In 1976, Danny McGleno stood at the threshold of Miss Williams’ classroom, which was tucked inside Carl Sandburg Junior High in Golden Valley. By his own account, he was a quiet, misguided young man.
Miss Williams held the key to his future, along with the classroom’s pots, pans and baking equipment. Her mission was to implement a new policy in School District 281: a requirement that boys take cooking classes.
Today McGleno is focused on expanding the bread line at Grandma’s Bakery in White Bear Lake. On the side, he’s a published poet.
“Baking saved me from being incarcerated,” McGleno noted recently. And poetry? Another kind of salvation.
McGleno reached out to Williams to give thanks for her inspiration. The baker, otherwise known as Klecko, dedicated his new book of poetry, “Hitman-Baker-Casketmaker: Aftermath of an American’s Clash with ICE” (Paris Morning Publications), to Williams and the school district’s band of resourceful home-ec teachers.
Many of his poems tell the story of a not-so-distant event.
For 24 years, McGleno was in charge of the team at Saint Agnes Bakery, located in an industrial corner of St. Paul, a block from the Ramsey County jail. The bakery supplied bread products to a broad swath of local restaurants, stadiums and casinos, as well as Minneapolis-St. Paul International Airport. The bakery’s tender milk buns wrapped many of the best burgers in town.
“It was great to wake up and feed two cities every day,” said the proverbial village baker.
Most of the bakery’s employees were Mexican, the unsung heroes of the hospitality business both locally and nationally, who at Saint Agnes braved the heat of the ovens — “the dragon,” in McGleno’s words — even when the outdoor air temperature toggled around 90-plus degrees.
He speaks of those workers in the poem “Republican National Convention,” about the 2008 gathering in St. Paul. McGleno describes the cage built next to the jail, where protesters were temporarily held — and provides observations about his staff.
The bakers born in St. Paul constructed crude banners
Offering encouragement to howling protesters pent up
While the Mexican-born bakers
asked among themselves
What is there to protest
When you get to live in America
In 2018, on the countdown to the Super Bowl, McGleno was flush with the excitement of the bakery’s upcoming order — the biggest in his professional career — to provide much of the bread for concessions at U.S. Bank Stadium.
Then, KABOOM, as McGleno describes it in a poem. Sixteen days before the Philadelphia Eagles took on the New England Patriots, a routine audit by the U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) notified him that half of the Saint Agnes employees had invalid paperwork, never mind their clearance at the airport. Most of his staff had been part of his team for decades. The employees had 16 days to correct the paperwork or be dismissed.
No one bolted. Despite fear and uncertainty, the full crew stuck with McGleno to the end, a testament to him as much as to the bakery. He quickly planned Saint Agnes’ course: They would finish the week’s baking, he would make sure all staff and purveyors were paid, and then the bakery doors would close for good, given the difficulty in finding new workers.
Our purpose has been taken/ But not our dignity, I suggest we use it/Before moving on, he writes in “Rally of Despair.”
After the initial shock of closing the bakery, McGleno’s emotions turned outward. “No First World nation has served itself,” he said. “Hispanic workers are the driving force in kitchens. They deserve recognition.”
That’s the story McGleno tells in the poems in much of the first half of his book, his affection and respect for his crew spilling out onto the pages. In “Closing Thoughts,” he notes,
My only regret is
I cannot list the names
Of the bakers who worked
Late nights, holidays and weekends
To ensure you received
Loaves to build tradition on
According to some
Those services are criminal
McGleno goes further in a poem where he quotes his longtime colleague, Oso, who says,
The biggest mistake I made
Was I got too comfortable
As a Mexican
I should have known better
McGleno attributes his writing skills to his friendship with Carol Connolly, the poet laureate of St. Paul, who ran a longtime monthly poetry series.
“My education was from the greatest writers in Minnesota,” he said. “They encouraged me to write about what I understood. Obviously, that’s the hospitality industry, but I wanted to focus on the people, too,” he said.
Which brought him to our most basic need, sustenance.
“People have a strong connection to food. Capture that with words at a reading, and you own the room. Would you rather hear about someone talking about himself or about food?”
McGleno joins with other poets, all in the culinary field, for a reading on Wednesday at Next Chapter Booksellers in St. Paul.
As for the commercial bakery world, McGleno worries about its future. “There’s nowhere to learn these skills anymore. The hospitality industry is understaffed, with a short pool of workers,” he said. “The [culinary] academies have shut down. There will be no one left to do the work.
“We’re a generation away from large bakeries not being able to feed the city.”