It’s not unusual to bump into friends at the airport. After all, Alaskans love to travel. On my way to Seattle, I noticed my friends Janis Fleischman and Jerry Lewanski in row six.
“Where are you going?” I asked.
“Portugal,” said Jerry. “We’re going on a bike trip.”
That sounded like more fun than my weekend visit to Washington. Then I remembered that Janis and Jerry almost always go somewhere in January. In fact, they close down their business, Fire Island Bakery for most of the month.
There’s a tradition of seasonal work here in Alaska. Whether it’s fishing in Bristol Bay or working as a tour guide in the busy summer months, many Alaskans like to carve out time to travel after a busy season.
Still it’s a little unusual for a shop right here in Anchorage, with a healthy appetite for baked goods, to turn the lights out for most of the month.
“Our crew works very hard during the holiday season and this is a good way to consolidate everyone’s ‘leave’ requests afterwards,” said co-owner Rachel Pennington.
But the January break is more than just rest and relaxation. “We encourage everyone to take a holiday,” said Fleischman, “but we also will pay for classes or professional development if they include that in their plans."
That was the case with Kira Casey, a bread maker at Fire Island’s original location at 14th Avenue and G Street.
A former baker at Fire Island, Naomi Harris, opened a bakery in Miami called Madruga. "So I got to go work with her on her bread team,” she said.
“I really liked the Sonora load at Madruga,” said Casey. They sell this bread by the slice and serve it up with all kinds of toppings: almond butter, jam or avocado.
The trip to Miami was a long one for Casey, who just graduated from high school a couple of years ago. But she’s got her eye on bigger trips. “Travel is a passion of mine, “ she said. “I’m fascinated by ancient sites like Machu Picchu in the Andes. And I want to go from South America over to Southeast Asia.”
For bakers, the chance to go to another place and watch and learn is called a “stage.” It’s a brief internship that can last for a week or two.
“These stage opportunities are a way for Fire Island to be part of the bigger baking community,” said Fleischman. “We’ve sent our bakers to New Orleans, to Charleston and to San Francisco, where they’ve been hosted by other bakeries.”
When Evan Bolling, a sous chef at Fire Island’s South Anchorage location, made plans for a January getaway, he set his sights on Oaxaca, Mexico.
“Oaxaca is so bountiful,” he said. “Many of the Mexican dishes we love started in Oaxaca. That includes the mole sauces, as well as fermented cactus.”
Bolling traveled with his partner, who also works at Fire Island. “We were there to experience the food. Every day we got up and had breakfast. Then we walked, and then we had a second breakfast. Then it was time for a nap,” he said. After the nap, they pushed ahead for a lunch, a walk, a second lunch and so on.
“What I brought back from Mexico was this: if you get high-quality ingredients, you don’t have to dress them up,” he said.
On a previous January trip, Bolling did a self-guided food adventure, starting in San Francisco and working his way up the coast through Napa, through southern Oregon and finally to Seattle. “It was eat, eat, drive for several days, “ he said.
Celia Denton bakes cookies at Fire Island’s bakery in Airport Heights. She came to Anchorage from Ketchikan to go to school — and now is finishing her studies in cultural anthropology.
“For the last two years in January, I’ve returned to my home in Ketchikan,” she said.
“Ketchikan has a reputation for having lousy weather. But I like it. I find it comforting and predictable. I love revisiting the spaces where I grew up: going to the beaches and hiking the Rainbird Trail,” she said.
“I like being able to take the time to go home and re-center.”
So where did Janis and Jerry go on their big trip last month? “Jerry and I stayed home this year to do a deep-clean of each location,” she said.
“We basically turn each location upside down and really clean it up. It’s something we don’t feel we can do while we’re open.”
Sign me up for traveling to the bakery in Miami, or for the eating-and-walking tour of Oaxaca. I promise to bring back some chocolates for the clean-up crew!