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Digger Bread & The Free Bakery (ies)

("Made with Love ... the only stipulation is that you always give it away")

Bake Bread in a Coffee Can for Perfectly Round, Evenly Baked Loaves with Little CrustDigger Bread was immediately recognizable for the shape of the one- and two-pound coffee cans that the Diggers used to bake it. The story of Digger Bread involves an incredible chain of free bakers and bakeries that were devoted to the magical process of making bread and also to the idea of giving it away for Free. There are a total of six Free Bakeries in this history.

First Free Bakery (All Saints Church)

Walt Reynolds started the first Free Bakery in 1967 at 1350 Waller Street using the equipment in the kitchen of the All Saints Church. He and his wife came up every Saturday for three years to bake bread. They supplied the flour and yeast which they purchased wholesale from a baker in "Whiskey Gulch" (foot of University Avenue) in Palo Alto. The Diggers were using the office at All Saints and learned how to bake bread from Walt and his wife. Walt only used whole wheat flour for his baking, so the Digger bread was probably where the passion for whole wheat was introduced to the counterculture in the Haight-Ashbury. Walt had the idea of using coffee cans for baking the loaves of bread since they didn't have standard bread trays in the All Saints kitchen. See the bottom of this page for a transcription of a Digger sheet from 1967 with a recipe for Digger Bread.

Second Free Bakery (Olompali Ranch)

I asked Walt about the large oven that the Diggers used for baking bread at Olompali. Walt told me that story. The baker who sold flour to them was named Gray (last name), a young fellow who owned his own equipment and had a one-man operation. One morning things weren't going well. Gray was baking early—4:30am or 5:00am. He was only wearing pants. It was hot and as he was moving one of the carts with jelly donuts and pies, it struck something and the pastries fell all over him. The previous day's receipts (about $100) somehow got knocked over too, mixed in with the pastries all over his pants. So Gray took the pants off to clean them. His front door wasn't locked and just then a woman customer came into the store. She walked into the back and found Gray sitting on a table, naked, kicking things in disgust. She demanded to be served and Gray replied, "I have enough problems. Go on, get out of here." She left and called the police to report a mad baker. The police came and took Gray to Agnew State Hospital. He was single, didn't have any family, so no one knew where he was. Walt came by a few days later and a neighbor merchant told him what had happened. Walt went to Agnew and found Gray very happy, though a little disgusted with the woman who had called the police. He stayed at Agnew two or three months and eventually decided to quit his business. Walt knew the people at Olompali ("one of the first communes") and he suggested they ask for the equipment. They did and Gray said, "Sure, clean the place out." So the Olompali people came down and took the oven back with them and set it up on a concrete pad next to the swimming pool.

Walt recalled that, "Kneading bread at Olompali was a topless affair." One day Father Leon Harris (from All Saints Church), his wife, Walt, and his wife, went up to Olompali to dedicate the equipment. They got there about 10:00am. One red-haired guy (who had always been rather lazy around the Haight but had come into his own after the oven went to Olompali) was busy baking bread with another guy, without any clothes. Soon everyone got up. The women started kneading and took off their tops. Father Harris gave the litany in Latin. "He's very straight but he didn't even bat an eyelash," Walt recalled. He remembered that Father Harris never spoke about religion unless asked to, but he was always a Christian in his actions. Even though it cost him most of his congregation, Father Harris emphatically said it was his mission to serve the people in the neighborhood meaning the new residents of the Haight-Ashbury.

Third Free Bakery (Resurrection City)

I had met Walt Reynolds in 1974 through my discussions with Fred Moore who had known Walt at Resurrection City in 1968. This was the tent city erected in Washington DC for the Poor Peoples Campaign that Martin Luther King, Jr., had started before he was assassinated in April that year. Fred remembered that Walt ran a Free Bakery at the tent city, baking hundreds of loaves of whole wheat bread and giving them away. Fred told me that he thought there was a special magic in the bread loaves made in coffee cans.

Fourth Free Bakery (Grove Street, Oakland)

The fourth Free Bakery happened when the people at Olompali offered the oven and equipment to the collective that was operating Jellyroll Press in Oakland. For this part of the story, I quote from an account by Thomas Morris, one of the consummate printers and designers at Jellyroll.

(by Thomas Morris)

