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Beyond The Bread—Rochelle Connects

Beyond The Bread — Rochelle Connects

One of the only places that I have ever really felt at home was in my family’s Brooklyn bakery, Ratchick’s, a Jewish bakery. It was where we were all connected, working, arguing, schmoozing with family, friends, the bakers, the cleaners, the counter staff and the customers — connected like a big dysfunctional, comfortable and safe family. It was more than my father’s bread that brought us together. 

On most days, I stopped into the bakery on my way home from school, did my homework on the tiny desk in the tiny office under the stairs. On Tuesdays, I added finishing touches to freshly baked cookies, and on busy holidays, worked as a very slow cashier and survived complaints from impatient customers. And I always stole and ate the ends of bread as they fell over in the slicing machine.

Ratchick’s was one of three bakeries in three Brooklyn blocks. There was Stern’s, famous for their pastries, and Ebinger’s, that created the Blackout cake. It was so delicious. My father attributed that to lard in the batter. Although we were not kosher, he would not use lard in anything he baked.

Bread is everywhere, universal, emotional, the staff of life, the ultimate comfort food. Whenever, I was on a diet, which was often, foregoing bread — the staple that put a roof over my family’s heads and food on our table — was a betrayal to my father, mother, sisters and the bakery. When I was grown, living in New York City and our bakery was long ago sold, I searched for replacements for my father’s beautifully baked bread. I turned to Orwasher’s on the upper east side of New York City for and found contentment in their sourdough rye bread. It was simply made, using wooden fermentation boxes just like those my patient father had used in our bakery. I loved the sweet and tangy smell of the dough rising in the boxes and the sound the boxes made as they were stacked. The top box becoming the cover for the one underneath.

My search for the perfect loaf seems eternal. It is certainly in my DNA. In restaurants, I examine their bread, now infrequently served, and do a diagnostic: the crumb of the crust, the welcomed, just right size holes in the bread. These all point to the expertise of a baker, whether he or she uses the right flour, kneads the dough enough, takes care that his or her hands are not overly wet when shaping the dough and is watchful of the oven temperature. 

It has been many years since I have been to Paris, yet I can still remember the taste of the special walnut bread at Poilane’s, a third-generation bakery. I’d happily take a bread tour anywhere, and I’d probably measure every bread I ate against those made in my family’s bakery.

A number of years ago, my son and his family moved to Cleveland, and one of the first things I did was to make a list of Jewish bakeries and delicatessens. There are many, including: Larder’s, a James Beard award nominee, serving delicious Eastern European food with generous portions, to a young crowd. (Young for me is thirties to fifties.) Stone Oven has incredible rugelach, a tea cookie, a favorite Cleveland pastry.

On a very recent trip, to await the arrival of our new grandson, Louis, great looking and brilliant, Doug, my husband, and I tried the multigenerational Davis Bakery and Delicatessen. (That’s Carl Davis, founder, on the left in a picture from the early days of the Davis Bakery and Delicatessen.) We walked in and had to have everything we saw. Maybe it was the excitement of the new baby? Maybe it was the counter people, ancient and young, hurrying and complaining? Maybe it was the customers talking to each other, kibitzing like an extended family? I’m not sure what Doug and I shared with this odd combination of people we didn’t know. Maybe it was the aroma of baking bread, a puff of warm yeasty air, an ancient trigger of our common food history and identity, our hunger for physical and emotional nourishment, that brought us together? Whatever it was the connection was real, deep and powerful. 

On line at the counter, our food order kept growing like yeast. By the time we reached the cashier, Doug and I had a seeded rye, a challah, four hamantaschen, Chinese almond cookies and one black and white. I was in tears and my husband was hyperventilating when it was our turn to pay. Maybe, I imagine, the Davis Bakery and Delicatessen has always been a gathering place for likeminded individuals, a place still fulfilling their great grandfather’s promise to, like my father, never use lard. It felt close to home. No maybes about one thing, we will be back.