Do you know the Challah Man?

Do you know the Challah Man? Well if you do consider yourself fortunate, because the warmth behind the creation of this deliciously rich cultural tradition is only second to the lovely braided dough that blesses the Sabbath tables for many of Durham’s Jewish community. We took a trip to the Jewish Community Center (JCC) to learn more about the bread, but more importantly about the bakers that make one of the many stories that sits on our shelf.

The proverbial Muffin Man, or Challah Hero (we are still workshopping), John Trimpi began as a science teacher before baking arguably Durham’s most famous, if not most sought after, Challah. His science background seems to be of help, because the proof is not only in the chemistry of the dough, but also in the chemistry of the team that is rising to the task to make the very sacred and special dough rise each week.

Yes, John isn’t the only Challah Hero in the kitchen, no the “Muffin Man”is in fact a small but mighty muffin many. James Helper and Michelle Farmer-Gray are the other two, or four, hands behind the amazing baked goodness flowing from the JCC kitchen.

Less of a trio and more of three neuro ganglions operating from a kitchen that works as their shared body. Even when we arrived that morning, half way through their process which of course starts promptly at 6am, the Challah cooperative, was already at work.

We arrived at the suggested, and more modest time of 8:30am. John, while at the co-op delivering last week’s challah, had assured us they’d be half way through the days orders and able to chat at that time, as well as still giving us time to get those oh so important behind the scenes shots.

When we entered the JCC that morning we were greeted by the lovely and precious LGBTQ pride flag cross walks connecting the many buildings and lots of this impressive community space. And it wasn’t just us there, community was present as gym classes, children’s services, and more were already well in swing scattered around various facilities and offices.

Upon entering the building the obviously regularly scheduledshipment of ingredients wasn’t far behind. As we informally raced the delivery man, pushing an impressive dolly load of flour to the kitchen, we were all greeted by the welcomingly expected smell of warm bread baking, paired with the not so expected funky sounds of Kool & the Gang’s “Get Down On It”.

Though the team wasn’t bumping butts or wearing 70’s appropriate platforms, the dance of the three bakers as they prepped the kitchen to be ready for the next process in the baking was as passionate as any soul train line. Fluid feels like an understatement, let me say, as John, James and Michelle moved about the kitchen better than bees in a hive. No offense to bees, but these three moved more like a baking school of fish the way they cleaned a table of flour, moved freshly baked loafs to the cooling racks, egg washed the next, put away the new ingredients, and all while simultaneously slapping the next tray of loaves in to the oven. I promise you even natures most productive specimens felt lacking to the work happening in this kitchen.

John, himself started out 9 years ago under the former baker. John went from local science teacher, to working at the front desk of the JCC to finally working with the former baker. Then only making a sensible 20 plus or so loaves at a time, a far cry from the 200 or so now baked every Thursday and Friday.

James followed a similar path to the kitchen as John. First starting off as one of the meal organizers for the JCC and then to the welcome desk as well, before becoming a part of the team. James had been baking alongside John for a not so shabby 7years. Only “daylighting” as a local baker, James works at a local LED light company, as an engineer. John chides playfully, however, that James is the true baker, teaching him his fair share. James politely defends against the praise like any good humble southerner, all while taking out a surprise ice cream machine.

True to form as indicated by John’s high praise, James seems to be the gastronome of the operation. The ice cream machine was a surprise for us too. As one who wasn’t raised in the Jewish faith, I wasn’t sure if ice cream was a tradition of God’s chosen people or not. Come to find out, much to our excitement, the ice cream machine was a part of James current culinary queries. When asked formally about the machine, it didn’t take too much probing to receive a full explanation from the excited chef de cuisine.
The machine, he explained was a donation from a loving JCC community member, and a much appreciated one, which James made very clear. Without this generous donation from a community member James couldn’t explore his calling, as he put it,”…[taking] the tedium out of tasting southern flavors.”

