Memories so good, you can taste them

When I think about special places that have disappeared, the corner candy store and drugstore soda fountains immediately come to mind.

I grew up in West Philadelphia and moved to Wynnewood when I was 12. West Philly was much like South Philly. Our neighborhood was a strong mix of Jewish and Italian with a handful of Irish and WASP families tossed into the melting pot.

The corner candy store was an enticing place for a small girl. Armed with my pennies, my eyes filled with wonder as I gazed at the multi-leveled counters. Penny candy does not exist anymore, but my favorites were colorful buttons made from pure sugar and somehow glued to long paper strips; Mary Janes, a peanut butter-like confection that stuck to your teeth; and BB Bats were taffy lollipops on a stick that came in vanilla, chocolate, strawberry and banana and were similar to Bonomo Turkish Taffy. All kids loved – and still love – bubble gum. The boys collected baseball cards, the girls laughed at the jokes printed on the wrappers.

The corner candy store also was filled with comic books. I saved my allowance and waited for each new issue of "Archie" or "Betty & Veronica." It was a gathering place for me and my friends.

My older sister Sandy remembers the candy store as the place to buy ice cream. I was not born yet, but she told me she clearly recalls mom and dad bringing a container to the store where the clerk filled it with ice cream. These were the days before refrigerators had large freezers.

I remember the nickel candy bar. I loved Hershey’s bars and Chunky bars, but the nickel has morphed into about 65 cents.

The drugstore soda fountain was a glorious place. They were owned by people, not corporations. The idea of a big-box store like CVS was unheard of. Although there were small neighborhood pharmacies, I loved the ones with soda fountains.

The fountain was the place to meet after school for an ice cream cone, sundae or ice cream soda. The fountain gleamed with shiny stainless steel. There were a myriad of compartments for all the trimmings. Even the sundae dishes were made from stainless steel. My friends and I would gossip at the counter while watching the soda jerk fill our order. I loved black-and-white ice cream sodas, hot fudge sundaes or chocolate mint chip ice cream cones coated with loads of jimmies.

The drugstore soda fountain also served breakfast and lunch. Burgers, fries, a grilled cheese or BLT were the orders of the day. There were no fast food joints like McDonald’s in my area.

When I was young, children walked to school and came home for lunch. Mom would be waiting with soup and a sandwich or a chicken potpie. Although mom always made a big pot of homemade soup Fridays, she always served Campbell’s soup to me for lunch.

Some of my fondest memories are visiting my Italian friends because their moms, like mine, made everything from scratch. Although mom would make spaghetti once in a while, I went down the street for an Italian feast. Similarly, my Italian friends loved Jewish food.

Which brings me to warm thoughts of the neighborhood Jewish delis. They do not exist anymore. The neighborhood delis had the most marvelous aromas. You could smell the pickles in the barrel and the enticing scents of corned beefs, briskets and roast beefs that were cooking away. The delis were owned by elderly, friendly men who wore white aprons and big smiles, men who wielded a knives to slice lox and nova with the skill of a surgeon.

The delis of my childhood were not restaurants. They sold meat, fish and cheese by the pound. Our local deli man was Izzy Fleishman. He always gave me a pretzel stick from the round jar sitting on the counter.

The reason these beloved delis are gone is rather simple. Many of the owners’ sons and daughters went to college and became professionals, opting out of the family business.

There are ersatz delis which dot the city, but so many items are prepackaged or pre-sliced. I never saw pre-sliced nova when I was a kid. Even the corned beef today is different. It is too lean and corned beef needs fat to taste good.

Bagels are different, too. The majority are way too big and are nothing more than Wonder Bread with a hole in the middle. Real bagels must be boiled in water and baked to a golden brown. Even though there are a few bagel shops around town, the end product is so underbaked and pale it looks in desperate need of a suntan.

Now let’s stroll down memory lane. I remember the milkman. Our milkman was named Ducky and he worked for Sealtest. My sister remembers the horse-drawn wagon, but I don’t. I remember that Ducky drove a truck. Each morning he would leave quarts of milk and cream at our door. Milk and cream came in bottles in those days.

Today’s supermarkets and grocery stores specialize in prepared foods. Although Horn & Hardart was a restaurant chain with automats, the company was probably the first to offer prepared foods. Many H&Hs;, as they were called, contained a retail store where you could buy precooked packaged creamed spinach, Harvard beets, baked beans, whipped turnips and all sorts of baked goods. Cupcakes and pies were among my favorites. The slogan in the retail stores was "less work for mother."

Hanscom’s bakeries are gone, as well. I think the Center City location on Market Street closed in the early 1980s. My mom always bought their famous snowflake rolls. They were round and soft and terrific stuffed with tuna or egg salad. I miss the rolls, but I am delighted to find reasonable versions at Pathmark and Superfresh. Hanscom’s chocolate cakes were delicious as were their Jewish apple cakes.

There were no shopping centers in West Philly when I was a girl. We had one Acme that was small by today’s standards. Mom would buy paper products and cleaning items there, but headed to the neighborhood stores for everything else. Meat and poultry came from Mrs. Sorkin’s butcher shop. There was sawdust on the floor and the cases were filled with all sorts of meat that were cut to order. Sorkin’s kosher butcher shop also stocked fresh fluke flounder every Thursday and Friday.

We ate in on Thursday night with side dishes from Horn & Hardart’s, snowflake rolls from Hanscom’s and stewed tomatoes, which came from a can. There are few family-owned kosher butcher shops around these days. There is not one left in Center City.

We live in a time when we think "bigger is better." I’m not so sure. I loved the small neighborhood food shops of my childhood. Customer service was important. It was a bit like "Cheers." In these wonderful stores of years gone by, everybody knew your name.