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

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.

6:03 p.m.: Done! Well, done in the sense that I won't be cracking any more eggs anytime soon (although I have more left than I thought I would. Anyone up for an 18-egg omelet?). I still have more cutting and sorting to do. But at least now I can begin to clean some of the rubble out of the kitchen. When the last cookie is packed, which shouldn't be too long now, I'm going to leave the kitchen for good for the rest of the weekend. And, for the record, I didn't eat a single piece of mandel bread; not even a crumb. Familiarity, truly, breeds contempt. Good night.

Presented by

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

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