July 16, 2024
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July 16, 2024
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The Freshly Baked Mountain Mashgiach

As readers of this esteemed periodical may recall, I wrote a story last summer about vacations in the Catskill Mountains. In particular, I recounted how the village of Hunter, New York, attracted a myriad group of Orthodox Jews during the 1960s, providing the setting for memorable times shared by the hundreds of Jews who traveled there. It became clear to me that there was more to tell about those days, and so I bring you the following interesting tale.

As our story unfolds, Jack Rabinowitz, his parents and five-year-old sister, have driven up the Rip Van Winkle Trail from the New York Thruway, past Palenville, Haines Falls, and Tannersville into Hunter. It is July 5, 1965. They unload their belongings into the small cottage they are renting for the summer on the Perlow property near the center of town. Within a day or two, Jack will fully re-acquaint himself with all the old gang of teenagers he befriended the previous summer, riding his green, three-speed Raleigh Sport touring bike down Main Street towards the famous Hunter synagogue for prayer services. There were, however, some significant differences from the previous year.

Jack Rabinowitz, now 15 years old, was a more responsible junior in high school with expanding interests. His parents gave him more authority around the house and expected a greater display of maturity on his part. From his perspective, Jack wanted more independence and freedom from parental supervision. To achieve his goals, Jack decided he would need an independent source of income. Not that his parents were not generous in meeting any reasonable request. It was just that, as a teenaged boy spending the entire summer of 1965 in Hunter, New York, it would be advantageous to have a steady source of income derived from non-parental sources. Jack would have to find some kind of paying job or jobs to occupy his time. In the first week in Hunter he was able to get a weekly job teaching Hebrew language to the 10-year-old grandson of the owner of the main department store in town. The boy was an eager student but it didn’t pay very well, so Jack looked elsewhere.

“I heard the Hunter day camp is looking for counselors,” his mom told Jack.

“Not really what I want to do, chasing little kids around, telling them what to do. It’s like being a watchdog, boring,” Jack countered.

After two days of getting nowhere, the door of opportunity finally opened. After morning prayers, Jack’s friend Aaron told him that the Hunter bakery was looking for a mashgiach to supervise the limited run of kosher products they produced each week. It involved working roughly six hours a week over two or three days, the pay was good and, best of all, you got to work in a bakery. The job didn’t require rabbinical training, just enough knowledge of Hebrew, the laws of separating challah from the dough, and sufficient manual dexterity to attach the “Kosher Parve” sticker on the finished product. Jack jumped at the opportunity and sped directly to the bakery on Main Street, just down the road from the synagogue. Twenty minutes later, Jack was in the kitchen of his bungalow, telling his mom about his good fortune:

“I’ve never been in the inside of a bakery—it should be fascinating.”

“Just think,” his mom said, “you’ll be providing kosher bread to hundreds of families in the mountains!”

Jack’s friends were duly impressed when he told them of his new job, though some told him, jokingly, that they would “never again eat a piece of bread from the bakery.” But, kidding aside, they were all a little jealous of him, Jack thought. Jack was scheduled to start his job the following Wednesday.

On that day, Jack got to the bakery early for orientation. The chief baker, Eddie, met him at the kitchen door at the end of the bake shop. Through the swinging doors they went, and Jack found himself in a large warehouse-shaped room filled with shiny stainless steel machinery, with white powder and flour floating thickly in the air. Most noticeable were the large conveyors that separated the prepared dough of various types into the required different shapes and sizes. Workers stood by to take the pieces of dough that came off the conveyors and prepare whatever type of bread or rolls were being created at that particular time. It so happened that, on that day, submarine rolls were on the menu and, in no time, Jack was being instructed in how to fold the dough into the required shape. He tried his luck on one or two of these rolls, during which time the pros prepared six or seven perfect ones each! They laughed at Jack’s efforts and he sort of laughed with them.

“I feel sorry for the poor person who ends up with the submarine roll I prepared!” he said to no one in particular.

