Like the last sweet-corn farms standing in a sea of sprawl, family-run corner bakeries have become - by default, almost, and in the city and beyond - keepers of the flame, guardians of besieged tradition, touchstones still quirky and visible in the sameness of franchiseland.
So you will find in certain seasons, when the sense of loss cuts most deeply, or when there seems no anchor or link to a time when things seemed to make more sense, prodigal customers who resurface - for the airy, diamond-shaped fastnachts at Haegele's in Mayfair; or the torrone, the almond-flecked Italian Christmas nougat they make at Termini's in South Philadelphia; or the fried dough zeppoli for St. Joseph's Day, or for King Cakes, or those stretchy Easter breads, braided and shining, in the cases of Port Richmond.
The bakeries are defiant, but fragile; victims of circumstance and changing taste. Rindelaub's, known for its German chocolate cakes, decamped from Rittenhouse Square. Wenzke's, known for its German butter pretzels, is gone from Rising Sun Avenue in Lawndale - and so too its lush cheesecakes smooched with lemon.
You will find in their stead the metastasizing Dunkin' Donuts, or Cinnabons, or in painful homage, the chain of cafes (with locations now in King of Prussia, Ardmore's Suburban Square, and 17th and JFK Boulevard) that have appropriated their very name, Corner Bakery.
The real McCoy indeed began on a corner, the better to get flour deliveries and accommodate the residents of the nearby rows. Their latter-day offspring may be far from home, yet in their best manifestations are still faithful to the purity of ingredients, to family recipes and dutifully daily handwork.
So it came to pass that not long ago while looking for a (very good) hoagie shop called A Cut Above in a strip of shops and eateries on West Chester Pike in Newtown Square, I encountered R. Weinrich German Bakery a few doors away, its front window set at an angle under the droop of a red-and-white-striped awning. It had been there since 1961; as the stickers on its pastry boxes say, "46th Anniversary."
Its display cases are not, in the Termini's tradition, bordered in handsome wood frames. The wall paneling is shopworn. But around the perimeter of the countertop are trays of tender-crusted apple turnovers right out of a storybook, and pies fresh from the oven, and a daily heap of, yes, puffed, bready, airy (not doughy) Bavarian butter pretzels the likes of which I haven't tasted since the demise of Wenzke's. (These must be eaten within hours out of the oven. After lunch, forget it.)
Every surface not taken up by the considerable inventory (raspberry pockets, cinnamon-swirled bismarck doughnuts, crumb cake, black-and-white triangle cakes) is cluttered with hand-scrawled signage. "We are purists," announces one denouncing high-fructose corn sweeteners: "We only use pure cane sugar."
The estimable cheesecakes? "Our own recipe." The cinnamon buns, warm and soulful in the early morning, and far lighter than the mall boys'? From a recipe dating to the first Weinrich family bakeries that close to a century ago occupied, eventually, 17 locations across South Philadelphia. (Only one other Weinrich's Bakery survives today, on Easton Road in Willow Grove, a reliable provider since 1952 of old-fashioned butter cake, coffee and strudel.)
For Lent in Newtown Square, there are trays of icing-crossed hot cross buns, dotted with their signature candied fruit. For Easter, there are glazed breakfast breads, and breads braided around hard-cooked eggs, and babka and lamb-shaped cakes coated in coconut shred.
In the back, Robert Weinrich will bake them the way his father did, and his uncles before him, employing his treasured hand tools and ancient baking pans. His daughter, Cynthia, will frost the cakes. His wife, Marlene, dressed in white, will box them up and tie them with string.
And for another year, customers will come to a place that still makes sense, to get a taste of what it's like when it's baked by hand, with pure ingredients, from the old family recipes, goods that, 100 years ago, their own parents and uncles got boxed up, and carried home from the corners of South Philadelphia.
.R. Weinrich German Bakery
3545 West Chester Pike, Newtown Square