Pandemic Prompts

The Sweetest Taste by Judah Leblang

“Anxiety is the handmaiden of creativity," wrote T.S. Eliot. To help make productive use of our self-isolation and social distancing, Lit Cleveland is offering free writing challenges each week via our newsletter. The following piece is a response to the Small Pleasures prompt.

The Sweetest Taste

by Judah Leblang

Today when I go to one of the bakeries on Harvard Avenue in Brookline, a heavily-Jewish suburb just west of Boston, I’m transported back to Lax and Mandel’s on Taylor Road in Cleveland Heights. Suddenly it’s 1980 and I’m just out of college, back in Cleveland after four years away.

In the glass cases are various pastries – delicacies I couldn’t find in Knoxville, Tennessee where I earned my degree – rugelach, hamentashen, and other delicacies that made me salivate. Standing in line I’d scan the cases, looking for poppyseed kuchen, the strudel-like confection Nanny Frida, my paternal grandmother, made when I was growing up—the black paste with its raisins, nuts and sugar rolled into flaky dough, a taste of her native Hungary and lessons learned in her mother’s kitchen in the foothills of the Tatra Mountains.

By 1980, my grandmother had been gone for years. Still, I was left with her essence—the scent of face powder, Vick’s lemon cough drops, which I loved to eat like candy, and sugar cubes. The warmth and sizzle of potato pancakes frying in a pan, the steam filling her small kitchen where we ate, surrounded by ceramic bowls filled with potatoes, sauerkraut and farfel, a bulgur-like grain I loved, and served onto plates piled high, overflowing.  

In the bakery there were heavy-set middle-aged women with foreign accents. Thick waists and arms, younger versions of my grandmother, their English mixed with Yiddish, Polish, or Hungarian—voices of the old country, which if they were lucky had spit them out before the war—like Nanny Frida who left Hungary and the new nation of Czechoslovakia in the 1920s. Nanny scoffed at my grandfather Papa Ed’s love for horses and his desire to stay in Europe, to remain in their small-town when Amerika beckoned with promise.

The voices of those women, and sometimes the numbers branded on a thick arm, told of those who were not so lucky, who came after the war, carrying their memories, their ghosts, their losses. Still, my focus was on getting one of those pastries, and just for a moment, revisiting my grandmother.  

Many years later, I stopped into Lax and Mandel’s at their new location on Cedar Road in South Euclid. (They’ve since gone out of business). They had moved east, following their Jewish patrons who had moved to Beachwood, Pepper Pike, and Solon. Business was slow on this particular afternoon. The new owner, a forty-something man, pointed to a few pastries with the familiar black paste and told me that poppyseed was no longer popular.

Today, at 63, I’m far removed from that boy sitting with Nanny Frida, or from the young teacher waiting at the bakery in 1980. Today, when I find poppyseed pastries, they taste too sweet, too syrupy on my tongue. Still, I eat them, momentarily back in a small bungalow on Green Road, enveloped in the warmth of my grandmother’s kitchen.