The Anarchists' Cookbook

They make bread, not bombs, at the Black Bear Bakery

Before modern-day anarchists seized the means of production at Jefferson and Pestalozzi, the corner location was the site of Mayer's, a German-Austrian bakery. The family name still graces the outside of the building. John Mayer started working there in 1947 after immigrating to the United States. He bought the business in 1959 from Charles Koch, who opened the shop in 1909.

But the Black Bears didn't appropriate their lists of ingredients from Mayer or Koch. Instead, the bread recipes were acquired a few years ago from Lickhalter's, a once-famed Jewish bakery on the Near North Side. Black Bear still proudly credits Lickhalter's on its labels. It's hard to gauge how the late Jack Lickhalter would have felt about the association of his name with anarchists. Apparently he wasn't a friend of the proletariat. In 1964, the U.S. Labor Department sued Lickhalter for failure to comply with the terms of the Fair Labor Standards Act. The government accused the bakery owner of not paying his 23 employees the prevailing wage or compensating them for overtime.

The building housing the bakery, which faces Jefferson Avenue, looks much as it did at the turn of the last century.
Jennifer Silverberg
The building housing the bakery, which faces Jefferson Avenue, looks much as it did at the turn of the last century.

As Bohnert drives by the St. Louis Super Market at Magnolia and Grand avenues, he passes a picket line. Bohnert keeps going. He has informed the management of the market that the bakery has suspended deliveries until the labor dispute is resolved. Although Bohnert supports organized labor, he also thinks unions can be pawns on a capitalist chessboard. For him, there can be no meaningful change unless the rules of the game are altered. "This entire society is based on the bosses telling employees what to do, white people telling black people what to do, straight people repressing gays and lesbians," he says. Bohnert's personal dialectic involves scrutinizing his biases and trying to overcome them. It's a full-time job of which the bakery is only a part. When Bohnert delivers bread to Global Foods in Kirkwood, he drops off copies of Confluence by the front door. The quarterly newsletter, which he founded seven years ago, covers environmental, political and labor issues. Its platform includes the slogan "We serve corporate heads on a platter. Join the feast."

Bohnert also publishes Passionate and Dangerous, an anarchist zine. He plans to establish a local independent media center and is exploring ways to secure low-cost housing in the city. Currently he lives in a collective on Ann Avenue with bakery comrades. The collective is one of three South Side communes where anarchists reside.

At 31, Bohnert sees his life as part of a common struggle, carrying the past with him on his delivery route as if the ghost of Emma Goldman, the famous American anarchist, were riding in the back of the van with the loaves of Vienna white. Driving down Kirkwood Road, he passes the local headquarters of Opus Dei, a right-wing Roman Catholic order that originated during the Spanish civil war of the 1930s. The recollection brings forth a torrent of admiration for the anarchists who battled the fascist forces of Francisco Franco. By the time he reaches Interstate 170, Bohnert is talking about the popularity of anarchy in America, before U.S. Attorney General A. Mitchell Palmer orchestrated the notorious raids against suspected radicals in 1919-20.

Minutes later, when he arrives at Wild Oats Community Market on Ladue Road, history takes a backseat to the business at hand. Bohnert drives around to the rear and enters the giant natural-foods store by the back door, exchanging greetings with familiar workers as he pushes his bread cart through the swinging doors. In the short time it takes him to reach the bread aisle, he is an anonymous delivery man to the affluent customers passing by.

On a Thursday afternoon, six workers are huddled around a kitchen table in the small office between the front of the store and the baking area. They are wearing sweatshirts, with scarves wrapped around their necks and watch caps pulled low over their brows. When the oven is not in use, it can be cold inside the bakery in winter. Blue paint is peeling from the walls, which are decorated with concert posters, paper money from Iraq and a pamphlet for an anarchist conference in Vermont. The radical ephemera also includes a photograph of punk-rocker Jello Biafra wearing a T-shirt that says, "Nobody knows I'm a lesbian." Another illustration shows a smiling cop saying, "Hi, I'm going to kick your ass and get away with it." A postcard haphazardly taped to the wall reads, "Billionaires for Bush: Because Inequality Is Not Growing Fast Enough." All the signs and the scene itself suggest this is a meeting of an underground cabal -- except for the tray of chocolate-chip cookies sitting in the middle of the table.

Discussion centers not on terrorist campaigns against the World Trade Organization but the future of the bakery. The anarchists plot short- and long-term goals. They kick around the idea of giving themselves a $1-per-hour raise over the next year. They consider raising the wholesale and retail prices on cookies and bread. They talk about improving working conditions, providing themselves with medical insurance, even sprucing up the office. More than anything else, they are engaged in taking control of their own lives.

« Previous Page
Next Page »