One of my mother’s fantasies about moving east involved finding tons of family-owned local bakeries. More specifically, she was determined to hunt down crumb buns.
When my mother lived in New York, every neighborhood had at least one “real” bakery. The bakeries were warm and crowded with happy, well-fed customers, clutching numbers and waiting for their turns to purchase freshly-made bread, cookies, cakes, and pastries. These storefronts were fragrant with the most marvelous aromas and actually oozed charm. And, on Sunday mornings, they baked crumb buns. People came from all over the neighborhood to wait in line for these delectable treats, taking them straight from the oven to their brunch tables. I was too young when we left New York to really remember the crumb bun experience. When my mother moved to California, she mourned the loss of bakeries that weren’t located inside of supermarkets. She was certain that, when we moved “back east,” crumb buns would abound.
We did take her to the quaint fairy tale German bakery in the woods near our house. However, she didn’t love it. More importantly, there were no crumb buns in sight. She asked if maybe they made them on Sunday and, when she found out that the proprietor didn’t even know what a crumb bun was, she considered having him arrested for impersonating a baker.
Thus began the hunt for a real “east coast” bakery.
I searched the internet and asked folks in my community about their favorite bakeries. Nobody knew of a real bakery. We found some good baked goods at local farmers’ markets and my mother enjoyed apple turnovers and oatmeal cookies, but there were no crumb buns to be had. Most of the bakeries I found on the internet were no longer in business. There was one place that looked more like an ice cream shop than a bakery to me. Not that it made much difference. It was in an old downtown section of a town about 20 miles away and the only parking available was parallel parking on the street. Have you ever tried to get someone out of the passenger seat of a car parked parallel to the curb and into a wheelchair? Well, I have. And failed. We finally did find a sweet little bakery in a tony town about 60 miles away (never let it be said I didn’t give my all for Team Crumb Bun). We went for my mother’s birthday. Still no crumb buns, but she did seem to enjoy the donut. That’s right. Over 120 miles round trip for a donut.
I was starting to admit defeat. I explained to my mother that, while we had moved to the east, we had moved to the south east and I thought that probably explained why we weren’t finding New York style crumb buns. Her theory was that, with all the New Yorkers that retire to Florida, there must be some transplanted crumb bun crafters. Personally, I think that if there are a bunch of retired bakers around, they might not want to be up at three in the morning making crumb buns. That might actually be exactly why they are retired bakers. I also must point out that it has been 50 years since my mother lived in New York. I doubt that even New York still has New York style crumb buns. Family bakeries may have crumbled with the advancement of megastores.
Then, I read that one of the hotels on the Disney property opened a bakery selling something called a New Jersey crumb bun. I figured a New Jersey crumb bun couldn’t be that different from a New York crumb bun. After all, there is only a river separating the two places. So, Max and I took a drive down to the hotel and, lo and behold, found an actual crumb bun. I brought it home to Mom with great fanfare.
Well, I guess New Jersey and New York are more different than I realized. She said the crumb bun was good, but just wasn’t the same as the crumb buns of her youth. Apparently, it was more bun than crumb. Who knew that there was an optimum crumb to bun ratio? There was also some sugary white icing drizzled over the crumb bun, which wasn’t necessarily bad, but did take away from the authenticity.
A few months later, Max and I took a trip to Las Vegas. At the Venetian Hotel, there is a Carlo’s Bakery. Carlo’s is the Hoboken, New Jersey bakery operated by Buddy Valastro and his family on the TLC television show Cake Boss. The family branched out by opening this Las Vegas location. I read online that they sold crumb buns. I wanted to see for myself. I waited in line outside the bakery and was rewarded. I came face to face with a crumb bun! I wouldn’t be able to get one home fresh for my mother, but I had heard that the Valastros were going to be opening a branch near Disney World in the coming months, so I wanted to sample the wares and see if it might be worth taking my mother when the new store opened.
With my first taste of the crumb bun, I understood my mother’s obsession. This thing was a mouthful of AWESOME. Sweet and simple, yet rich and flaky and streussely and decadent. Pixie dust for the taste buds, for sure.
The new Carlo’s opened at the beginning of December in a huge mall in central Florida. I checked the website and couldn’t stop grinning stupidly when I saw crumb buns were on the menu. This mall is attached to a big hotel and conference center. It is a massive international tourist draw, with tons of stores and services. The place is fairly overwhelming, even without holiday shoppers and tourists hoping for a glimpse of the celebrity cake maker himself at the store’s debut. We waited it out for a few weeks. Once we were solidly into the new year, I brought my mother to the mall, with our appetites primed in full crumb bun mode.
Well, curses! Foiled again.
As I wheeled my mom to the display case, my heart fell. I saw not a crumb nor a bun. I asked the salesperson if they were out and she replied that they did not carry them anymore. I could literally feel my face sag, my eyes droop, and my lip extend to a very sad pout. I could tell I was breaking the salesperson’s heart. Not. She was polite when I explained how we had driven all the way to the mall for a Carlo’s crumb bun, but I could tell she was wondering what I expected her to do about it.
Dang you, Buddy Valastro. Another crumb bun dream crushed. My mother was disappointed, but she did manage to down two cream puffs while I morosely ate a chocolate-covered strawberry.
Oh well, life is not perfect. And I’ll keep searching for crumb buns. It is good to have goals. As Robert Browning said, “a man’s reach should exceed his grasp or what’s a heaven for?”
What food waxes nostalgic for you? Have you ever started on a quest for some particular treat and the quest comes to mean more than the actual food? Please share your perspective by leaving a comment. In the alternative, you can email me at email@example.com.
Special programming note: Next week, I’ll be posting on Tuesday morning instead of Wednesday morning. Please visit early and often!