There is a new café in the neighborhood. It’s farm to table and kosher, using seasonal local ingredients. They make their own heirloom cornbread, strawberry balsamic preserves, pickled kraut, and aioli. When you gaze into one of their frothy cappuccinos, you might, if you’re lucky, catch a glimpse of the sublime. And so I sit there sometimes to do work, nibbling a cheese and olive plate with a splendid organic lager. But, though my body is – blissfully — there, I must admit that often my head is elsewhere.
Sometimes instead I’m thinking about the old-school bakery around the corner. There, you find a showcase of hard rolls, pumpernickel, and sticky babkas, thick from margarine. There is also a small bar of cold tuna, egg salad, and cream cheese that can be plopped onto a sandwich. After you get your food, you may sit at the folding chairs and tables on the side to eat — but not for long, and not comfortably.
If I were more magnanimous, I would perhaps become nostalgic over the gradual passing of such hallmark places that once defined a heimishe neighborhood, even as the new kind are ushered in. Certainly, I can appreciate any good honest business, and the fact that these old shops captured a long tradition of recipes. There will probably always be a place for them. I can even accept (if skeptically) that some people out there actually like black and white cookies.
And yet, I find that I am brazenly for the revolution, pumping my fist in the air to lead the throngs towards scones with crème fraiche.
Not because I’m a food snob but rather because, with my own diverse background, I’ve always been aware of any narrowness in definitions of American Jewish culture. As a child pressed to the bakery glass, I sought out the variations. Where were the gulab jamun, I wondered. Where were the mochi dumplings, the glazed pastelitos? Variation was not just a sign of health, but it was also a recognition of truth.
The sight of those uniform bakeries then always seemed a bit of an outrage, if only for The Cake front and center in the display case. The Cake would be a layered monstrosity of custard and whipped cream, pretty enough but cloying. From shop to shop it might seem a little different, with stale cherries, or freckles of chocolate shaving. Maybe there would be mousse. Maybe there wouldn’t be. But no matter the variation, The Cake was hard to miss, and like the court’s definition of porn, you knew it when you saw it: a monolith of cake, a caricature.
Change is the new reality, though. It has been for years. Looking at this thread of culinary Darwinism, it’s complex: as much about a shift in American Jewish identity as it is about the larger food culture and greater access. There’s no looking backwards then, to what might have been, what should have been. All is forgiven.
And today the evolved establishments and food sensibilities speak for themselves, the openness to exotic ingredients and techniques, to an authentic infusion of other cultures, to other cakes and cakes of The Other. To cake that might boggle the mind. My celebration is not so much for the artisan this or the free-range that. Rather, it is for the shaking off of lethargy and monopoly, for the new worldliness in our midst.
The Cake is dead. Long live the cake.