  • There was an oven and all the other machinery up in Novato (Olompali) from a “first” rebirth of the equipment given up by a disenchanted baker in the South Bay.
  • In it’s brief shooting star of a lifespan, bread was baked, and sent back to the City (I had no involvement in that chapter).
  • However, it had soon sat in disrepair for some time (the energy and resources required were exhausting) and …
  • Ken came and picked me up in a big flatbed truck, and we went to the Olompali location, and loaded all the equipment.
  • We brought all of it back to an incredible storefront space we had rented on old Grove Street between 45th and 47th Streets (don’t remember how or who scammed together the lease).
  • Downstairs was once a church, and was a huge space.
  • Upstairs had at least 3 bedrooms, and soon every nook and cranny had a loft or sleeping space, as that space, and another communal house …
  • In the Oakland ghetto … we scored as a huge but dilapidated place with thin walls but lots of room.
  • Plywood laid in the attic allowed for more sleeping space, and often 15 – 20 or more folks stayed there.  
  • Ken, myself and many others got all the bakery equipment into that downstairs space and got it all working (gas lines, water and big sinks).  An amazing explosion of energy and inventiveness.
  • Maybe some of the following is redundant for some, but great stories all the same  …
  • They were dismantling old railroad cars at the train station in Oakland, and we scored the huge floors – all 1” wide x 4” thick laminated oak that we cut up and made into huge kneading tables.
  • The stories on how we came to get the whole wheat and other supplies for special baking session – are all quite special and should be retold at some time.
  • But one in particular … as I recall Adele Davis (the health food author), gave us enough money to organize a trek to a wheat farm in the South West.  It took months to get an old flat bed truck up and running, and then even more time for the adventurous round trip. Who was that sweet, soft-spoken long blonde haired fellow that took on that trip and  brought back all the wheat?

Fifth (and Sixth) Free Bakeries

At some point in 1973, the folks at the Grove Street Free Bakery contacted our commune (Kaliflower) and we brought the big rotating oven over to Scott Street. By that point, we had extended our tentacles into the Victorian next door, and to the abandoned gas station at the corner of Eddy Street. We put the big oven into the gas station temporarily and turned one of the flats in the Victorian into a new Free Bakery. The One Mind Temple group used to come over and bake bread in smaller ovens that we had installed in the Victorian flat. One Mind Temple gave away the whole wheat bread to their congregation on Divisadero Street (to the tune of John Coltrane's A Love Supreme.) There is some haziness and fog of memory at this point in the story. Some of us remember a second large oven which we offered to Huey Newton and brought to the Black Panthers in Oakland. We also gave the original large rotating oven (which was yellow with black enamel trim which Thomas Morris remembers painting) to the One Mind Temple after they had created a space large enough for it to fit behind their storefront church. I would love to nail down some of these fuzzy recollections. Perhaps the time may come when the commune meeting minutes will be available to research the details of this story further.

Temporary Free Bakery (2011)

The video below was shot in 2011 when Jane Lapiner and David Simpson retold the story of Digger Bread before a large crowd who learned the finer art of coffee can bread baking and ultimately enjoyed the results of their labors of love.

 
An afternoon baking Digger Bread; stories of the Free Bakery.

Free Bread Recipe (a Digger broadsheet)

[This leaflet was two-sided, 8-1/2" by 11". I found it in my collection after Ramon Sender sent me an email message requesting any information about recipes for digger bread. I had remembered seeing at least this leaflet (and perhaps others) so went searching. This leaflet was in one of my un-cataloged folders, with a date that indicated when I acquired it but not where. One of these days, I must ask "I" to see that collection I put together and left behind so precipitously when I moved out of the commune. Until then, I have to use the Xerox copies that are fading after twenty years. Enjoy this leaflet, which is just as current today as 25 years ago. If someone was interested in setting up a Free Bakery, here are the instructions. The only things you'd need to change would be the wholesalers who aren't around anymore (Oh's only closed in the past few years, I live two blocks from Mission Street.) Most inspiring quote from this leaflet: "Please take this recipe home and start making bread. The only stipulation is that you always give it away."]

This is the recipe for the bread that is made in coffee cans at the Free Bakery. The Bakery is at All Saints Episcopal Church, 1350 Waller, on Tuesdays and Fridays from 9 a.m. on. For information or to make donations, call Mary McClain, 362-6374, or Father Harris at the Church, 621-1862. Contributions can be mailed to Father Harris at 1350 Waller.

We get our flour in 100-lb sacks from several sources. The first we try is Whitman's Salvage, 1350 Egbert, Hunter's Point. They sell flour from damaged sacks, very cheaply. Then, if they don't have the whole-wheat flour we use, we go to two wholesale places: Fisher's Flouring Mills, 1566 Carroll, and Coast-Dakota, 1588 Carroll (two blocks from Whitman's). Another place that sells flour in 100-lb sacks, but retail, and open on Saturday's, is Oh's (California Direct Importing Co.), 2651 Mission at 23rd. Finally, many whole grains and special mixes are available at the Food Mill, 3033 MacArthur, Oakland (near Fruitvale). Some grains can be found at health food stores such as Far Fetched Foods (1915 Page, SF) and Sunset Health Foods (9th Avenue, SF). We also use quantities of dry milk, brown sugar, honey, molasses, margarine, jam, and tea. These things can be bought cheaply at Whitman's, Big Bonus (Howard St. near 7th or Potrero Hill)), or Co-op on Third St. near Paul Ave.

We bake in 2-lb coffee cans and sometimes 1-lb cans. This recipe makes one loaf in the 2-lb can and two in the 1-lb cans.

WET MIXTURE:

2-1/2 cups warm water (not over 85 degrees - it it's too hot it will kill the yeast, which can survive at freezing but not at high temperatures)
1 cake or package of yeast (this is still enough if recipe is doubled, tripled)
1 tablespoon flour 1 tablespoon sugar, honey, molasses (more may be added, or some of each - we like to use molasses because it's so rich in minerals and vitamins)
This can be mixed in your 1-lb coffee can - 2 cups water fills it to the middle line.

