Lovers of Continental breads and pastries constantly wonder why there are so many more bakeries in France than in the United States. The simplest answer is that the French outsource more of their baking than we do. Historically we Americans have done most of our baking ourselves. The more you bake at home, the less you need bakeries. That’s the general rule.
Yet the old Central European neighborhoods to the West of Chicago didn’t abide by that rule. The Polish and Czech kids I knew in high school came from the some of the baking-est families I ever saw. Their grandmas made cookies, pies and buns by the dozens during the week…yet they and their parents still went shopping at the Cermak Road bakeries on Saturday mornings.
Why, I can only speculate. Central Europeans are well known for their love of good bread and pastry. When they got to America and became affluent, they probably just decided that things like cookies and kolache needn’t be a once-in-a-while treat. America is the land of plenty — so why not have them every day?
Italians did likewise. Back home, their nonnas slaved on Sundays making small quantities of pasta by hand. A little pile of it with a scraping of Parmesan was a treasure as a starter for Sunday dinner. But when you’re a rich American, why be miserly? Have a whole plate of pasta — in fact have it for a main course! And instead of a dusting of cheese I want a lake of it melted over the top — now that’s living!
I’m not trying to make fun here. At least these immigrant populations had some happy culinary memories to build on. Going all the way back, we Pastrys are Scottish. The fact that there’s no hyper-indulgent American form of haggis is testament to the fact that “good riddance” was the general attitude of my ancestors. When they arrived in the New World they dropped everything and started from scratch.
What’s my point? Simply this: gourmands love to sneer at the way Americans eat. I’m not saying that the condescension isn’t justified in some respects. Excess as a way of life is an unhealthy thing. Yet it’s easy to see where that American tendency to go hog wild comes from. Once upon a time, Americans really were tired, poor huddled masses, denied just about everything. Presented with jobs, good money and a never-ending smörgåsbord, it’s no wonder they went a bit too far.
I’ll tell you that if I were born in 1915 in Olomouc, the dirt-poor son of a miner, and I emigrated to Chicago between the wars, I know I’d have gone shopping on Cermak Road every weekend. Probably every day, and for the rest of my life!