The line starts forming around 9 am. People stand in ankle-high grass along 613 Sunset Boulevard in West Cape May, waiting for the woman they call the Bread Lady to come down from the farmhouse. By 9:45, the line stretches two blocks down the woodsy country road. Neighbors chat between sips of Wawa coffee. Kids run around in a clearing. Dogs on leashes sniff the ground.
Just before 10, the Bread Lady, Elizabeth Degener, 30, loads her baskets of still-warm loaves into her car and heads down the crushed-clamshell drive to the open-air shack where the line begins. She hangs up hand-lettered signs listing the day’s breads, usually 15 to 20 from her repertoire: sweet potato thyme, polenta sage, oatmeal molasses, beet dill, pumpernickel, smoked garlic, and raisin spice, to name a few—about 100 loaves in all, not counting biscuits and muffins. (To stay abreast, e-mail [email protected].)
She always sells out. “We don’t advertise,” Degener says. “Lots of repeat customers, lots of new customers, all word-of-mouth.”
Word has spread. Degener’s proficiency and the palate appeal of even her most daring flavors (turmeric chili parsley; curry fennel coconut) this year made her a semifinalist for the James Beard Foundation’s Outstanding Baker Award for the Mid-Atlantic Region. This in only her eighth season baking bread in a wood-burning clay oven on her family’s land near the restored World War II Lookout Tower.
From April to November, she rises at 3 am on baking days to begin the process. In spring and fall, she bakes Fridays and Saturdays. June through Labor Day, it’s Tuesdays, Wednesdays and Fridays. The only place to buy her breads is her shack on the mornings she bakes.
Degener embraces the bestowed sobriquet Bread Lady (“It’s as sweet as it gets”), but the sign on the shack says Enfin Farms—the 22 acres behind the farmhouse where she and her friend and business partner, Wesley Laudeman, grow berries and vegetables to sell with the breads.
“En fin,” French for “at last,” stems from her father’s family. Her great-grandfather Joseph “Swifty” Norfleet grew up in North Carolina, graduated from Annapolis in 1910, had many far-flung postings and spent World War II in Cape May, commanding defenses against U-Boats. He had married a Belgian woman, Henrietta Plangere, who faithfully followed him hither and yon.
After the war, Swifty wanted to return to Carolina, but Yette, as she was known, had fallen in love with Cape May and insisted on staying. They bought a house and land—the first they had ever owned—and called it Enfin.
Degener had her own circuitous journey. Growing up at Enfin, she had farming in her veins, but was “restless and wanted to travel.” She attended colleges in Manhattan and South Carolina before earning a degree in international business from the American College of Dublin in Ireland.
Along the way, she spent time on an organic farm in Germany. “I loved it so much, I went back after I graduated,” she says. “They had a clay oven, and I learned basic bread baking.” She spent two months working in an experimental farm community in India and returned to Enfin in 2010.
“Coming home was a defeated feeling at first,” she admits. “I was starting to think about what I was going to do with my life. I was a hard worker and motivated, but it’s expensive and risky to start a business in Cape May.” A wood-burning clay oven was a minimal investment; she could start on her family’s land and build slowly.
“My bread has been a wonderful platform to get to know people in the community,” she says. One of those was Joshua Andrewson, a horticulture teacher from Philadelphia who became caretaker of the house next door to Degener in the summer of 2012. He started buying her bread. “We became friends that summer,” she says, “and by fall we were dating.” Last winter, en fin, they wed.Click here to leave a comment