For the Nashville 'Bread Lady' and her family, bread and baking are life

Mackensy Lunsford
Southern Kitchen

When Sarah Gonzalez bakes, it's often in memory of the family members who came before her.

The Nashville-based baker's debut cookbook, Baking with the Bread Lady, showcases some family-inspired recipes among more modern breads and desserts. Her 1850s Gingerbread Spice Cake, for example, is a slightly updated version of a special occasion cake her paternal great-grandmother used to make before recipes came with precise temperatures and bake times. 

Even when Gonzalez's recipes aren't drawn from the family repertoire, they're infused with her ancestors' influence. 

In her introduction, Gonzalez displays a can-do spirit inherited from her family's many strong matriarchs. She describes her path from amateur cook to the owner of the successful Spring Hill Bakery as one that, at first, was filled with more failure than success.

Sarah Gonzalez, the Nashville Bread Lady, with her gingerbread spice cake on Wednesday, October 6, 2021 in Spring Hill, Tenn. The 1850s recipe is from her great-grandmother Eva Dobyns.

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"As you learn to bake bread, you’ll discover — just as I had to — one of the only things that needs to remain constant is your willingness to mess up without getting discouraged," she wrote. "After all, it is just flour."

Gonzalez persevered beyond uninspired loaves to follow her dreams, launching Spring Hill Bakery in 2015. She quickly became known as the "Bread Lady." By the end of that year, she was baking for the governor's mansion as customers lined up at her new storefront for cinnamon rolls and rustic artisan loaves.

Carrying on the family tradition

She's since largely given up retail operations and has converted her commercial kitchen into a teaching space where she shows others how to feed people with love and delicious baked goods.

But she still sees bread as not only a way to make a living, but as a part of life itself. While bread as life is a metaphor as old as baking itself, it's also a key part of Gonzalez's maternal great-grandmother Viola's story.

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"My great grandmother lived in heartache and poverty in Missouri," Gonzalez said. "They were dirt poor and she was a mostly single mother with four kids and a husband who showed up long enough to get her pregnant and leave."

At the time, Viola was a servant who baked bread on the side, keeping a sourdough starter on the counter that she fed daily. But when the Dust Bowl and the Great Depression descended, she lost her source of income. Viola, clutching her sourdough starter in her lap, fled with her children to California. 

"That precious jar filled with flour and wild yeast was her family’s lifeline," Gonzalez wrote. "She protected it as if it was gold. It was like a scene out of The Grapes of Wrath."

Pages from Sarah Gonzalez's great grandmother's cookbook on Wednesday, October 6, 2021 in Spring Hill, Tenn.

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In California, Viola continued to bake bread, both for money and to feed her family. Viola would also feed anyone else who was hungry, sustaining people with flour, wild yeast and water.

Viola's baking, and how it sustained the family, was not lost among the branches of the family tree. Her daughter, Gonzalez's great aunt Hazel, made sourdough that became the stuff of family legend. Gonzalez remembers standing on a chair with her mother and her mother's sisters, smashing fruit and baking pies. 

Gonzalez herself carries on her family tradition through her teaching kitchen. Her own 16-year-old daughter also seems to have a knack for bread baked into her DNA.

Sarah Gonzalez, the Nashville Bread Lady, works in her kitchen on Wednesday, October 6, 2021 in Spring Hill, Tenn.

Food is a way to connect with people

But the power of bread is something that's universally appreciated. It's both physically and spiritually nurturing. 

"Bread is so much a part of humanity," Gonzalez said. "It's used in a way that's sort of a peace-making thing, whether its sourdough or banana bread when you have new neighbors move in."

Food, in general, is a way to connect with people, said Gonzalez, and that notion is at the heart of her recipes. Most yield big batches, which means they're meant for sharing. 

That's the case with Gonzalez's Ultimate Cinnamon Roll recipe, which makes a dozen gooey cream cheese iced buns. You simply can't eat all of those alone.

And should you have leftovers, there's a recipe for that, too.

Sarah Gonzalez, the Nashville Bread Lady, outside her bakery on Wednesday, October 6, 2021 in Spring Hill, Tenn.

"Throw away in a teaspoon what you bring home in a shovel," was a favorite saying of Gonzalez's grandparents, children of the Depression.

"A lot of recipes in the book reuse other recipes," Gonzalez said. "The cinnamon roll bread pudding is one. It only uses a handful more of ingredients, so at least you're not throwing away food."

Still, Gonzalez hopes it won't come to that.

"Bake for you and then also feed someone else," she said. "That's what the bakery has always been about, whether literally or figuratively. And all of the stories in the book show ways that I connect with people through food, and I want to encourage people to do that too."

A cookbook by Sarah Gonzalez, the Nashville Bread Lady, on Wednesday, October 6, 2021 in Spring Hill, Tenn.

Cook the book

The Ultimate Cinnamon Rolls

Cinnamon Roll Bread Pudding

1850s Gingerbread Spice Cake with Mascarpone Buttercream

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Mackensy Lunsford covers food policy, restaurants, agriculture and other food-related topics for the USA TODAY Network's South Region. She's the editor of Southern Kitchen and correspondent for The American South.

Reach me:  mlunsford@southernkitchen.com