Edible Food Finds: The Ancient Bakers
PHOTOS BY KRISTIN TEIG
When you bite into one of Tonya Claire Johnson’s baked goods for the first time, your palate may just do a double take. You’ll know you’re experiencing a new flavor profile, but even the most discernible tasters may be hard-pressed to identify ingredients like rosehips, carob flour, hibiscus, quinoa, and black salts.
The magic happens in a shared kitchen space Johnson rents on weekends and evenings in the New England Center for Arts & Technology, located in Boston’s Newmarket District, which straddles Dorchester, Roxbury, South Boston, and the South End. On a recent evening—against the backdrop of a warm, vanilla aroma wafting through the air—she shows me around, highlighting the ingredients that serve as the cornerstone of her business. Johnson makes over recipes, replacing staples like eggs, traditional wheat, cornstarch, and soy with grains and plants associated with ancient cultures. The results are nutritionally dense and flavorful, but dairy, egg, cholesterol, and trans-fat free.
From a package of whole, dry rosehips, Johnson pulls out a sample bud and cracks it open, releasing a scent not unlike a garden rose. “See the powder,” she remarks, pointing to the fuzzy substance nestled between the pulp and seeds. She explains why she prefers whole rosehips to cut ones. How they can be milled or ground, depending on how coarse she wants them. How their pectin acts as a good binding and thickening agent in baking, and how it’s a good source of vitamin C.
This is how Johnson, president and founder of The Ancient Bakers—a certified minority, woman-owned business—talks about all the ingredients that go into her baked goods: with a blend of reverence, authority, and pure enjoyment.
It’s no accident that Johnson is intimately connected to her ingredients, or that she looks to ancient grains and plants as her foundation. She’ll tell you how they solved her son’s confounding health problems. By the time he was 15 months old, he’d been diagnosed with anemia, eczema, failure to thrive, and allergies to foods like eggs, dairy, soy, and wheat. Added up, these issues led to a case of acute malnutrition, and Johnson was told he would face stunted growth and developmental delays. “He just kept getting sicker and sicker,” she recalls, noting elimination diets didn’t improve his condition. Realizing she needed a support system, Johnson moved back to her hometown of Gary, Indiana, to be close to her mother, Eleanor Elliott-Jones. She resolved to tackle one issue at a time, one recipe at a time.
She looked to the book, Lost Crops of Africa: Volume 1, which celebrates ancient grains, for answers. For example, its section on weaning foods taught her about how sprouted grains help transition babies from breast milk to table food because of their ability to break down complex starches and carbohydrates. With her mother’s grain mill, Johnson would incorporate sprouted flour into foods like sweet potatoes and green beans to feed to her son, who was almost 2; she’d also use it to make pancakes or biscuits.
“Like a little bird, he started to respond,” she recalls. “That’s when I knew we had something.” But the real proof came about six months later, when a blood test revealed he was no longer anemic. Johnson stayed on this path, and over the course of a few years, her son was thriving. She credits grains like sprouted flour and quinoa, as well as black strap molasses, for his turnaround. While her son, now 15, still suffers food allergies, he is a tall, healthy, young man, she says proudly.
“I had always loved anthropology. I was already a vegetarian so it was kind of an easy marriage. I had done that walk on my own; I was in the pre-medical studies program at Harvard Extension School and was going to study naturopathic medicine. But [my son’s situation was] an interesting catalyst that pushed me in this direction,” she says. “I already knew food was medicine, but how could it be medicine for him?”
Johnson and her mother didn’t stop at homemade baby food. They used the same kinds of ingredients featuring those “lost grains” to give an “ancient baking” makeover to recipes for cookies, breakfast breads, and dinner rolls, ancient-baking style. They shared them with family and friends, and at local health food stores.
“As we made recipes that were successful or reformulations that worked, people would ask: Can you make this for the holidays? Can we take this to a family function? So my mother and I thought, let’s incorporate,” says Johnson. In 2002, they launched Visions Sown and Ancient Baking Company.
Its debut product was the carob almond butter cookie, still a hallmark of the business today. It’s a makeover of a peanut butter cookie recipe, created with Johnson’s son in mind; it substitutes almonds for peanuts because of his allergies, and incorporates the ancient carob, known to arrest diarrhea because of its tannins. “I made it over into a cookie that’s like a high-energy biscuit,” she says, noting that all her products are nutrient rich and not just for those who suffer from allergies, but for people who want to make healthier choices.
She approached that makeover as she does every recipe she reconfigures: like a scientist and researcher. She’ll replace cornstarch with kudzu, and milk with infused herbal specialty teas, for example. For Johnson, it wasn’t such a leap. She learned the chemistry of hair coloring as a master barber, and comes from a family of math and biology teachers, and an herbalist. Her maternal grandmother also introduced her to ideas of herbal medicine. Meanwhile, her mother, also an educator, instilled in her a love for cooking. Growing up, Johnson recalls playing sous chef roles alongside her three siblings. “I grew up in a family of educators who were very influential in my life,” she says. “Food and science were always around me.”
In 2006, Johnson and her mother moved to Boston because the concept of the shared kitchen had already taken hold here and, at the time, they felt the community would be more receptive to innovative, healthy eating. They secured space in Jamaica Plain’s CropCircle Kitchen, and launched the Boston iteration of the company in January 2008.
But the following October, Johnson’s mother died, prompting Johnson to take a hiatus from the business for about 18 months. In 2009, she met Richard Peters, who took an interest and became an early investor for the next chapter of Johnson’s business; she was back in the game in 2010.
When asked about his role, Peters jokes that his title is constantly changing: vice president of logistics, high-altitude sifter. But really, he helps and assists with anything that needs doing: from baking under Johnson’s direction to deliveries to local community sales.
The Ancient Bakers has worked to educate the community about healthy baking products at such forums as the Dorchester Winter Farmers Market, the Boston Vegetarian Food Festival, and the Mass Horticultural Society Gardener’s Fair. Says Johnson: “We got to talk to people who already had some sense of plant-based diets or plant-based eating, and we took them to that next step. They were like, ‘Wow, we didn’t know you could eat these flowers.’ We showed them a new way of thinking about plant-based bakery products.”
In 2012, Bentley College took on the business as a client company. Following focus groups and market research, it recommended a name change. Visions Sown and Ancient Baking Company was too much of a mouthful and required too much explaining. They changed the name to The Ancient Bakers, riffing on a nickname Peters had given her. “She’s our ancient baker,” he would say when introducing her.
Fresh out of the MBA program at Simmons College, Johnson is now focusing her lens on the optimal model for the business: the best way and the best markets by which to connect the products to consumers. She is looking to partner with prime vendors in the food services industry that have contracts with schools, hospitals, museums, and prisons, for example. “We want to make healthy meal options available in food service venues nationwide,” she says.
Ancient Bakers has performed pilot projects with City Fresh Foods, providing bakery meal components for school lunch and senior meals summer programs; and recently began a pilot project with Phoodeez for its new lunchbox program. Johnson is in the beginning stages of raising the next round of seed capital with the expectation to begin to scale up operations and hire professional and production staff. In fact, she anticipates hiring some of the bakery team from the New England Center for Arts & Technology graduates. She also provides “ingredient systems,” or the foundations of the company’s recipes.
For each chapter of her business, Johnson remains focused on the inspiration: ancient plants and grains. “I am inspired by the vast amount of ancient cereal wealth that still remains untapped, and being a part of an emerging market where people manage to quietly be called to discover this lost art that is ancient baking.”
The Ancient Bakers