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August 30, 2014, 8:14 pm

Bakeries drew us in with sweet aromas

My family members are often critical of my eating habits. They tell me I eat much too fast and have an enormous “sweet tooth.” Now, I recognize that I eat a bit faster than others and I cannot tell you why. Believe me: It has nothing to do with my not getting my share of food when I was a child. My parents always made certain there was sufficient food on the table. Thus, I did not have to compete with my siblings by eating fast, even though they all had big appetites.

With regard to sweets, I have had a love affair with desserts since my childhood. But habits that began many years ago are not easily broken. While my family indicates they have not noticed a more deliberate style of eating on my part, I have tempered the time I spend consuming food; but I doubt much will change with regard to cutting down on desserts. Today, I see many people frequenting Dunkin’ Doughnuts, Wawa or 7 Eleven stores to pick up their goodies. Watching them come and go brings back memories of what was available in the past but is limited today. Those from my era were able to purchase doughnuts, cakes, pies and rolls in places that were dear to most of us; often locally owned by people who looked like us. These places, where items were freshly made, took custom orders and prepared products indigenous to residents of the community. How many of you remember frequenting the bakery that was found in every neighborhood back in the day?

I am not including Hanscom’s, a chain of bakeries located throughout our city. Rather, I am focusing on places like the Trawick Bakery in the 4500 block of Fairmount Avenue, right in my own neighborhood, when I was a little boy. For a brief period, my family lived next door to this establishment. Thus, I was in and out of Trawick’s on a regular basis. It was like the bakeries in many neighborhoods. I know you recall the wonderful aromas you smelled as you walked near a bakery. Those aromas lured you in.

I can still recall begging my mother or sisters to take me in to purchase one of my favorite desserts. I can still see the large showcases with a wide variety of goodies. Glazed doughnuts were my favorite. Can you believe that five cents would get you one? I mean a huge one. These same doughnuts could be purchased the following day, two for five cents. Day-old doughnuts were a big thing back then. From my point of view, sticky buns, not any type, but sticky buns with pecans, ran close behind or perhaps even with doughnuts as a favorite of mine. Sometimes family members debated what would meet our fancy on a particular day. Would it be a chocolate iced doughnut or the crème-filled? Perhaps your choice was a cruller. Other enticing choices included the apple fritter, a bow tie or Danish. The debate did not include any prepackaged goods because everything in our neighborhood bakeries was handmade. We would make our purchase and simply ask that it be wrapped in the waxed paper typically found in bakeries. No bag was needed as the item went directly into our mouths as we exited the bakery. Biting into the doughnut and then licking our fingers was something we all did. Sometimes we would sit at a counter inside the bakery and have coffee, tea or a fountain soda. What memories I have of eating a cinnamon doughnut and drinking a vanilla cream soda! Although you tend to outgrow some food you enjoyed in the past, I still long for this type of doughnut and drink. Most of the time, your bakery items were bagged and you took them home. How many of you stop at these so-called bakeries today and take your purchases home? Not many, I suspect, as they tend to be hard and dried out within hours. They certainly do not remain fresh for a day or two, as they did back in the day.

Bakeries in the past featured baking on the premises.. Everything was made from scratch. While standing at the counters in most bakeries, you could look in the rear where the pots and pans were stacked clean, as most baking took place in the wee hours of the morning, long before most of us arrived. Some of you may recall showing up at the bakery early in the morning only to find that your favorite doughnut had not come out of the oven or had not cooled sufficiently. Do you recall waiting for something you had your heart set on, something that you could not imagine starting your day without, something especially enjoyable? So, what did you do? You waited, of course.

You must recall those items for special occasions. Birthday cakes were big sellers. Most boys and girls who had a cake from a bakery knew the decorations were special; candy cowboys and horses for boys and candy dolls and dollhouses for little girls. Other specialty items from the neighborhood bakery included cakes for weddings, anniversaries and holidays. I can still see my mother talking with the bakery owner about a cake that was extremely special for a member of the family and emphasizing the day that it would be needed. Would it be a plain pound cake with vanilla icing? Or, would it be a layer cake with chocolate icing? Then there would be that special touch given by the proprietor. There would also be that special “Thank you” when your mother picked up her order. The baker usually had some knowledge of individual customers, and this added to the special service received. Keep in mind that the cakes and other products were not prepared by strangers, but by people the customer knew and in businesses operated by proprietors who knew their customers. These neighborhood bakeries knew us so well they would regularly call to remind families of upcoming birthdays, anniversaries and other special occasions where a cake was in order. This is something that made neighborhood bakeries so special, back in the day.

How many of you recall that special activity at bakeries early on Saturday mornings? Do you recall the long lines? People lined up to pick up their rolls for Sunday dinner. You must remember a similar hustle and bustle on the day before a major holiday. Then, the focus was not just on rolls, but those cakes and pies that had to be on every dining room table on Thanksgiving, Christmas or New Year’s Day.

As much as the thought of bakeries resurrects fond memories of freshly baked goods, no bakery could compete with what came out of the ovens in our mothers’ kitchens. Mothers were big bakers in the past. While the neighborhood bakery was a place neighborhood people went for their desserts, our mothers’ skills as bakers produced products that surpassed those sold in bakeries. What my mother did in her kitchen will always be dear to me. I clearly preferred the rolls, cakes, pies and other desserts that came from her kitchen over what came from any bakery. Making rolls and desserts occurred on Saturday evening for every Sunday meal, even when our mothers were ill. While rolls from bakeries had to be reheated for dinner, our mothers’ rolls came out of the oven piping hot and went directly to the dinner table. Just like the neighborhood bakery, mothers would also produce many of the desserts found in the bakeries’ glass cases. Just as the neighborhood bakery has seen its decline, the preparation of the pound cake, coconut cake, chocolate layer cake, layered jelly cake, apple pie, sweet potato pie, raisin pie, bread pudding and a variety of other types of cakes and pies that were found in the kitchens of many homes in the past have gone by the wayside. Baking, especially home baking, started with a clay mixing bowl, flour, eggs, milk, sugar and flavoring, appears to be a lost art; and bear in mind, no one used instant mixes in the past.

While most of us must find our way to a convenience store, a chain doughnut shop or a bakery in a supermarket for bread, rolls, cookies or other desserts today, you would have a memorable treat if you could experience the delicious taste of those items that came from those wonderful neighborhood bakeries or from the kitchens of our mothers, back in the day.

 

Alonzo Kittrels can be reached at This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it. or The Philadelphia Tribune, Back In The Day, 520 S. 16th St., Philadelphia, PA 19146.