I Accidentally Started an Illegal Bakery

I can't hug my friends, but I can feed them.

I’ve been operating an illegal bakery out of my apartment. At the time of writing this, it’s day 16 of social distancing and I’ve made 11 loaves of sourdough, three dozen bagels, seven challahs, two pies, a batch of brownies, and one loaf of banana bread. Every surface of my apartment is coated with a light dusting of flour. My roommate, Ryan, is fed up.

Before things got totally out of control, back when it was more like one loaf, and just one key lime pie, he made it very clear that he wanted to “look like a snack” at the end of our quarantine together and that my baking was going to make him “lose all of his gains.” (For the record, as he was saying this, he literally had pie in his mouth and whipped cream sitting on his upper lip.) But I took his point: 11 loaves of bread might be too many.

In my synagogue community growing up, memories were built around eating. Here’s the thing though: None of the food was that great — sorry, mom.

Once a month, the synagogue hosted “family Shabbat,” a potluck dinner between the kids and adult services (my dad attended both). Since it was a dairy meal, the dinner options usually consisted of 10 boxes of pizza, four different versions of mac and cheese, and one dish of vegetables, which was always gone immediately. I used to get a scoop of each type of pasta and try a bite of each one so I could eat them in order of worst to best. I think the winner was almost always Kraft.

After dinner, I would soak my challah in apple juice — I know it’s really gross, I don’t know if that’s something anyone else did — and munch on it while absent-mindedly reciting the Birkat Hamazon, hitting the table at exactly the right moment (uv-tu-vo ha-ga-smack-dol). I still find the tune weirdly catchy.

For the past 20 years, my family has celebrated major holidays with our neighbors. Our mildly weird tradition is that we eat zeppole on Hanukkah, and they’re delicious. Actually, everything our neighbor Lisa makes is delicious, but ironically, she’s Catholic. My family always brings the wine, which is safe.

In my immediate family, my grandmother did the epitome of overfeeding, fulfilling some of the rosier aspects of the overbearing Jewish mother stereotype. We’d sit down at the table, spread from end to end with store-bought bagels and lox, and instead of joining us in the meal she’d immediately ask what else she could provide. This always made me laugh because I couldn’t possibly answer her, seeing as I usually had an oversized bite of bagel in my mouth at the time, but it drove my dad crazy. “Boboo,” (I couldn’t pronounce “Bubbe” as a child and Boboo just stuck), he would say through clenched teeth, “sit down. Eat something.” She never did.

All in all, I’ve been conditioned to show people I love them by feeding them. So, a handful of days into social distancing, I was feeling incredibly disconnected from my loved ones, and Ryan was fed up with the amount I was baking. That’s when I started delivering.

I circulated a message among friends to say that I had a surplus of baked goods. I did not expect many takers; I’d gifted a few loaves of sourdough before, but I never thought anyone would actually pay for it. But word got around, and before I knew it, I was taking orders from more than a dozen people at a time. The first unsolicited order came from a coworker, which was somewhat unexpected. Then, I got a text from her friend; he wanted two challahs and a dozen bagels. A friend’s sister reached out. Then the roommate of a guy I briefly dated last summer. My parents. Friends from home. Friends from college. A coworker’s ex-girlfriend. The loaves, bagels, and pies were flying out the door in the basket of my bike. I had unleashed a monster.

When the first round of deliveries was done, I finally cleaned the kitchen. Ryan was relieved, although I didn’t do it the way he wanted and he ended up cleaning the whole thing again. I’ve told him many times that I can’t tell the difference between my version of clean and his, but he can, so whatever. I gave him a few days where I didn’t bake anything, and he rewarded me with an Old Fashioned, a silent truce.

It’s been a few weeks now and I have return customers. As surprised as I was that anyone wanted to buy baked goods from me in the first place, I’m now floored that there are people who liked my treats enough to want more. Ryan has agreed to let me continue with my illegal bakery as long as I promise to vacuum and let him pick up random pieces of furniture as part of his “lifting routine.”

Even though not everything I make is traditional Jewish food, I feel acutely aware of my upbringing every time I make a delivery. I love that every time someone finds my sketchy-looking paper bag on their doorstep, they feel the need to stick their entire face in and sniff. Usually, they don’t realize I’m standing across the street until after, which is either funny, if it’s a friend, or kind of awkward if this is our first-time meeting. I wave, they wave. One kid called out to me that he definitely had coronavirus and it was “probably good” that I was across the street. But hey, it’s a cool way to meet people.

I don’t know if people like having stuff delivered, love my baked goods in particular, or just enjoy knowing that I’m out there making something for them from scratch; I’m okay with any scenario. I feel like my grandma, like my mom, like the people I know from synagogue, bringing people comfort through food — although I hope with maybe more finesse than what I grew up with. I’ve been thinking about someday running a bakery that’s legal.

I miss human touch, human contact, reaching across the table to swipe a bite of my boyfriend’s meal without asking him; I miss cooking for the people I love and actually having them sit beside me while they eat (and I miss having someone else around to do the dishes), but in this new normal, for as long as it lasts, I’m discovering the new things food can mean for me. I’m thinking now that maybe 11 loaves was exactly the right amount. Dayenu.

Header Image: Alexander Spatari/Getty Images.

Brenna Sorkin

Brenna Sorkin is an experience designer in Cambridge, MA. She frequently fantasizes about running a bakery full-time and milling her own flour (which her roommate has expressly forbidden in the apartment).

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