This past week life took me west: the arrival of a new niece in the family prompted a trip to Western Mass to meet her. Baby Ana Karen arrived two weeks late, so we ended up arriving just in time to meet her right as she arrived.
I’m always thankful for a chance to catch up with my family and friends in Western Mass, but it’s also always an excuse to visit what has to be one of the most delicious bakeries in the area—Hungry Ghost Bread. This delightful bakery is located right off the main drag in Northamptom, MA, and it is well worth the visit in small town full of mouthwatering baked goods.
In fact, it’s so good I went there twice in two days—what can I say? I can’t help myself.
Why the “Hungry Ghost”?
The name of this lovely establishments is inspired by a not-so-lovely piece of Buddhist theology. In this tradition, it is understood that we all become ghosts when we die, and happy, “healthy” ghosts continue on to eventually die a second death. However, those who committed evil deeds or had ill intent during life may instead become “hungry ghosts” when they die.
Once an individual becomes a hungry ghost, the he or she is driven by intense, insatiable, even animalistic desires that can never be fulfilled. This insatiability manifests physically—ghosts with round bellies but mouths so small they can’t eat, ghosts who can find food but can’t eat it, or (my favorite illustration) ghosts whose food bursts into flame, even as they are eating it. Imagine the rage this would instill.
I found one helpful description on the blog of Kashgar, an Australian store that describes themselves as outfitting "life for the modern nomad". Here's what they said:
In Buddhism, hungry ghosts are often seen as a metaphor for those individuals who are following a path of incorrect desire, who suffer from spiritual emptiness, who cannot see the impossibility of correcting what has already happened or who form an unnatural attachment to the past.
In China and surrounding countries, the tradition of the hungry ghost is recognized during the Yu Lan, or Hungry Ghost Festival, held during the seventh month of the lunar calendar. In 2018 this will take place on August 25th. During this celebration, it is believed that spirits walk the earth, and families prepare make food offerings their ancestors in to help satiate any hungry ghosts.
Facing the Hungry Ghost
As I’ve been reading about the hungry ghost, I can’t help but contemplate my own insatiable desires and wonder whether an insatiable desire is inherently negative. I feel like I’ve always had an insatiable desire of baked goods (hence this project), and as of late, I have an insatiable desire to travel and explore—as soon as I return from one trip, I’m already thinking ahead to the next. I suppose the difference between a negative hungry ghost and a positive one is whether it fills your soul or depletes it, so all of us would do well to take this lesson from the Buddhist tradition.
As for Hungry Ghost Bread, they’ve taken a slightly different view on this whole phenomenon and drawn inspiration from the insatiable, never-ending spirit of the hungry ghost:
The [definition of hungry ghost] most commonly used at the shop is that the sourdough starter is our hungry ghost. Hungry ghosts are spirits of insatiable desire, they can never be satisfied. We have to feed our starter twice a day or it will die. It has an insatiable appetite so it is our spirit of insatiable desire.
My first trip to the Hungry Ghost was a quick stop to pick up treats on our way to the hospital to meet baby Ana Karen. The balmy February Saturday morning weather had put a bit of spring in everyone’s steps—we’re all ready for spring and it was palpable on the streets walking to the bakery, which is perhaps best known for its amazing sourdough breads.
We rounded a corner and were greeted by an image that I think is likely the very essence of the Hungry Ghost: a man was walking away from the bakery, clutching a precious package with the bread he’d just bought. Instead of taking the bread home for toast, sandwiches or whatever he fancied, however, he was clutching the loaf between his two hands and taking bites from the top of the loaf, as if it were a bagel with cream cheese rather than entire loaf of bread. This apparent unbridled lack of self control made me smile with anticipation.
What can I say? He obviously couldn’t help himself. The bread is just that good. I know how he feels.
A Cozy Oasis
Hungry Ghost Bread is particularly delightful during the long, cold New England winter. The bakery is located in a small building that sits above the road, flanked by an area that contains a lovely garden during warmer seasons. Inside, the retail area is very small—they’ve clearly prioritized the baking, and I’m ok with that.
Everything they produce is baked in big, beautiful oven in the middle of the bakery that is a hybrid between a traditional wood-fired oven and a masonry stove. According to their website this design “allows [them] to reheat the air temperature of the oven between each bake.” This oven is big enough to accommodate over 50 irresistible loaves at a time.
Because of this impressive oven, the bakery itself maintains a cozy warmth that is comforting in the winter (but I imagine is a little less pleasant in the summer—we must all make sacrifices for baked goods!). The moment you open the door, you’re greeted by the satisfying, comforting scent of freshly baked bread. Bakery patrons crowd the small sales area, patiently waiting their turn at all the treats.
On this particular trip Hungry Ghost, I couldn’t resist the galettes, a "free-form" fruit tart. On my first trip, I was excited to find a blood orange galette, and the second trip the following day brought the treat of a pear galette.
Both pastries were, of course, beautifully crafted, and the tart fruit in each was complemented by an almond paste that was sweet, but not sugary. One of the most notable thing about these galettes was the pastry itself—it was light and flaky, and its notable saltiness perfectly complemented the sweetness of the fruit and almost fillings.
It’s not common to find a citrus dessert that includes the flesh of the fruit rather than just the juice, and this galette made me wonder why. Cooking the blood oranges mellowed and warmed their tart flavor, while maintaining the fruit’s striking beauty. I am a sucker for a blood orange (note the appearance of a blood orange pistachio cake during my recent London adventure), and this pastry was no different. Beautiful and delicious—what more could you ask for?
The pear galette was just as delicious. I’m also a big fan of pear desserts. Though they are less common, I think something about the grainy nature of the pear, even in the soft, cooked, flesh is delicious. I was surprised at the hint of tartness this pear had maintained, and it, too, combined perfectly with the almond paste.
Here’s the bottom line: if you’re in Northampton, please do yourself a favor and visit the Hungry Ghost. Order yourself a galette, some amazing bread, or whatever else piques your interest and enjoy!
Bonus Fun Fact!
The Hungry Ghost’s birthday is the same as mine—April 10th!
(However, it is a few years younger than me, having opened in 2004. :-))