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The Pritikin diet almost killed me. Then along came Atkins, followed by the Stillman, Scarsdale, Hollywood, ketogenic and Zone diets. The South Beach was almost my coup de grâce. I've fought the good fight with all. I'm a baker.
Bread is the staff of life. Who could resist the warm yeasty fragrance of something loving in the oven? Plenty, to tell by sales at the No-Bagel Emporium during the no-carb years. After years of denying themselves steaks and chops, butter and cheese, the diet nation was ready to indulge in fat, as long as no flour was involved. But the mass hysteria couldn't last. The craze has fizzled. It's just a matter of time before bread is king again.
Yet New Jersey is not Manhattan. New ideas, even bad-diet fads, take a while to catch on and twice as long to fade out.
The morning rush, make that amble, has slowed as a well-toned woman in a workout camisole and low-rise pants gazes longingly at my bread racks.Then she sucks in her lower lip.She said she just came in for bottled water but I sense a weakness.
Shameless panderer that I am, I lure undecided customers with generous samples.Yesterday it was palm-size ciabatta slices spread with violet-flower honey. Today it's raspberry-almond butter spread upon chocolate sourdough.
"We were meant for bread," I whisper over my countertop like a desperate lover. "Try it."
She shakes her head, clutching her Nina Bucci workout bag to her chest. "I really shouldn't."
"Just a taste." I push the tray an inch closer to her. "If you're going to sin, do it for the best of reasons."
"I suppose one nibble can't hurt." She looks quickly left and right in my all-but-empty store, then reaches out and snatches up the smallest cube and pops it in her mouth.
I know what to expect, the sudden widening of her eyes, the slight catch of her breath, and then that little moan of animal satisfaction. I nod and smile."I'll just pop a loaf in a bag for you. Pay now and pick it up on the way back from working out."
Before she can think better of her seduction I turn to bag a loaf, only a little ashamed of myself. I've become a pimp, and my madam is un petit pain.
Let me explain. I'm a bread addict. My grandparents owned the Bagel Emporium in Upper Montclair, New Jersey, for fifty years. They bought it from a Jewish couple from Hoboken, who were some of the first to emigrate to the new state of Israel in 1949. Five years ago Grandpa Horace decided they were too old to carry on and left the business to me, their only grandchild, and moved to Phoenix. It was a case of perfect timing. My career in advertising with my now ex, Ted, had begun to bore me to tears. I didn't have to think twice. I'm a Jersey girl, albeit one with a degree from a Swiss finishing school. Practicality is bred into my genes. The way I see it something that engages the five senses, makes arm-toning exercises an option and produces one of life's oldest culinary delights is a win-win situation.
Okay, Ted hated the idea. He said that in leaving advertising for an industry requiring physical labor I was "Opting out of an upper-middle-class career for a trade with all the cachet of cosmetology."
I consider his attitude bias. He has gluten sensitivity, which makes him swell with gas. Not a deadly reaction, just a very uncomfortable one. The sight of a floury kitchen counter is enough to send him reeling backward.
"Thanks." My customer smiles shyly at me as she pockets her change. "I hope Rodrigo doesn't smell chocolate bread on my breath."
"My pleasure." I offer her a Pez from my Snoopy dispenser.
"This will keep it our little secret."
Ted's opinion aside, I was born to make bread. I compensate by making the best bread in the tri-state area. I have plaques on the wall that attest to the fact.
We're an artisan bakery, which is small enough so that each worker knows the whole process of making bread, and two or three of us can make enough batches to supply the daily requirements of the store.
From the beginning, we flourished.
The location was ideal, situated on the first floor of a three-story building whose second floor is home to Five-0, a lifestyle magazine for the woman of a certain age.The third floor houses Rodrigo's Body Salon, which caters to suburbanites with cellulite issues. Between them and street traffic, the Bagel Emporium had a readymade clientele of boomer women who no longer thought two lettuce leaves make a lunch, and health acolytes who reasoned they had earned a little sumthin' after burning two cinnamon buns' worth of calories. Burn two, eat one. It was a calculation they could live with, and I knew I could live on.
Within weeks of ownership, I invested in two used industrial mixers and a brand-new stone deck oven, and branched out from bagels to my personal passion: leaven bread. We make the basics like baguettes, ciabatta, pagnotta, whole wheat, rye and sourdough. But I love to experiment. Custom orders for chocolate-cherry pumpernickel and piñon-nut queso blanco con mango whole wheat garnered so many requests they quickly became store staples along with gourmet delights like bittersweet chocolate croissants, bourbon pecan cinnamon rolls and focaccia pizzas. Friends call my creations the haute couture of bread-making. Business was so good after the first year that I dropped bagels altogether, a decision appreciated by the deli down the block. Regulars nicknamed us the No-Bagel Emporium, and it stuck. Then disaster struck. Noodles, pasta and bread became the pariahs of modern life.
The bakery is definitely on the road to recovery but the bills accrued while it was on life support sucked up all my discretionary savings. The bread is better than ever, but once lost, one's clientele is difficult to lure back. We're a broken habit.
