Wednesday, November 27, 1996

Alumni profile: Newell bakes her way through life

Published in the Mountainview

I found Martha Newell in her bakery, in the basement of her home in Shoreham. She let me interview her while the honey oat bread was baking. When I asked what the most important thing about her Middlebury College experience was, she grinned. First was friendships formed throughout her four years at Middlebury. Second was her department, Geography.

She spoke admiringly about the department, faculty and students alike. The faculty realized and valued, she said, that students had lives outside of the department. The students brought their lives into the academic realm, making her education a demanding mix of practical and theoretical. "They didn't coddle us at all," Newell says. "I did C work, and I got a C."

She admits that what she is doing now has little to do with her academic discipline, but everything to do with the life she had outside academia, which she was able to integrate into her studies.

During summers in high school, and in the autumn before her February arrival at Middlebury, Newell worked as a cook at the Outward Bound School near her home in Bethel, Maine. There, preparation of wholesome food was coupled with individual responsibility.

She worked two college summers on the Camden, Maine schooner Mary Day. She not only learned to sail, but also cooked three meals a day for 35 people, over wood. "It was intense," Newell says. "I was the cook. I had only one person to help me." She had free rein over the entire menu and a captive audience for experimentation and feedback. "[The crew] knew what I'd made before, and told me what they thought." She did not have control over the boat, however, and tells a dizzying story of trying to cook while the boat was thrashing wildly in rough water. "I said, 'I'm trying to cook down here and you're up there dipping the siderails!'"

Obviously unsunk, Newell spent a semester at the Woods Hole Oceanographic Institute's SEA Semester program. During that time, Newell learned that two friends (both Middlebury '93) were selling their bakery. The idea of owning a wholesale local bakery was exciting, but she was unwilling to undertake such a task alone. She also "couldn't see the light at the end of the college tunnel" and so remained uncommitted.

In November 1994, Newell spoke with her friend Martha Love and brought up the bakery. Love said, half-seriously, "I'd do that." In August 1995, the pair bought the bakery. The newly renamed Two Marthas' Breads baked for the 1995 holiday season, and began "in earnest" the day after Newell graduated, in February 1996.

She opens the oven, checks the loaves, and continues. Newell describes the opportunity to buy the bakery as "the right opportunity with the right person at the right time; I couldn't pass it up." She had not previously thought of staying in the area after graduation, and still misses the ocean and sailing. She is, however, learning business skills and enjoys the challenge of finding her bearings with her business partner, Love.

She turns to begin cutting and weighing raisin walnut dough, and shapes it into loaves as she speaks. The bakery is an active community participant, providing breads to local businesses and the Middlebury Farmer's Market. Newell loves providing fresh, good bread to the community and contextualizes the bakery's role in a return to an older style of shopping, where shoppers go to different purveyors for different foods, instead of today's "Grand Union style" supermarket.

Newell's experience with the community as a student at Middlebury was "fairly limited," but through her business, especially the summer-only Farmer's Market, she interacts with a large cross-section of the community.

Without looking at a clock, she knows the bread in the oven is done, and removes it as I ask her about softball. Newell plays in the Middlebury summer co-ed league. She played softball in college, and enjoyed the opportunity to play on a team during the summer. On her team were league founder David Weedman, local media personality Jeff Kaufman, and a former head writer for the "Guiding Light" soap opera, among others from across the county.

She is connected fairly closely to the College: the Crest Room and the Gamut Room are clients, and she uses the library and goes to movies shown on campus.

Newell envisions a number of things in her future. She may bake for a while. "I do love this ... it's such a great experience." She does miss the ocean, though, and may work on boats. She stresses that she is not leaving now, and has visions of having "a cool coffee shop" with her baked goods on the counter, but acknowledges that such a business "is a commitment of a different sort."

Newell has achieved a fascinating level of understanding with bread, and is "constantly surprised by the process." She says, "you can control the bread and make it do things you want, but there is a point at which you have to abandon control and let the bread do its thing. The most important elements of the process are time and careful observation." As she puts the loaves onto a baking sheet and turns to the oven, she laughs, "Nothing is ever routine about my life."