Eddie motioned to Jack to follow him to a section in the back of the room, away from the conveyors. There in a large, low vat or tub sat the main object of Jack’s attention, a huge mass of grayish-white, viscous mixture that bore a close resemblance to quicksand or oatmeal. It was quite thick; occasional bubbles rose to the surface of the blob, creating the illusion that the mixture was alive, belching flour into the surrounding air. Eddie explained to Jack that rye bread, the staple kosher product made at the bakery, was in fact a mixture of rye flour and wheat flour to give the finished loaves a lighter color. The dough in the vat before him contained the mixed flours along with a sourdough starter which facilitated fermentation of the dough and aided in causing the bread to rise before the baking began. Jack was amazed at the intricacy of the process:

“You’ve got to be a scientist almost to figure out how to prepare bread,” he said to Eddie.

“Not really; these breads have been made for thousands of years. It’s pretty simple to prepare them these days. There are plenty of variations today. We make the most basic bread for the kosher market. Now, we’re going to start baking shortly, so do your thing now!”

Jack reached for the pad where he had marked out the bracha he was required to recite over the dough. He gingerly grabbed a fistful of the gelatinous dough from the vat, walked over to the large oven, recited the blessing and tossed the dough into the fire. The workers then rolled the vat toward the conveyors where other workers started to load armfuls of the dough into the cutting funnel. After a minute or two, roughly equal portions of dough descended the conveyor towards the workers standing ready to roll the dough into individual loaves. The finished loaves were placed on sheets where they rose. They were then loaded onto racks to be transported to the ovens for baking purposes. The whole process including the baking took under three hours. Once the loaves were removed from the ovens, they were allowed to cool off, following which Jack placed the stamped stickers on each loaf, indicating that the bread was baked under kosher supervision.

Following his first bread run, Jack was congratulated by the bakery staff, most of whom appeared to be of Italian or Hispanic background. Jack was paid his per diem by the bakery owners and soon was on his way home for lunch.

Back home, Jack had a big appetite for the casserole his mom had prepared:

“It’s pretty amazing how a bakery works, mom. A lot of coordination of activities is necessary and the workers move about their various jobs quickly. They can turn out dozens of rolls in no time!”

“I would guess it’s actually a lot harder than it looks,” his mom countered.

Jack returned the next day for another rye bread run and repeated his work the following week. After four rye bread runs and several more attempts at mastering Kaiser roll preparation, Jack was frankly getting bored with the routines of bread hashgacha. The third week at the job proved to be his downfall and it had nothing to do with rye bread, sourdough or rolls. His Achilles heel proved to be jelly doughnuts, items renowned for their cake-like consistency and sweet surprise fillings. Early on, Jack had questioned Eddie about when and how jelly doughnuts were filled with their delicious filling during the cooking process. Eddie informed him that the jelly doughnuts prepared at the Hunter bakery were a once-a-week job, that the doughnuts were deep-fried, but could be baked if desired. The jelly was the last piece of the puzzle. The bakery used an advanced injection system to force the jelly into the doughnuts, consisting of a two-pronged needle-like device that shot a measured amount of jelly into two doughnuts when you pressed them against the needles.

“But you really shouldn’t touch that machine, as it can be quite temperamental and sometimes jams up,” warned Eddie. The jelly doughnuts, containing eggs as they do, are not certified kosher anyway and you should stay away from them.”

Jack heeded Eddie’s warning until one day during his fourth week on the job.

During a break in the bread-baking process that day, Jack forgot himself and grabbed two jelly doughnuts from a freshly baked tray and attempted to inject them with jelly using the electrically-powered machine. As he pressed the doughnuts against the machine, it jammed in the “on” position and began spraying the bakery prep area with the sticky reddish mixture. The damage to that day’s bakery run was extensive. Bread, rolls, cake and cookies were nearly all destroyed and Jack found himself being shown the door to the street. Jack’s friend Aaron luckily was able to replace him.

Years later, in looking back on his brief episode as a bakery mashgiach, Jack confessed admiration for the toil and creativity of those who worked in bakeries. Jack never served as a mashgiach again, though he certainly ate his fair share of baked goods during the remainder of his life—all baked goods, that is, except jelly doughnuts!

By Joseph Rotenberg

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