By Marykate Smith Despres | Photographs by Anja Schultz
Food is one of the first things we share with our children, and one of the first things they share with us. We give a bottle or breast almost immediately after a baby is born and later, when that baby becomes a child, she offers a bite from her tiny spoon, a plateful of play food, and serves up seemingly empty bowls filled with the invisible concoctions she’s cooked up.
Local bakeries and cafés are an extension of this inherent act of coming together over food, the familial intimacy of the kitchen table flowing out to spaces that serve as communal living rooms. For Neale and Clara Gay, a ritual was made of visiting 2nd Street Baking Co. in Turners Falls after a day of work and daycare. A coffee for Neale and a cookie for Clara, while the toddler recounted the highlights of her day with her dad and, often, with whoever was staffing the counter that afternoon. Clara, now 4, says she loves going to the bakery because, “Daddy and I go there.” It’s their special place, together. Of course, there are also the cookies. The frosted ones are her favorite.
Laura Puchalski, owner of 2nd Street Baking, Co., lovingly refers to Clara as one of “the bakery babies.”
She’s one of the regulars, the kids growing up on the bread and treats made from scratch by Puchalski and her staff. Puchalski grew up in Montague and never left. She got her first baking job at 18, and opened her bakery in downtown Turners Falls in 2007, about 10 years later. Turners was clearly a sleepy, even struggling place, but to Puchalski, it was home, and it was a town “that needed a bakery.”
In lieu of a tip jar, 2nd Street hosts a monthly rotation of paper-wrapped collection cans bearing the names, faces, and emblems of local families and charities in need of support. “We have never said no to [making] a donation if we can help it,” Puchalski says. “We really believe that direct support of the community is the most important thing we can do to effect some change.” The recipients range from the local animal shelter to a customer’s sister battling lymphoma. Last summer, however, there were two jars next to the register: one collection for others, and one for a much-needed air conditioner for the bakery. Clara’s tzedakah box was full, and she knew where she wanted the money to go.
Tzedakah, or charity, was one of the first ways in which Neale introduced Clara to Judaism. It comes from the Hebrew root tzedek, meaning justice. Neale had been raised in a mostly secular, left-leaning household in Burlington, Vermont. With equal weight, his mom gave him books about Judaism and told him stories about protesting the Vietnam War. For her, as it is for Neale, Judaism was another way to access and promote social justice. Now, it is also a way for Neale to keep Clara connected to his mom, who died just days after Clara was born. For Clara, the tzedakah box means that every time she encounters money, she needs to decide if she will keep it for herself, or put it in the box to give away.
Neale admits that he encouraged Clara to give the money to Dakin Animal Shelter, where they had adopted their cats, hoping the idea of helping kittens would persuade the 3-year-old to give in a way more closely aligned with the Jewish tradition of donating to charity or someone in need. But Clara’s mind was made up and, after all, cookies were part of his own tradition too.
“My favorite Jewish holiday was one we never celebrated,” Neale says. Purim was all about the food: hamentashen. “My mom would painstakingly make these cookies,” he remembers. She worked in the kitchen for hours, rolling out the honey-sweetened dough and stuffing the cookies full of apricot, and, Neale’s favorite, poppy seed jam.
Neither Neale nor Clara realized it, but the nearly $25 of loose change and holiday money that Clara had saved came at a time when the bakery needed more than an air conditioner. Food costs were rising, overhead was running high. Puchalski remembers, “It was hot, and the customers weren’t staying, and the chocolate was melting, and the bread was molding.” The bakery needed the funds not only to survive the heat, but also the economy. “It was probably the most flattering donation that we got out of the entire fundraiser because we know how much they appreciate us.”
Clara appreciates the cookies the most (“I only like the frosted things,” she says). In a way, it’s the cookies that started it all.
“I grew up in the kitchen with Mom and Grandma,” says Puchalski on becoming a baker. “Christmas cookies every year from one end of the house to the next.” When she opened 2nd Street, Puchalski hired the most qualified cookie baker she knew to make the sweets that Clara and the other bakery babies like best: her mom.