The art of the cracker: Whitney Lamy brings flavor to the table

[Originally published in the Rutland County Express.] Artists come in a multiplicity of modes and forms. Some work on canvas. Others take the stage. But for some, the kitchen is their preferred medium. Whitney Lamy, the creative and culinary force behind Whitney’s Castleton Crackers, falls into the latter category.

Since 2008, Lamy has been baking and selling her “all-natural, hand-made, hand-cracked” artisan crackers around Vermont and, more recently, across the country.

While her company’s success has been welcomed, Lamy admits the road to becoming cracker maven wasn’t a direct one.

Lamy grew up just outside Springfield, Mass., in the city of Longmeadow. From an early age, it was clear that her passion was art.

After high school, she attended the Montserrat School of Visual Arts in Beverly, Mass. There she studied fine arts, eventually attending UMass-Amherst where she received an arts education degree.

With her husband Phil and two young daughters, Lamy settled in Salem, Mass., running the Cotting-Smith Assembly House, a Federal style mansion owned by the Peabody Essex Museum. Lamy tended to the management and operation of the property – which the museum rented out for private functions – while Phil attended graduate school.

During her eight years at Cotting-Smith, Lamy’s interest in food grew. The frequent events held at the house meant that she had a constant influx of caterers and great food.

“I’d get to look over the shoulders of all these amazing Boston-area chefs,” she said.

In the off season, Lamy began hosting cooking classes at the house, an activity she carried with her to Rutland as host of PEGTV’s “What’s Cooking Rutland?” program, a partnership with the Chaffee that worked to tie together art and food.

Due to the growth of Castleton Crackers, Lamy has since had to give up hosting duties. (The Rutland Nutrition Coalition now produces the program.)

In 1992, Phil took a job at Castleton State College where he is still a professor of sociology and anthropology. The Lamys relocated to Castleton, and Whitney quickly fell in love with small-town Vermont.

Initially, Lamy took some time off to be a mom. But with her daughters growing up, she began teaching as an adjunct in CSC’s art department.

Then, in 1999, Lamy was recruited by Central Vermont Public Service to illustrate their children’s book, “Meeri Meets the Ospreys.”

The book – written by Steve Costello – tells the story of Meeri Zetterstrom, the driving force behind Vermont and CVPS’ efforts to restore the state’s osprey population.

“It was a wonderful experience,” Lamy said. “I was happy to be a part of it.”

Around this time, Lamy began to return to her art world roots in earnest. She took a job teaching art at Poultney Elementary School, and then was hired as director of the Crossroads Art Council.

“(Crossroads) was a fabulous job,” she said, describing the organization’s work to bring the arts into area schools and to the community at large. However, she soon “saw the writing on the wall for the arts in Rutland.”

Efforts to unite Rutland’s famously fractured arts community stalled. While it was discouraging to get so close to a breakthrough only to have it fall away, Lamy found new energy in Rutland’s Creative Economy initiative, whose Arts & Culture committee set out to increase dialogue and partnerships within the arts community. (Lamy is still a member of CE’s Steering Committee.)

Lamy landed at the Chaffee for a brief stint as artistic director before deciding to return to food.

“Opening a bakery or café had been a lifelong dream,” she said.

She started to do some research – looking at spaces and talking to bakers – to see if she wanted to take the leap.

Ultimately, she decided that the commitment a bakery/café with a storefront was more than she wanted to take on.

However, she still wanted to bake. So she began experimenting with crackers.

“I had been making crackers for years,” Lamy said.

The crackers were popular with friends and family who often encouraged her to sell them.

In January 2008, she finally decided to go for it. In crackers, Lamy saw a niche in Vermont’s specialty food market that had yet to be filled.

“I had begun to notice all the artisanal cheeses around the state, but saw no artisanal crackers to go with them,” she said.

Lamy contacted Greg Cox, manager of the Rutland Winter Farmers’ Market, and asked for a space. Her only request was the she be placed next to a cheesemaker. Cox was happy to oblige, placing her next to Consider Bardwell Farms.

She didn’t know what to expect that first week at market.

“I brought 30 bags and sold out in two hours,” she said.

The distinct, alliterative flavors – Middlebury Maple, Rutland Rye, Windham Wheat – and simple, attractive packaging were a hit.

Lamy looks back on that first season at the market fondly, owing part of her success to how easy, affordable, and accessible the market was.

“It’s a great test market,” she said. “It only cost $25 for the whole season. Where else can you do that?”

By February, The Vermont Country Store wanted to carry Castleton Crackers. Soon after, calls were coming in from co-ops around the state.

By May, Lamy was meeting with Kim Crosby of Vermont Roots, a wholesale distributor of Vermont specialty foods.

“It took on a life of its own,” she said.

The almost-immediate success might have been daunting for some, but Lamy took it head on.

Meanwhile, she was rapidly outgrowing her small home operation. That summer she has to abandon her farmers’ market booth, deciding to go the wholesale/distributor route.

By the fall, keeping up with orders was becoming a challenge. Lamy was still baking and cracking the crackers at home. In addition, she was hand lettering every single bag. (In 2008, she handwrote more than 8,000 bags).

She began to explore her manufacturing options. Originally, she teamed up with Baba-à-Louis in Chester, but soon outgrew them, too.

Maintaining the quality of ingredients (many of which are locally sourced) and the integrity of the recipe is paramount to Lamy so finding the right co-packer was no simple process.

After trying out several manufacturers, she finally located one that was able reproduce her original recipe on the scale she required.

“It’s the quality of the product that keeps people coming back,” she said.

With the baking out of her kitchen, Lamy is now able to focus on sales and marketing of her crackers, which are available in co-ops and specialty stores locally as well as around the country.

Castleton Crackers can be found in Whole Foods Markets throughout the Northeast and Mid-Atlantic regions. Similarly, the Fresh Market Company has recently added the crackers in stores around the Northeast and Midwest.

With this expanded distribution, Lamy has added two new flavors to her product line – Richmond Rosemary and Putney Pumpkin.

Soon, the crackers will be showing up on the West Coast in select stores in Seattle.

While her crackers may be reaching beyond Vermont’s borders, Lamy still keeps herself closely involved with the local community, pledging her support (and crackers) to organizations like Creative Economy and Rutland Area Farm & Food Link.

At the end of the day, Lamy is able to do what she loves – bring together art and food and create a distinct product that adds flavor to Vermont’s burgeoning specialty food industry.

Find out more about Castleton Crackers at www.castletoncrackers.com.

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