Baked Good: One Man's 24-Hour, All-Cookie Marathon

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.

At the "height" of the operations of the New Modern Bakery, my mom says, Sam and Evelyn Miller employed no more than eight workers inside the bakery and several more men who delivered the warm breads, cakes, and pastries all over the region. The bakery served large supermarkets and restaurants and accepted walk-in business. And anyone who came for a social visit to the Millers also came to visit the bakery as well. There was no escaping it. Once you set foot inside that house at the front door on Prospect, you might as well have been first in line at the back downstairs counter asking for a doughnut—the sweet smell was so overwhelming. Like the pickle man from Crossing Delancy only in reverse, it took away the world's bad smell.   

My mother remembers driving the truck herself—imagine that 60 years ago—when she couldn't find the drivers or when there were too many orders and too few men to get the bread where it needed to be.

9:07 a.m. So it turns out I grossly overestimated the amount of sugar and flour I needed. I could probably bake cookies until Monday morning. But I won't. Part of the deal here, with myself anyway, was that I would donate leftover ingredients to a local group that focuses on helping the families of our armed service members. It is Memorial Day weekend, after all. That's going to happen on Monday.   

My mother tells great stories about the bakery—and about the people who worked there. She remembers being sent by her father to round up the delivery men when, for one epic reason or another, they didn't show up to work on time. On more than one occasion she would find one of the men at dawn at the local house of ill repute. She also remembers driving the delivery truck herself—imagine that 60 years ago—when she couldn't find the drivers or when there were too many orders and too few men to get the bread to where it needed to be. To her, the New Modern was home.
12:09 p.m. The three-quarter mark! 18 hours in, only six hours left. With the end now in sight, I hope I haven't given anyone the impression that I am a baking impressario. I am not. I don't claim the "baking gene." I cannot whip up a flan and I do not remotely care about a tart. In fact, I bake two things and two things only—this mandel bread and a sort of cranberry shortbread pie (which is killer). Otherwise, I'm just not much of a doughnut, jelly-roll, eclair sort of fellow and never have been. The cranberry pie season is in the fall of course. Perhaps by then I will want to see another bowl full of batter.

I don't have many vivid memories of the bakery. But my older sister does and so do my older cousins, Arthur and Marge, because they lived in Scranton during the New Modern Bakery's heyday (I did not). Allow me to let cousin Arthur speak first:

I still complain every time I see a fancy/costly birthday cake that pales in comparison to the elaborate cakes I used to have at my birthdays. I'd give anything for a New Modern Bakery lafayette which was white cake with raspberry jelly, coconut flakes and white icing (in case you forgot). The sheer number of them eaten by me from 1960-1976 is probably the main reason I am now Type 2 diabetic. What a way to go, though.
My cousin Marge remembers going to the bakery through a trap "hiding underneath a table where the icing tubs were kept and dipping my fingers in the icing" (paging OSHA). She remembers getting to the bakery through a trap-door in Grandma Evelyn's "sewing room"  (think Hogan's Heroes but with Queen Anne furniture). "Everytime I went down to the bakery," Marge wrote to me recently, "I would see Grandpa sitting in the desk chair and as I would go by he would remind me, in his thick accent, to stay away from the bread machine." (Okay, OSHA, you can stand down.) Now, there's good advice that transcends generations: Stay way from the bread machine, kids!
3:11 p.m.: In which this fatigued baker offers you only the greatest single bakery scene in American movie history.    

What little I remember of the New Modern Bakery, and my grandfather, is out of a Damon Runyon script. Or maybe a Billy Crystal movie. Upstairs in the apartment when we would visit, Sam's brothers, Harold and Dave, lifelong bachelors both, would play cards, chew on unlit cigars, and crack jokes. I remember watching the great Secretariat win the Belmont Stakes there in Scranton in June 1973. Downstairs, down that huge trap door, were row upon row, stack upon stack, of the sweetest things man could make. Incidentally, my father in the late 1950s once took a job with Sam, his father-in-law. It didn't last long. My father was putting too much jelly in the jelly donuts, causing the bottoms to drop out of them. Practical man, Sam; my father quickly found another line of work.

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Andrew Cohen is a contributing editor at The Atlantic. He is a legal analyst for 60 Minutes and CBS Radio News, and a fellow at the Brennan Center for Justice.

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