Bembelman’s Bakery

October 28, 2008

When I was a kid, I loved books with food in them. Among my favorites were The Giant Jam Sandwich, Stone Soup, and skewing even younger, a toddler book about a train that delivered fresh fruits and vegetables to people, complete with luscious pictures of giant carrots, potatoes and tomatoes.

But of all the food books I liked, my absolute favorite was Bembelman’s Bakery. When I had kids, I immediately went out and found a copy.

What made me think of the book was looking at my first post, where I say, “Everyone needs to eat, but each cuisine brings its own uniqueness to the table, telling a story about produce and fauna and climate and history, all in each wonderful bite.”

I realized, re-reading it, that I lifted the last five words of that sentence from this excellent book. The story is straightforward – two men, standing in line for bread at a New York bakery, begin talking about the history of the place. One of the men is older, and begins telling the younger man the story of how the bakers got their start, back in “The Old Country”. The scene changes to what looks like an impoverished Russian village, straight out of the imagery of Fiddler On The Roof. The mother, Sarah Bembelman, goes to town to buy some things from the market, and her children grow hungry in her absence. They decide to make bread, but not knowing the recipe, they guesstimate the amounts of flour, yeast, and so on, using handfuls rather than cups.

Soon, the bread they put in the oven begins to “rise, and rise and rise some more.” The bread pushes out the oven door, fills the Bembelman house, and pushes out of the windows.

It is at this point that Sarah Bergstein (the town gossip ever since she was three years old) runs to the market to tell Sarah what her children have done. Sarah comes home, sees the mess, and in terror, threatens the children (in my house, she has the voice of Estelle Harris) “When your father gets home, tired and hungry…”

Long story short, Aaron Bemblemen  (a cross between Tevya, Wooly Willy and one of the creatures from Where The Wild Things Are) comes home from brickmaking, Sarah, his wife, is in a tizzy. Saul, the oldest son, is hiding in the woods. But Aaron is too tired to notice. When Sarah tells him that she can’t get to the oven to make dinner because of the bread filling the house, Aaron responds, “So, cut a piece of the bread.”

She does. He eats it. Suddenly, his face lights up. His stony countenance breaks into a grin. He begins dancing and laughing, and he cries out, “This isn’t bread! It’s vodka and noodles, streudel and potatoes, every taste you ever wanted to taste – all in each wonderful bite!”

The family becomes so successful selling their bread, that they come to America and open a bakery, proprietary in its recipe because who can compete with measurements made in the hand sizes of Bembelmen children?

I love the book as much for the great accents I can put into the character voices as for the food, but at the heart of it is the bread – that fantastic bread, which like the peasant version of an everlasting gobstopper managed to contain numerous flavors that hit the palate in waves the longer you chewed.

There’s nothing so fantastic as the discovery of new flavors, and Bembelman’s Bakery drives that point home in a way that expresses that even amongst drudgery, food can bring joy into even the simplest lives.

I continue to believe that some of the best food is peasant food – breads, meats, cheeses, organs, soups – you name it. Simple things, often made from the cheapest ingredients, frequently evolve out of necessity (and no small amount of love) into some of the most flavorful cuisine.

One of these days, I should try to scan Bembelman’s Bakery in to share. Until then, if you have kids who love stories (especially about food) it’s worth picking up a used copy, since it’s long since out of print.


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