(RNS) — You can go months, or even years, without thinking of something — a distinct memory from childhood, for example — and then, it comes and caresses you, lovingly, on your cheek.
That is how I felt this week when I learned of the death of Charles Entenmann, who, along with his family, ran Entenmann’s Bakery, which provided cakes for generations of Americans.
Especially, American Jews. Even more especially, Long Island- and New York-area Jews.
Few words evoke my childhood and young adulthood more than that one word: “Entenmann’s.” As in: “When you go out, bring home an Entenmann’s.” No other baked good would suffice. Few items constitute a visual memory more than this image: an Entenmann’s box, with its familiar blue-and-white colors, the tab torn, partially open, a knife inside.
Diane Arbus could have photographed it: “Long Island Jewish Still Life.”
It is a conspiracy of the senses: visual, olfactory and taste. It combines with other culinary memories from my childhood: halva, which my father, of blessed memory, brought home from the deli on Saturday evenings, as we set up the snack tables in the den to watch “The Jackie Gleason Show.” Bagels. Smoked fish.
Or, the places our family would eat: the Plainview Diner; Cooky’s Steak Pub in Huntington; Tung Hing Chinese in Bethpage; Rudy’s Delicatessen in Plainview.
Through it all, an image of the open Entenmann’s box. This was true, not only in my childhood home but in my college years and when I returned to Long Island in adulthood.
In a folk Jewish sense, Entenmann’s was, and is, “Jewish.”
Well, sort of.
First, the name — Entenmann’s.
Yes, the name sounded Jewish. But, in fact, the founder, William Entenmann, was a German immigrant who opened a bakery in Flatbush, Brooklyn, in 1898 and delivered rolls from a horse-drawn wagon.
A theory: Our great-grandparents in Brooklyn might have bought those rolls, and that inculcated later generations with an epigenetic taste for Entenmann’s.
And, second (this is deliberately far-fetched, even playful): The blue-and-white Entemann’s box might have subliminally reminded us of the blue-and-white flag of Israel and the blue-and-white JNF canisters.
As I prepare my palate for what I believe to be the ultimate Jewish sweet delicacy — hamantaschen, for Purim — I utter a silent culinary Kaddish — not for Entenmann’s, but for Charles Entenmann.
Whether he knew it or not, his product was part of my Jewish childhood and adulthood. An adopted pastry. Jewish by Velcro and by sentimental association.
The opened box, with the knife sitting inside, with the crumbs by the side.
Sure, nostalgia isn’t what it used to be.
But, this piece of it works for me.
The chocolate donuts. The coffee cake.