Let the wet mix stand while preparing the dry ingredients.

DRY MIXTURE:

1 level 1-lb coffee can whole-wheat flour, or 4 cups
2 teaspoons salt, or to taste
1/4 to 1/2 cup dry milk

MIXING THE TWO: In a large bowl mix the wet mixture into the dry mixture. Let the dough stand in the bowl until it rises by half, about two hours. The bowl should be put in a warm place, such as over the pilot light on top of your stove, and it should be covered. Again, too much heat will kill the yeast, but at about 80 degrees it is at peak activity.

THEN KNEAD (see below), drop into a greased coffee can - the 2-lb can takes 2-1/2 lbs dough, the 1-lb can about 1-1/4 lbs - after shaping the dough into a ball making sure no flour is on the surface. Let rise again until it's just getting to the top of the can, about 45 min.

BAKE at 390 degrees for the 1-lb can, 55 minutes; or 400 degrees for the 2-lb can for 60 minutes. Oven should be preheated.

KNEADING AND GLUTEN: This is what bread is all about. Yeast is not necessary for bread (macrobiotic and many other kinds of bread, especially Middle Eastern and Indian, do not contain yeast) but kneading, which causes gluten to develop, is. Gluten is a protein substance contained in the grain and released by milling and increased by kneading. It is elastic (same root as glue) and makes the fibers of dough able to stretch without breaking; these stretched fibers make little pockets to hold in bubbles of gas formed by the action of the yeast, and thus the bread rises. If yeast is not used, you still notice that kneading changes the character of the dough, makes it "breadlike" and not crumbly.

HOW TO KNEAD: Turn out the dough after it has risen two hours in the bowl onto a floured surface. Work it with the heels of your hands, pushing and stretching it. Keep just enough flour on the board and your hands to prevent sticking. Push at it until it begins to push back - in other words until it has developed gluten and gets elastic. Keep on until it doesn't stick any more, looks shiny, stretches without breaking when you pull it apart, holds the indentation made when you poke your finger in, instead of closing up on it. Caution: several of these tests can be passed by dough that has had too much flour added. Keep the dough soft, adding only enough flour to prevent sticking. But it may take another 3/4 cup of flour in the kneading, depending on the kind of flour you used, etc. The whole thing should take 10 to 15 minutes.

NOTE ON FLOUR: The freshest flour makes the best bread. Besides tasting best, it has more gluten. You can mill the grain yourself if you have an electric coffee grinder. It comes out slightly coarse, with all the wheat germ in it (commercial flour has the oily wheat germ removed because it can go rancid if it is stored for a long time) and needs very little kneading because of the high gluten content.

Whole wheat flour will make a loaf of bread without any additions. Coarsely-ground flours, such as stone ground, can be used for all the flour in a loaf but unless they are very fresh they don't develop quite as much gluten and so are often mixed with a fine-ground wheat flour. Rye flour hardly has any gluten at all, so must be mixed in order to rise. White flour, or bleached whole-wheat, is not allowed for Free Bread.

We generally put in one or two of several additions: wheat germ, soy flour (high in protein), various kinds of meals. You can experiment, starting out with perhaps 1/4 to 1/3 by weight of germ, other flours, meals. And then there are raisins, other kinds of fruit, honey, and so on.

Milk: If you use regular milk, scald it first (bring it to a boil) to kill bacteria, then cool to lukewarm (so it won't kill the yeast). Be sure to change it to a wet ingredient and adjust proportions accordingly.

Please take this recipe home and start making bread. The only stipulation is that you always give it away.

If you wish to start your own bakery, here is the recipe for twelve loaves. At the Bakery we mix up about ten or twelve of these batches during the day, keeping two ovens going with loads of twelve loaves coming out every half hour.

WET MIX:

6 quarts water (80 degrees)
1/5 pound yeast
1/2 cup flour
1/2 cup sugar

Molasses, if you have it, is added to wet mix.

Alternative for at least 5 batches: Mix 1 pound yeast with 10 quarts water, 1 cup flour, 1 cup sugar. Take 2 quarts of this yeast water for every batch, adding 4 quarts lukewarm water.

DRY MIX:

15 lbs flour (5 2-lb coffee cans or 3 Co-op 5-lb sacks)
1 lb sugar (3-1/2 cups)
1 lb dry milk (3 cups)
6 heaping T salt

Substitute other flours, meals here. Brown sugar works fine. Wheat germ too. 2 cans of substitutions for the flour is about right.

Let rise in the mixing container (we use plastic garbage pails) for two hours (same as for small recipe), then get in 5 or 6 friends to help knead. We use a scale to weigh the finished balls of dough (2-1/2 or 1-1/4 lbs) to be dropped in the cans. Rising and baking times the same as for small recipe.

[Document uploaded May 18, 1996]

I have searched far and wide for photos of the bread oven that was the main attraction in the Free Bakeries at Olompali, Grove Street, Kaliflower and One Mind Temple. This is the best I have found. The Baker Perkins oven in back looks "similar" but not exact. If anyone has photos of the rotating oven that we used, please send them to me. —epn
 

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