Saturday, October 26, 2013

Those Who Came Before

My grandparents came to America as immigrants, as did my father when he was only two years old. They came, not expecting help from the government, but just a chance to make a life for their families. Pictured are my mother's parents, Pasquale and Caterina Camardi who came in 1912 from a little town called Grassano in Italy. Pasquale opened a store on Rockaway Avenue where he cleaned and blocked men's hats (in the snazzy fedora days) and also had a few shoeshine stalls. Grandpa Camardi ruled over that establishment in his grey cardigan sweater and DiNoboli cigar. He worked hard and after a time was able to purchase a house on Hull Street in Brooklyn where our family spent many happy holidays.

We recently visited Ellis Island, where so many immigrants passed through in the late 1800s and early 1900s. If you have not yet been there, especially if you had ancestors who passed through that gateway, you need to go.
I was able to research the Ellis Island data base and found immigration records of my family's arrival in this country. The records tell on what ship they arrived (my grandparents came on the Brasile out of Naples) and allow you to view the ship's manifest pages to learn when and from where they departed, with whom they travelled , and what they had in their possession.

While on a walking tour of Ellis Island, we wandered into a room that displayed posters of some of the great ships that travelled in and out of that island. One poster stopped me in my tracks...it was an image of the ship "Brasile", (see photo left) the very same boat that brought my grandparents to America! I felt chills all over, as if Grandpa and Grandma were sending me a little message from beyond.

It was an emotional experience for me walking those corridors and later watching a film on what the immigrant experience was like. I am so proud of my grandparents for having the courage to leave behind all that was familiar to them, and trying to create a better future for their families. I want my children to know of the sacrifices that were made by their immigrant ancestors so that they could have the privilege of living in America. The values that make them who they are were handed down by those who came before.

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Wednesday, October 16, 2013

Let Them Eat Cake

Of course Marie Antoinette wasn't talking about Brooklyn bakeries when she made her famous remark: "Let them eat cake", but she could have been. Being a haven for immigrants, Brooklyn had more than its share of folks who knew how to bake. Germans, Italians, Jews and so many other ethnic groups took their delicious recipes with them when they emigrated to America in the "great wave" of humanity that landed on our shores around the turn of the 20th century. Every neighborhood had its specialties, and in the days before cholesterol counts, their clientele was most faithful. Cake and pastry prices had not yet been driven up to ridiculous heights, and most bakeries would have been happy to sell you half a cake if money was an issue. Here are some of the Brooklyn bakeries that put smiles on faces back in the day.

One of the most famous was Ebinger's, founded in 1898 by George and Catherine Ebinger. Famous for their cakes and pies, and especially their Blackout Cake, they closed in bankruptcy on August 26, 1972. Other Ebinger favorites were a butter cream cake decorated with three small pistachio nuts in the center of the top and Chocolate hard-icing cake with a hard, bittersweet chocolate icing. Supposedly the Ebinger family has all their original recipes under lock and key and is uninterested in releasing them. Another Brooklyn institution is Entenmann’s Bakery, founded by William Entenmann who came to Brooklyn from Germany in 1898. Today, the Entenmann’s brand is on over 100 different kinds of baked goods, and available in many supermarkets. (Info courtesy of "Fading Ad Blog", Frank H. Jump & friends.)


Leske's Bakery opened in 1961 in Bay Ridge, Brooklyn—at the time, an enclave of the Scandinavian community in New York City. Leske's appealed to the broad demographic of Brooklyn by offering the old-world favorites that reflected the tastes of the bakery’s Italian, Irish and Norwegian neighbors: Irish soda bread, hot cross buns, jelly doughnuts, Napoleons, Danishes, ├ęclairs, tarts, and more. In addition, Leske's became known for its iconically Brooklyn fare—black & white cookies, Brooklyn blackout cake, and New York—style cheesecake, to name a few. (Info from Leske's website). Although the bakery changed hands in 1987, and has since closed and reopened, I'm happy to report that it is still thriving on Fifth Avenue in Bay Ridge.

One of the few bakeries that sold off a truck was Dugan Brothers. David Dugan first sold baked goods off a pushcart in 1878. Joined by his brother Edward, they opened their first store a year later. The original delivery routes were done by horse and cart; it was said the horses were so well trained that the driver could work out of the back of the wagon with the horse making all appointed stops without guidance. Trucks soon replaced horses as Dugan Brothers delivered throughout New York, Long Island, New Jersey, Pennsylvania, Connecticut and Massachusetts. They delivered to private homes and stores, many of whom extended credit for groceries until payday. (Source: New York Times article). 

As a kid, my local favorite was Ariola's on Rockaway Avenue, just across from my grandfather's hat blocking shop. There were three things you can count on in life... death, taxes, and a long line in front of Ariola's on Sunday morning. Pretty much everything they made was good, but they specialized in Italian pastries and cookies. Their sfogliatelle-pastry was to die for, and I don't think in all my years on this earth, I've had a better pignoli cookie. They could have charged people just to walk in and smell the place. Established in 1923, they moved to Queens and eventually expanded to Farmingdale, Long Island as Ariola Foods in 2008. Their main competitor, Roma Pastry, around the corner on Fulton Street, was good too, but not quite up to Ariola's standard. Roma did excel in making Italian ices, however, a noble achievement in itself.

When we moved from Somers to Vermont Street in Brooklyn, our bakery of choice became Mrs. Maxwell's. I wouldn't put them in the same league as some of the more famous Brooklyn bakeries, but their cakes were good and they were located right on our corner. Their original store was relatively small, but the big attraction was that we could look through the big plate glass window and watch the baker icing the cakes. (This was before television really took off.) The bakery changed hands and undertook a major expansion. They are still on Atlantic Avenue turning out birthday and wedding cakes, and it is not uncommon for old residents who have moved from the neighborhood to come back to Mrs. Maxwell's for their cakes. 

Is there any more of that fig cake left?


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