Stories from our parents' surprisingly romantic youth: living on the edge in a Hartford bakery.
My parents ran their own baked-goods company for twenty-six years, selling gourmet cakes all around America and growing a huge fanbase. I've spent my entire life surrounded by cakes, cookies, tarts, and pies; my two brothers and I were often the guinea pigs in my mom's experimental recipes, and I fully blame her and my dad for my brief stint as an overweight child. I recently interviewed my parents about their culinary romance.
Tell me about how food brought you two together.
D: That's a clown question, bro [laughs]. I met Mom in a food shop. A friend of mine was Mom's boss; I asked her boss if she would set us up, but since I was going out with another girl, she said she wouldn't. But after I broke up with that other girl, she set us up and gave me your mom's telephone number.
M: I should add that I had no moral objections to my boss giving out my telephone number, even though Dad was going out with somebody else. All's fair in love and war, as far as I'm concerned.
Both of you went to college to get liberal arts degrees. How did food become your main path?
M: I am a nice Jewish girl from West Hartford, and nice Jewish girls from West Hartford don't go to culinary institutes. They go to universities, so they can catch nice Jewish husbands who support them in the style to which they've been accustomed. But I was always interested in food, and I also realized, after I graduated in English literature, that I liked working with my hands.
D: I got involved in food early. I started cooking from Julia Child's cookbook, and then when I went to France to study art history, I got kind of sidetracked. I worked at a three-star restaurant for a year, then another one for a year, then traveled around the world.
Dad, tell me about the first meal you made to impress Mom's family.
M: Oh no!
D: Well, I decided to prepare a special meal for them. I made a fish stock, and then I added clams, oysters, mussels, and a couple of other things. And that was my treat for them… except everyone got sick.
M: Imagine a family who hates shellfish. Imagine a clear broth. Then imagine Vincent Van Gogh cutting off his ear, and throwing it into the broth. That's what it looked like. The oyster looked like a floating ear. I really wanted Grandpa and Uncle Jack to love this, so I kept muttering, "Eat it! I don't care what it takes!" But after Dad left, it was a race to the bathroom to see which one of us would throw up first.
D: It was really delicious.
Mom, as you may recall, Dad is eleven years older than you. How did your family react to that?
M: They were totally hostile. My brother and my father just hated Dad, because they couldn't imagine why a thirty-three-year-old man would want to go out with a twenty-two-year-old girl. But I was also much more mature. I never thought of Dad as older than I am. I always think of Dad as being younger than I am.
How did your dessert company start?
D: Well, I had started a catering business after I came back from my travels. People seemed to really enjoy the cakes, especially the chocolate truffle cake. So I boxed the chocolate truffle cake and brought it to the cheese shop in West Hartford…
M: Try to look interested when we're telling this story, Jeremy.
I was up late last night, Mom.
M: Is that why you have a hickey on your neck?
D: So anyway, they really liked it, so my next stop was Zabar's in New York City, and they really liked it too. So I decided I would start a dessert business. Mom came on the scene six months later.
M: I really wanted to be in food, and it was nice, because I worked alone making these cakes, and everything was done by hand. I really enjoyed that aspect of it. That was our only cake for long time, until I got pregnant. Then, since I had to stay home, I started working on cakes in between pregnancies. You were responsible for the carrot cake. I was pregnant with you when I developed that cake.
Dad, you used to cater in a tricked out old hearse. Tell me about that.
D: I was catering one day at the Governor's mansion. My hearse was dying, and we had to push it up the driveway of the Governor's mansion. Not a good omen. Probably our best story delivering was after we did all of our deliveries, we went to a place called Kuruma Zushi and blew all our money.
M: All of it.
D: Sometimes we had to borrow money.
M: We also baked out of our house, which was illegal. But we lived in the ghetto, so nobody was going to say anything about it. These enormous chocolate trucks would pull up to the door, and nobody thought anything of it, because they were all running their own illegal businesses at the time.
How did you two get through the hard times? Mom, I remember you getting up at four a.m. to bake cakes.
M: I actually got up at 2:45 a.m. To this day, I don't know how I did it. These were my choices: I could have either put you in day care, or get up at that hour, work eight hours, and then be home with you. And I figured whatever the physical stress of getting up early was, the mental stress of not being with you guys would have been worse, so I used to get my work done by ten. Then I got a chance to be home with you guys, even though I would fall asleep promptly at seven each night.
