The news two local pastry shops have closed, with another possibly on the way, is yet one more reminder a grand tradition of my youth is fading away. In my middle-class upbringing, there was no more important social institution than gathering for coffee and cake. Simplistic it may have been in concept, but coffee and cake were as important to us as the drawing room gatherings Marcel Proust wrote about. It’s what the madeleine was to Proust, a repository of memories.
The rules for coffee and cake were rigidly enforced. When what was euphemistically called "company" came calling, you always served coffee and cake. As with most chores, serving was another of a woman’s duties. She not only had to always have cake (in some cases pie was permitted) on hand, she had to serve what my mother called "a good cup of coffee." My aunts, all kind and sweet souls, were labeled by the quality of their coffee. Poor Aunt Jenny carried the reputation all her life that she wouldn’t know a good cup if she ran into one. Aunt Jenny’s coffee was indistinguishable from tea, which made sense because she preferred tea. But tea was not an acceptable substitute for coffee in my family. The fact Aunt Jenny always had a nice pastry, like cheesecake with pineapple filling, to serve did not rescue her from criticism.
Another important ritual was the timing. If you served the coffee and cake too soon, you were seen as rushing your guests. If you served too late, the comment was, "She made me hang for that cup of coffee and piece of cake." The absolute unforgivable sin was not serving coffee and cake at all. There were a few social rebels back in the day that refused to serve coffee and cake. Just as they branded an unfaithful woman an adulteress back in Nathaniel Hawthorne’s day, failure to serve coffee and cake carried with it a serious stigma that could not be erased. "Not even a cup of water," my mother would comment about someone who sent you home without a good cinnamon bun and a fresh cup of java.
Poor Aunt Mary had a unique problem — ants. She and Uncle George kept a spotless house, but for some reason the ants wouldn’t go away. The family was very forgiving and you learned to look the other way if a couple were running a relay around your saucer.
The pastry served during these social occasions was always from a local shop. Each aunt had her favorite. There were no frozen Sara Lee cakes back then and Entenmann’s was unknown to us. I feel confident none of those would have been acceptable. As I recall, there were only two things that could not be served under penalty of complete alienation from our social circle. The aunts would not eat a Fig Newton. They were absolutely convinced something terrible had once happened during the manufacturing of these cookies, something that was only talked about in whispers. It is likely the Fig Newton story was an urban legend of that era, but not a piece of one would cross their lips. Their distaste was so vivid, I was married before I ever tasted a Fig Newton and not without recalling its supposedly unsavory past.
The other forbidden item was any pastry baked in a certain local shop my aunts claimed was "filthy dirty" (as opposed to just being "filthy" or "dirty"). They would wrinkle their noses in horror at the mention of the place. During my lifetime, no one in my family ever patronized it.
One night, the coffee and cake ritual almost landed my mother and her sisters in jail. They always seemed to do things together and on this one hot, summer night, they trooped off to buy a coconut custard pie from a respected local shop (one that has a stellar reputation and is even in existence today). When they returned home, they opened the box and began to slice it for serving (I forgot to mention you were required to serve a decent portion or be criticized for your skimpiness with the knife).
Parts of the custard proved to be green, although I was at the dining room table with my younger cousin watching this saga unfold, I never saw the "mold." Back in the box went the pie and all the aunts marched back to the store like Custer leading the 7th Calvary on its fateful mission to Little Big Horn. It is a good thing we children did not accompany them because it was not the finest hour for my mother and her sisters nor, apparently, the esteemed shop owner. What follows is their account of what happened:
They thrust the pie on the counter and demanded their money back. The owner glanced at the pie and claimed it wasn’t his because he did not sell pastry with mold inside. After a fierce dispute that was leading nowhere (where was President Obama when we really needed him?), my mother slammed the pie face down on the counter, shouting the words, "Here Ya!!!" The owner became equally angry and threw a powdered sugar shaker at one my aunts, whereby she grabbed a chair and threw it against the wall and they all stormed out. Even so, this was not a pastry shop that accrued a lifetime ban.
Luckily no one called 911.