When you’re a stranger in a strange land, you develop a keen awareness of anything that reminds you of home. It might be a license plate that catches your eye in traffic or an accent or phrase overheard in the grocery store.
In the friendship of Judy Mayer and Lori Love, it was a Trader Joe’s shopping bag. Even though the funky grocer has stores all over the country, it’s a brand that screams laid-back Southern California with its Hawaiian-shirted crews and its “Two Buck Chuck” wines.
The Trader Joe’s connection was enough to spark a conversation about how two San Fernando “Valley girls” came to be selling homemade breads 2,400 miles away at the Appalachian Fairgrounds in Gray.
Mayer: “I’d been admiring Lori’s breads, and I wanted to talk to her.”
Love: “Judy was walking through the market with a Trader Joe’s bag, and I called out to her.”
It was the beginning of a beautiful friendship, as they say in the movies.
Since their meeting a few years ago, the two women have bonded over their mutual love of baking (and eating) the old-world artisan breads that are hard to come by around here.
Until 2005, Mayer had lived her whole life within a 5-mile radius of Sherman Oaks in the San Fernando Valley, so naturally she had trepidations when her husband, Larry, was interviewing for a job at WETS radio.
“I said, ‘I’m going along. God forbid they should like you.’ ” She wanted to know what they were getting themselves into.
“It was quite a shock to me,” Mayer said. “I was having trouble adjusting, and I was looking for anything familiar.”
She found herself craving the breads of her mother’s kitchen. “I had baked some when I lived in Los Angeles, but would buy most of my baked goods. When I moved to Johnson City, I couldn’t find the breads I was used to, so I started baking my own.”
“I found my passion: baking,” Mayer said. “I bought a bread machine, advanced to a KitchenAid mixer and began experimenting with recipes. I haven’t bought breads in several years.”
The tagline on Mayer’s blog, Judy’s Bakery of Johnson City, sums up her philosophy: “A good piece of bread can be as comforting as a cozy blanket on a cold day.”
Love made her way from the San Fernando Valley to Tennessee Valley by way of Italy, Germany, Japan and Air Force bases in the United States. Living abroad “really spoiled me for authentic foods,” she said. “After living overseas with my military husband, I learned to love the local foods and make them at home. Baking was never my forte, but I find bread very easy and satisfying to make. Some folks have a knack for cakes and decorating. Not me, give me rustic any time.”
Love started baking breads when she owned Boomerang Pizza in Kingsport. “During that time I met Pat Jackowski, the former owner of Chrisandra Bakery. She suggested selling breads at farmers markets, a whole new concept for me.”
Now she thinks farmers markets and the Appalachian Fair are the greatest things since, you know, sliced bread. She’s treasurer of the Johnson City Farmers Market, on the board of the Gray market and she’s judged cooking competitions at the Appalachian Fair, which she calls “just so hometown. It’s great.”
Love plans to enter a customer favorite — her sun-dried tomato with mozzarella cheese bread — in this month’s baking competition at the fair. “It tastes as good as it sounds,” she said. “When I make croutons from this bread the kids think it’s pizza bread.”
Also in Love’s repertoire is a green olive, rosemary and sage bread with a chewy crust and a salty-savory taste. She describes her pumpernickel as “a sweet fluffy loaf of rye and bread flours with molasses sweetener and whole anise seeds.”
Mayer’s concoctions include egg bread (“Making this dough makes me happy, and I think it shows in the final bread.”), muffaletta bread (“a New Orleans favorite”) and julekage (Norwegian sweet bread).
Both women tweak their recipes for the local palate. Apparently, East Tennesseans have quite the sweet tooth.
This is Mayer’s first year at the Johnson City Farmers Market, and Love is a veteran. Both have state-certified kitchens in their homes; otherwise they couldn’t sell their homemade breads at the Johnson City market.
Mayer enjoys the market because it gives her an outlet for two of her favorite hobbies. “I love to bake and I love talking to people,” she said.
You can find both bakers Wednesdays at the Johnson City Farmers Market with their breads and muffins. Look for Judy’s Bakery and for Grains, Love’s label, nearby. You also find Love and Grains at the Appalachian Farmer’s Market Mondays and Saturdays.
A few weeks ago, Mayer was reading in the Johnson City Press Tempo section about a woman who moved from Connecticut to East Tennessee for her husband’s job and ended up discovering her talent for decorative painting. “I thought, she’s a member of the club, the ‘I moved here and found my passion/what I’m supposed to be doing’ club,” she said. “I’ll bet there are a lot more of us around here. I’d love to meet them.”
So, if you’re new in town, a stranger in a strange land, stop by the Farmers Market. You won’t be a stranger for long.