In the small Pennsylvania town where my grandparents grew up is a bakery — one wonderfully frozen in time. When we would venture north to visit my great-grandmother, cousins and great-aunts, we couldn’t pass by without dashing in to admire their treats.
And fill our mouths, of course.
Easter was the best. We often left Maryland for spring break, visiting the Poconos Mountains and swinging back through Wilkes-Barre and Nanticoke on our way home. My great-grandmother lived in the bottom apartment of a duplex, and I can close my eyes and see her waving to us from her shaded side porch.
When we drove through town seeking Sanitary Bakery, my sister and I would stare agog at all the colorful cookies, cakes and chocolates. If we were lucky, a kind baker behind the counter would offer us samples — and my parents would nod as we shoved candy into our delighted mouths. I grew up on nut roll and poppy seed bread, a Polish treat.
I’ve always been an adventurous eater who loves everything others seem to find quirky — but I fit in well with my mom’s parents, who embrace their Polish roots through classic foods like cabbage rolls and kielbasa. Kate and I spent most afternoons at my grandparents’ home after school, and the aroma of ham and cabbage simmering away is intricately woven through many of my memories.
Katie and me, Christmas 1993
Isn’t it funny how that happens? Our sense of smell is so powerful that, with one whiff, we’re transported back to a county fair, cafeteria, old library. My mom, sister and I actually returned to our elementary school for a craft fair in October. Though I hadn’t walked through those doors in nearly 20 years, we took one step inside and laughed. It was different . . . but it wasn’t.
“It smells the same,” I said, shocked and ecstatic and hit with a wave of nostalgia so powerful, I almost couldn’t breathe.
Food is like that, too. When Gram called me yesterday to say she had some poppy seed bread to share, freshly arrived from Pennsylvania, my little pregnant self couldn’t get over there fast enough. I mean, I may or may not have run a red light. (Okay, I totally didn’t. But I thought about it.) Gram and Grandpa rarely come home without local treats for us from their trips, but this was an unexpected shipment. A true delight.
This morning I sat by my Christmas tree and sliced into the bread that tastes like tradition and growing up rolled into a dense, delicious pastry. I thought about those long-ago drives to Nanticoke; the family reunions and trips with my grandparents, laughing over pie and coffee late into the night at a diner in front of our hotel. Visiting the family cemetery, where many loved ones now rest. Beautiful old churches with stained glass fronts. Curving mountain roads and sleepy storefronts. Running into cousins on the street, our Maryland license plates like sirens in the quiet town.
I miss those days, those trips. Being bundled in a backseat without a worry.
But poppy seed roll? It will always be there for me.
Poppy seed understands.