Give me your scariest story about opening up a bakery by yourself in the worst part of Hartford at three in the morning.
M: The parking lot of the building looks like it was bombed, first of all. And to save electricity, they would turn off every other light, so the hallways were darkened. One December, I had gotten a Christmas tree for the whole crew and I went out and bought presents for everybody. I was so happy with myself because I'd thought about everybody and what they liked. Then I walked in at 3:30 in the morning and the window was open, the Christmas tree was overturned, and this motherfucker had stomped on the presents. Not stolen the presents, stomped on the presents. So I called the police, and they told me to leave the building, because the person could still be there. I told them I couldn't leave, because I still had baking to do. So I went in and started mixing and I was getting more and more angry. Then I heard this noise, and I looked out into the hallway, and at the end of the hallway was a figure carrying a gun. I thought, "That's the guy who destroyed my tree!" So I was demented. I had a paddle to stir the butter and the chocolate with, and I went running down the hallway screaming this war cry. And it was a policeman! He saw me running down the hallway and drew his gun, because he couldn't see what was going on, and then as I got closer and closer, he was like: "What are you doing? Don't you realize you shouldn't charge a policeman, waving a paddle!" And I said, "I want you to find the man that stomped my presents!" Now, in retrospect, I realize that was stupid. The police said, "Don't waste your time — this guy is never going to get caught." After that, I took up martial arts and went on to become a black belt.
Am I right in thinking that you catered your own wedding?
M: Well, we lived together for two years before I bludgeoned Dad into submission and convinced him to marry me. We decided to get married in our backyard in Hartford. We got people to serve the food, but we cooked the food ourselves.
D: We made fillet of beef with red-wine mayonnaise, lobster salad, and chocolate truffle cake, which we decorated with flowers we had picked. It was beautiful.
Mom, let's talk about the phrase "bludgeoned Dad into submission."
M: Dad and I had a slight disagreement over the fact that living together is not the same as being married.
D: Sure it is!
M: But it's not. Every woman knows that to be true, no matter what a man says. Living together is not the same as being married. So I was just relentless. You know how I am now? I was triply so back then.
Is there anybody out there who loves food more than you two?
M: Dad is psychotic about food. When we leave the factory, we have to stop at three different places on the way home. There's no such thing as going from point A to point B to get home — we have to go to the fruit stand, then the Indian restaurant, then the grocery store. And all I'll want is to go home and sit in the air conditioning and take a hot bath.
D: I'm absolutely crazy about food. I think about it all the time. If I had my choice, I'd be eating all the time.
M: I'll be drinking a cup of coffee, just relaxing in the morning, and Dad will say, "So what are we having for dinner?" I haven't even finished my first cup of coffee yet! Why would I even remotely be thinking about dinner at that hour in the morning?
The company went bankrupt in 2009. Tell me about that.
D: August 14, 2009! My birthday. There was a front-page article in the Hartford Courant. This must have been the century of slow news or something.
M: I went back to school to become a medical assistant.
D: I was studying too. I took a course in cranialsacral therapy… but that was only four days. [laughs] But I was also doing some writing, and generally fucking around.
M: Actually, Dad was doing a lot of heavy brooding at the time. Heavy, heavy brooding.
D: But I was also looking for a new place for us to set up a new business. I was just chasing leads and hoping something would come along.
And you guys eventually did re-open!
D: That, we did!
M: It's the one thing we're really good at.
D: Mom's good at.
M: People really love our cakes.
D: Mom's cakes.
M: It's really an honest way to earn a living, because we're giving people genuine pleasure. How many people can really say that? I make something. Although it's very physically tiring at the age of fifty-three, I honestly couldn't think of anything else I'd want to do.
Why do you guys get along so well?
D: Because we leave each other alone, for the most part. I don't insist Mom goes somewhere she doesn't want to go, she doesn't insist I go somewhere I don't want to go. And she's so cute. And there are some other things I can't mention.
Good. Please don't.
M: Dad is just the only person I know who can sit quietly next to me and read. It's nice just to drink tea and read and lie in bed together and not talk all the time. But we also have some really interesting conversations in the morning. And we have three children and a granddaughter we adore, and you're all interesting and different and quirky and… strange. I think some people, when they get married and have children, it drives them apart. Other people, it bonds them even closer together. You don't know this, because you're not married…
D: But he has a motherfucker of a hickey!
M: When you're with someone for a long time, you're not the same person throughout the entire time. So if you're lucky, you change along with someone.