The closing earlier this month of Hesh's Eclair Bake Shoppe elicited an outpouring of concern - some for the state of mom-and-pop retail businesses in 2014 America but seemingly more for the fate of the chocolate-chip loaf.
What made Hesh's chocolate-chip loaf special? Could have been the pride of a small-time baker.
It could have been the "secret stuff."
Philadelphia lawyer Helen Braverman - whose father-in-law was Harry "Hesh" Braverman, who founded Hesh's on Castor Avenue in Rhawnhurst in 1959 and sold it two decades later - says she and his son, David, managed to pry the recipe from Hesh, who died in 1998.
Hesh, see, did not want David and Helen to go into the business.
"When he finally did turn it over, it was for a 250-pound batch. Try breaking that down! And, even worse, the recipe called for 'secret stuff.' Not to worry, Hesh said, and provided us with a large plastic take-out food container, hand-labeled on a piece of tape stuck across the top: 'Secret Stuff.' I have since discovered what the secret stuff is, but I’ll keep that in the family."
More mystery on top of a mystery!
Adding to the mystery is why the shop's last owner, Bill Krodthoff, pulled the plug on the shop. If Krodthoff isn't using the recipe now, at least a form of it lives on. (It's not clear if Krodthoff, who was not the shop's second owner, even knew about the secret stuff, or if the secret stuff was passed along to the guy that Hesh sold the bakery to.)
Fisher's Tudor House in Bensalem, whose baker trained at Hesh's at some point, is touting its chocolate-chip loaf as an option for the Hesh's-deprived. Whether it tastes "just like Hesh's" is surely open to debate, just as every other "lost and found" recipe is.
Helen Braverman was moved to write this note:
"Over the past few weeks, since the announcement of the untimely closing of Hesh’s Éclair Bake Shoppe, I have been overwhelmed and honored by the emotional outpouring of love and memories. However, as Hesh’s daughter-in-law, I write from a very different perspective. For me, Hesh’s, or the bakery as we called it, was so much more. You see, the bakery was my father-in-law. It was Hesh, the man.
"First, let me say that Hesh was to me as much a father as my own flesh and blood. From the first day I met him, I knew he was my biggest fan. I was 20 years old. He was a gentleman and an artisan. He was kind and he was giving. And what he put into his creations was hard work and pure love. If he were still around today, I have no doubt he would have been a celebrity baker. But he lived at a very different time. He worked hard, never delegating to anyone. He had to make sure that his hand touched everything that bore his name. All he ever wanted or expected was a good day’s pay for a hard day’s work. He worked so hard that even the thought of bringing his only son, my husband, David, into the business would have been criminal in his view. He thought working in a bakery was a backbreaking business. He wanted his son to get a formal education – and he did. He became a lawyer, successful and respected, and my father-in-law’s pride and joy.
"And yet both David and I sometimes lament what might have been had we learned the business. He was so adamant that David not go into the business that, for many years he stubbornly refused to give us his recipes....
"Hesh already was in ill health when I started dating David. When we got married in January 1975, we rented an apartment close enough to the bakery so that we could “close” every night. We would arrive at 9:30 p.m., count the cash, take inventory and make sure the cops that kept us safe every night got their donuts. My memories of the bakery are forever entwined with those of my early romance. These were our date nights - I wouldn’t have wished for anything different.
"David and I moved to California to go to law school late that summer. Away from our families and friends for the first time, my father-in-law made sure to satisfy our need to stay connected by shipping us care packages of chocolate-chip loaves - at great expense, he would remind us. This was long before federal express and overnight delivery.
"I could go on and on. But my point, what I want the world, or at least Philadelphia, to know, is that behind Hesh’s chocolate chip loaf (not pound cake), there was Hesh, the man, my father, who put everything he had into everything he created. The bakery as it existed today, while providing a semblance of its former glory, was never quite the same since my father-in-law sold it in 1979. And how could it have been? Although it looked the same, it never again rose to the level of this man. I have missed him every single day since his passing in 1998.
"But, who knows, maybe somewhere down the line I will take the secret stuff and bring Hesh’s chocolate chip loaf back to life."