ACT III: The Baking
5:48 p.m. Right on schedule, the first batch of cookies goes into the oven. Because I do not have a huge oven, it usually takes me about an hour or so to bake the two trays (four loaves) that make up each batch. And then I slice the loaves of cookie into biscotti shape, which makes them perfect for dunking into coffee or milk. I hope to make 20 to 22 such batches before I am through tomorrow evening, which should be good enough for about 30 boxes worth of pure deliciousness—and at least 30 donations.
Back to the Millers. Sam and Evelyn were just getting settled in to the bakery when the Japanese bombed Pearl Harbor. Eight months later, my mom recounts, Sam dutifully reported for induction at the Army base at Fort Indiantown Gap, Pennsylvania. Mom says that her father was sent home to continue baking for the Northeast Pennsylvania coal miners whose brutal work (and, I guess, carbohydrates) were so important to the war effort. It became a family joke—that Sam's baking was essential to the war effort—but he was patriotic in the line of duty on the home front during the war.
He baked what people wanted him to bake, what people would eat, no matter where they were from. Practical man, Sam.
9:13 p.m. Am now four batches in and going strong. Speaking of batches, you should know that I am not even the best mandel-bread baker in my family. So says everyone else. My mother and I have a healthy rivalry over the years about the respective strengths and weaknesses of our individual mandel bread recipes. I find hers too small and brittle. She finds mine too laden with chocolate and too crumbly. My brother-in-law now has gotten into the act as well—he makes his own. Can't we all just get along? For the record, my son says he likes his grandma's mandel bread best.
The first site of the New Modern Bakery in Scranton was a primitive sort of affair, with an old-fashioned central hearth stove instead of a newfangled oven (which we would now of course consider archaic). And its clientele reflected the reach of the state's coal mining region. My grandfather baked Paska bread for the more recent Polish immigrants (he had come over decades earlier, at age five, from a town on the Polish-Czech border that evidently is no longer on the map). And he baked Kolache bread for the miners who had come from Czechoslovakia to find their fortune in America. He baked what people wanted him to bake, what people would eat, no matter where they were from. Practical man, Sam.
12:10 a.m. At the quarter pole now, with the overnight quarter yet to come, and I'm getting into a solid rhythm of mixing and then shaping the cookie dough into the loaf shapes that go into the oven. Trot the dog is sprawled out in the other room. I can hear him snoring in the quiet stretches of the bad Will Ferrell movie I am watching. Lucky dog. Too bad I'm not watching the very end of As Good As It Gets, when Jack Nicholson and Helen Hunt decide to get some hot, fresh rolls. And please let's not forget Enzo the Baker (not that any of you would).
The next big event in Miller family baking history came in 1946, after the war, when Sam's family connections tipped him off to a business upgrade: an opportunity to move to Scranton's south side. An old baker had died, and his widow owned a row house with a bakery beneath and to the back of it. The price was $38,000 lock, stock, and barrel—four apartments, the bakery, and all the baking equipment. Sam immediately said yes, and both the New Modern Bakery and the Miller family moved to Prospect Avenue. The venue was suitably placed directly across the narrow street from Scranton's enormous Sacred Heart complex, a Catholic school, convent, and church, the bells of which chimed with stern regularity. And the Millers ran the bakery there, in good times and in bad ones, until shortly before Sam's death in April 1975.
3:17 a.m. Inasmuch as I am now officially observering "baker's hours," let's all together say an Amen for this proud guy—remember him? Time to make the doughnuts. I say that almost every morning when I get out of bed even though I have never made a doughnut in my entire life. I wonder why. It almost makes me want to go out and buy William G. Panschar's earnest (but I'm guessing under-read) two-volume set: "Baking in America." Remember, I said "almost."
When the coal miners came to Sam Miller's bakery, especially the old and the sick ones ailing from silicosis, and when they didn't have any money to pay for their bread, Sam made them a deal. My mom remembers her dad giving them food and then writing their "credit" into little notebooks he would keep. When the men invariably came to pay Sam a little bit on what they owed, he would take a nickel or so from them and forgive the rest of the debt. It was bread. The staff of life. He did this for years. My mom has told me that story for years and it still makes me happy every time I hear it.
6:04 a.m. With the sun rising, and the sliver of moon still in the sky, I promise to never whine again after writing what I consider a "hard" column. I am still going great, halfway through the marathon but my back is starting to kill me from having to stand for such long stretches. And I'm standing in a well-ventilated kitchen, with great music playing (thanks Lyle Lovett), and the ability to sit down from time to time. I can't imagine what it was like for bakery workers a century ago. Actually, I can imagine. In one of the most famous (and dubious) Supreme Court cases of all time, Lochner v. New York, the court struck down a maximum-hours law for bakers in New York State.