I glance around my store. Like me, it's neat but showing its age. Once I wore Albert Nippon and Ferragamos. Now I dress from the Gap sale rack. The No-Bagel Emporium needs a makeover to attract new attention. But there's already a lien on the bakery. Guess we'll both have to make do for now.
I check the front windows for the passing of a perspective customer. The bump bump vibrations of the body-pump class sound track that filters into my shop means my customer base is focused for the moment on burning calories, not consuming them.
To console my disappointment that there is no line around the block waiting to get in there's always the case for a cinnamon roll. One bite is all it takes to produce a smile. Its syrupy, crunchy texture cannot be bested anywhere in the tri-state area. I know because we won a taste test four years ago.
Just as I'm adjusting my mouth for the first bite, the door opens and in comes the skinniest eight-year-old I've ever seen. "Hey, Dupree."
"Hey, Miz T.You got a job for me today?"
I look around until I spy a broom."Want to sweep the front?" He nods but sticks out his lip. "When am I gonna get a real job?"
"Sweeping is a real job." Dupree is an entrepreneur. His parents could buy my store but Dupree likes to earn his own money, which he doesn't waste on things like sweet rolls. So I have to think up excuses to fatten him up a bit.
"Before you start I have something else I need you to do for me." I put my cinnamon roll on a napkin and push it toward him. "I think Shemar is slipping. Tell me if you think this cinnamon roll is up to his usual standard."
Serious as any adult, Dupree takes it, eyeballs it and then takes a big bite.
"You need some milk, to get the full flavor experience." I pull a half-pint carton out of my case and offer it to him with a straw.
"It's good." He cranks his head to one side. "Only, needs a little more cin'mon."
"I'll tell Shemar. Finish it, anyway, because you know I don't like wastefulness. I'll give you a dollar as my consultant, and your choice of a loaf when you're done sweeping." Wish I could pay him but I don't want child services coming after me for violating child labor laws.
Coffee cup in hand, I scoop up the mail and head for a booth. An ominous-looking envelope from my flour distributor sits on top.
I love the tone of dunning letters. "We are sure you have overlooked... If not rectified in thirty days we will be forced... If the remit has been mailed please ignore..."
They manage to make you feel delinquent, a failure and possibly a good egg all in the same paragraph. Oh, and very afraid for your credit record.
I scan quickly through the advertisements and catalogs, until an industry magazine with the cover line AWAKE from the NoCarb Nightmare catches my eye.
I mumble as I read it until Celia taps me on the shoulder."You okay, Liz?"
"Listen to this. The cover article says the low-carb craze peaked last year.Yet on the very next page there's a piece about making low-carb bread. Instead of backing us up, the industry is still trying to cover every angle."
Celia smiles, which emphasizes the Kewpie doll contours of her face. "Those articles are written months in advance. Everyone knows bread is back."
I nod."You're right. Got to think positively. Business will pick up after people sample our wares at the Fine Arts and Crafts Show. That's only a month away."
"So is the wedding." My blank look must give away the need for a prompt because Celia adds,"My friend Jenna's wedding?"
"Oh, yeah." How could I forget the topic of every other conversation with Celia since the invitation arrived two weeks ago?
Celia pats her twice-pregnant tummy. "Can you tell I'm working out with Rodrigo twice a week?"
Celia Martin is a former Wall Street analyst who quit three years ago because she had fertility issues to resolve. They resolved as two sets of twins born sixteen months apart.Yet even the most dedicated mommy needs a little time off. Luckily, Celia's husband has one of those boring-sounding careers in insurance financing that earns obscene amounts of money. Thanks to him, and her two live-in nannies, she can slum two mornings a week for me, ordering and pairing cheeses with our specialty breads. Twice a month, she goes into the city to get her hair done, and pick up our custom orders from Murray's Cheese Shop in Greenwich Village.
Working for the No-Bagel Emporium isn't usually an ego issue for Celia. But when a girlfriend from her "firmest" years is a partner in some disgustingly attractive IPO stock-optioned company, it's hard to say "cheese specialist" in the same top that fashion. According to Celia, Jenna was one of those friends who would steal your boyfriend and then still manage to keep your friendship by making you feel she's done you a service by freeing you up to find "someone worthy of you." Now, that's just Machiavellian. No wonder the upcoming wedding has Celia feeling the need to measure up to the world she left behind. She has, by my count, bought and taken back five outfits.
"Why don't we knock off early?" Celia waggles her perfectly arched brows at me."Shemar can take care of the lunch crowd. Let's go get manicures and pedicures. My treat."
I don't hesitate on the issue of if she can afford it. But I'm in debt up to my no-longer-waxed eyebrows.
I duck my head. "You go. I really need to stay and help out."
"It's not a pity bribe," she says, reading my mind. "Think of it as girlfriend therapy.You're doing it not to embarrass me."
And just like that, we're out the door, after a quick reminder to Shemar, my baker and right hand. "Don't forget to bag up the leftovers for pickup by the soup kitchens."
One thing a bakery like ours simply can't do is compete with itself by selling day-old bread. It's quite frightening the number of customers who can't tell the difference.