James explains his recent obsession, all while pulling out a pitcher containing a soft pale green liquid. Scuppernongs, was the “southern flavor” of the simple syrup that was inside the pitcher. The tedium, or tediousness, that James is working to defeat, or circumvent, in this case refers to the thick skin and copious seeds each fruit is comprised of, as any North Carolinian worth the chat should know.

James has been seeking out things like scuppernongs, honeysuckle, hardy oranges (that’s a story for another day), and has been utilizing their distinct flavors in to create sorbets using ingredients that though are distinctly southern, aren’t easily accessible.

While James prepped the machine, we were interrupted by the Chief Programs Officer, Madeline Seltman, and partner to John. Seltman, who is also a familiar face around the co-op, was delighted to see our DCM green badges off campus and here in the JCC kitchen. We quickly roped her in to the discussion, as John prepared slices of Challah for a service Seltman was headed to.

We informed Seltmen we were here to learn more about the process of the bakery after having a short conversation with John while at the co-op. John had mentioned that the co-op kept the trio going, as “without the co-op orders the kitchen wouldn’t be considered an essential service.”, “the co-op kept us going…” a statement that sparked the pursuit of this story.

Seltmen echoed that reality in describing the general operations of the JCC amidst the pandemic, and how the JCC faired through it. Much like the co-op they never truly closed, not just because of the relationship between the bakery and our store, but because of the needs of their community.
As programs were shifted outside or safely distancedwithin the large rooms of the community buildingsthe JCC still had food services, donations, and the bakery that all kept running to support community.

In fact, the co-op orders were one of the reasons for the hiring of James and Michelle. Michelle could best attest to that, starting as a volunteer, she joined some four years ago to help with the increased production. All three recalled when Michelle started , and by all accounts might as well have been living in the kitchen as much as she volunteered, and so it was only natural when she was asked to join the operations full time and has been baking alongside James and John ever since.

Michelle is a true testament to the do it yourself spirit and for following ones joy. Starting off as a home baker Michelle, not unlike James, followed their inner gastronome and became a true Challah aficionado, baking 2-3 loaves a day for herself, and finally friends and family, “because that’s what Challah is for.”

“That’s what the bread is and that’s what it means” Michelle shared as she waited for the tray she had personally placed in the oven to finish baking. “The bread is baked with the intention of being shared amongst community, but most importantly a portion is reserved as thanks and honor to God”. “That’s what it is all about”, mused Michelle, eyes smiling as warmly as the bread just behind. Bread that was now cooling and had just been in the oven and taken out all while questions were being asked, and simple syrup was churning softly in the background.

“Challah means portion”, a portion of dough removed before bake to be reserved for the priest, done in honor of the manna sent by god to save the Jewish people. Much like any devotee, Michelle was led through her passion to the JCC and that was how she started volunteering to help produce the Challah. Once she started showing up, so often theyhad to bring her on to the team, everyone nodded gleefully in unison, without having to look at each other.

Michelle continued that, “Challah is about dough and portion”, this significant part of the tradition refers to large portions of dough saved as tithe and offering to the Kohens, or priest. This is what inspired the name of Michelle’s website. Much like James, Michelle “daylights” as a baker, works as a life coach and if that isn’t enough, also runs a website called DoPa, Dough and Portion.

By the end of our time there, the orders for Rosh Hashana, the beginning of the New Year in the Jewish faith which was coming up the following Monday, were finished and we were all enjoying a much-earned cup of coffee or sorbet. Yes, the sorbet was delicious and probably the first time in a longtime this North Carolinian enjoyed anything scuppernong. But what was more delicious was the shared spirit of joy in the kitchen.
Michelle, who seemed to be the proverbial joy of baking personified, reminded us that each of them had their head, heart and hands in the work. And that’s what it felt like. Not three separate bakers, but head, heart, and hands of the same spirit working to create this necessary good for their community, for our community. Much like the braids of dough that form the beautifully risen mounds of this most significant tradition, the three worked as one to create one of the many special stories that sits on our co-op shelf

I know that myself, and the entire Durham Co-op Market are happy to be a part of this work and this story. Until the next time we explore a story on our shelf, Shanah Tovah and please remember, Everyone is Welcome.