The St. Louis Post-Dispatch ran a story this week about vintage baking. It profiled Chris Leuther, an area baker with 30 years in the business who collects old bakery equipment and recipes from long-gone, but beloved and not-forgotten bakeries.
The money quote: “I’ve worked in a lot of bakeries and talked to a lot of bakers, and when it comes right down to it, so many of these places worked from almost exactly the same formula… A lot of times different places made exactly the same cake. It seemed special because it made a special memory — but that’s all it is, a memory.”
There’s something to that. Sometimes we just long for something because it reminds us of a more innocent time, when things were easier. Change too much of it, and it’s just not the same. It may be the very same cake and it may even have been mixed using the same machinery, but coming from 70-year-old bakery in an art deco building on Clayton Road that dated to the 1940s versus coming from a bakery by a different name in a generic strip mall in a generic outer-ring suburb is just too much for some minds to overcome. The cake is the same, but the visuals aren’t.
The Lionel train I purchased new in 2004 is, in all technical regards, a better product than the ones my dad grew up with in the late 1940s/early 1950s. It has a more powerful can motor in it that will run for years with no maintenance. It’s quiet. And it has better scale fidelity. Ask almost anyone who grew up with the old ones, though, and there’s some mystique they have that the new one doesn’t. The mechanical solenoid that makes the train change directions buzzes as the train roars down the track. And it roars–that open-frame motor is a lot louder than a modern can motor. And it kicks out a generous supply of ozone as it runs laps around the track. To my wife it’s stink and noise. To me, it triggers memories. Memories of setting it up in the basement with my dad when I was in the 6th grade, and memories of Dad setting it back up again that first Thanksgiving I came back home from college. The 2004 train doesn’t trigger all those same memories. When Dad fired up that train on the first night, I heard it from upstairs. You wouldn’t hear the new one from upstairs. It may be new and improved, but they improved out most of my memories. Now it’s someone else’s memories in there.
Lake Forest Pastry Shop closed in 2003. From what the surviving online reviews say, after it changed ownership in 2002, the new owner changed the recipes. The new, improved bakery didn’t last long. The building stood empty until 2010. The similarly named Lake Forest Confections survives next door, in a tasteful but clearly more modern building. I drove past the old one numerous times over the years, and it’s entirely possible I’ve parked in its parking lot too, when chasing down estate sales in the area. Interestingly, the sign from the now-demolished building now belongs to Greg Rhomberg, a St. Louis-area sign collector the same paper profiled a month ago. So one St. Louis collector nabbed the sign, while another nabbed the machinery and recipes.
The other location was at 5445 Telegraph Road, a nondescript strip mall in Oakville along the main north-south drag through the town. I drove past it every Sunday for years on my way to church and never noticed it. Score one for distinctive architecture.
To me, I think the memory of bakeries tugs on that innocence. Besides the taste of whatever you buy, the place smells like the stuff it sells. The sense of sight is there too–you can see what both the inside and outside of the place looks like. Even kids can recognize it. From the time my oldest son could talk, he could recognize his favorite places by sight–and point them out to us. My youngest son seems to be able to recognize places too, even though he doesn’t have the ability yet to communicate it through words. Chances are the oldest son will remember piling into our old Honda on Sunday mornings and driving to Donut Stop, one of the 10 best shops of its kind in the country.
It’s nice to know that the old recipes survive in the bakeries of today, as it’s definitely part of St. Louis’ culture. And through the years, businesses close. Neighborhoods can change and render a once-thriving location no longer viable. Sometimes the next generation is unwilling or unable to continue the business, leaving no one to carry the torch when the owner retires or dies. It would be nice if things could last forever, but nothing does. At least not entirely.