the farm would do huge Costco runs and then feed their babies bagels, and I was like, “But you guys- THE KALE!”

 

When I was living in Marfa, it was tricky. There’s a market called the Get-Go which is like a baby Whole Foods. Everything is a million dollars, but you feel like you need it all because there’s not much else. It was extreme to go from the jungle to the desert, but also was why we wanted to do it.

I love the jungle, but I also love the desert. I think it is incredibly poetic and full of mystery. Especially now- I’m so in love with bread and I feel drawn to the sandy textures. When I was in Marfa, I was eating a lot more meat. I was testing recipes, so I was eating a lot of sweets, too. In Austin, I was just being depressed and drinking whiskey and eating baguettes. I’ve always enjoyed working with restrictions.

 

Take-aways:

  1. Bread on EarthA Community Art Project