February 18, 2020

The Baker: Chapter Four

Photo by David Becker

Marianne arrived in Lake Tahoe, at the place called Ernie’s International Bakery, not knowing what to expect from her mercurial father-in-law.

In recent years, they’d reached a detente, a personal cease-fire to past hostilities.

Often, Ernie complimented her looks, directing his notice to a dress or a pair of earrings. After a visit to temple, he’d tell her that she was the best-looking woman there.

Once, when she picked him up at the airport following one of his European trips, he exclaimed, “Wow! You look fantastic!”

Ernie even occasionally asked for recipes during his visits to his son’s home in Oakland. When he’d ask about a dish, Marianne would wave him off.

“You’re asking me? You’re the world-class pastry chef.”

Morde urged her to accept these rare compliments gracefully. He’d say “If Ernie told you something was good, take it from someone who never gives compliments.”

Still, she knew that his good nature could vanish at a moment’s notice. When Ernie cooked at their home, she warned friends to beware of this “Hitler in the kitchen.”

“I’d say ‘Don’t get next to him. Don’t interrupt. Don’t let the kids in there. Don’t talk or ask questions. With Ernie, nothing is as important as what he is doing in the kitchen.’”

After one party, Ernie called Marianne to rave about her sponge cake. She gave him the recipe. “Oh, that’s nothing,” he said when told of the ingredients. “I can do that.”

Not long afterwards, he showed up unannounced at her home.

It was past 11 p.m.

“Go to the kitchen and make your sponge cake,” he said. “I don’t believe you made that last one. I want you to make one for me right now.”

“Can I do it tomorrow, Ernie?” she said wearily. “It’s almost midnight.”

“No,” he demanded. “Do it now.”

So she baked the cake.

Later, Ernie tasted it, slowly chewing, before saying, “Mine doesn’t come out like this.”

“Well,” Marianne replied, “you saw me make it.”

For her, it was a rare culinary victory over a man not used to losing.

Now, here she was in Lake Tahoe, alone with this perfectionist. Marianne had never before spent so much time alone with Ernie on his own kitchen turf.

And she was wary.

She took a bedroom in the apartment above the bakery and showed up early the following morning. She was determined not to ask questions, because Ernie would not tolerate someone in his kitchen asking “What do you want me to do?”

“Don’t be stupid,” he’d say.

She began washing pots and pans, refreshing the day-old pastries in the glass display case. And she waited for an acknowledgment, a nod, a grunt, anything.

None came.

Back then, Ernie was still in his prime as a baker. Well past retirement age, he had not lost a step. There were still regular miracles in his kitchen, deadlines met for big events, the quality of his creations never compromised.

Ernie’s Achilles heel wasn’t baking; it was public relations; Marianne had watched him berate indecisive customers. “If you don’t like it, don’t buy it,” he’d say. “I don’t care.”

On that first day, Morde called. Ernie picked up the phone.

“What do you want?” he greeted his son.

“Is everything OK?” Morde asked.

“Is that why you’re calling?” Ernie said dismissively. “Bye-Bye.”

And he hung up.

Later, Morde reached his wife.

“Are you OK?”

“Yep,” she replied. “Even fish don’t start to rot until the third day.”

For the next several days, Ernie and his daughter-in-law circled each other like an old couple contemplating divorce but deciding to give things one more try, each wary of making the first misstep.

It quickly became clear they were getting on each other’s nerves.

Marianne kept telling herself, “He plays big, but he’s a Teddy Bear inside.”

She had never looked at Ernie as a bully.

“I thought back to the good times,” she said. “Like when after the meal was done, how he seemed to relax and become even playful. I focused on his tender side. I thought, ‘This is what I’ll look at.’”

At closing time, Marianne would go upstairs to her room and often Ernie would drive out to a local casino for a few hours of gambling.

But in the bakery, you could cut the tension with a carving knife.

Whenever there was even a slight disagreement, any difference of opinion, Ernie would say, “You think you’re so smart, huh? You think you know everything.”

“Yes, I do,” Marianne would reply, not backing down.

Secretly, she suspected that Ernie respected her for standing up to him.

Perhaps, she thought, she reminded him of his beloved mother Sarah, who had never backed down to anyone in her kitchen.

One day, after she watched Ernie respond rudely to a customer, she called him out.

“I’ll wait on customers,” she said. “You’re too busy. And you’re rude to people.”

That’s when he erupted.

“Don’t start telling me what to do!” he shouted.

Marianne stood her ground.

“Yes, I will tell you what to do because you think you can just scream at people.”

“I don’t care,” he protested. “I don’t need them. They don’t have to buy anything here if they don’t want to. See if I care.”

Then Marianne lost her cool. She took a page out of Ernie’s kitchen playbook.

She got personal.

“You can’t go around treating people like you treated your own son,” she said.

She repeated a story Morde told of how as a boy his father loudly dressed him down at a  public swimming pool for cupping a bottle of soda in his hands that Ernie insisted would make the drink too warm.

Ernie would say of his son, “He looks like me but the brains; they’re not like mine.”

Marianne couldn’t stop herself.

And neither could Ernie.

“I don’t need you to tell me how to behave,” he said. “I’m not your husband.”

They decided to avoid one another, each going about their own duties.

That’s when the male customer took a seat at an outside table. He ordered a latte and a plate of Ernie’s signature French toast.

Ernie approached the table first, but man didn’t like his attitude so he motioned for Marianne instead. Ernie retreated, and watched them both from behind the counter.

When the man paid his check, he left behind an extra $100 bill. Marianne stopped him, thinking there was some mistake.

“That’s for you,” he said, motioning toward Ernie. “For putting up with him.”

Still dressed in his white chef’s apron, Ernie chased the man down in the parking lot and threw the bill in his face.

“We don’t need your money,” he snapped.

The man returned to hand Marianne the cash. She refused to give it up. “This is my money,” she told Ernie. “I earned it.”

The atmosphere had become intolerable.

Said Marianne: “It was Silence of the Lambs.”

That night, Ernie went to the casino, just like always.

He came home just after 11 p.m. and knocked on Marianne’s door. He’d won big at the tables. He handed her a $100 bill. Maybe he was drunk.

“Nobody loves me,” he said.

“Good for you.”

“When nobody loves me, I make money. I win. I’m not loved. But I’m happy I make money.”

She handed back the bill.

“Keep it.”

“I didn’t tell you to give it back,” he said, his anger rising. “I told you to keep it.”

The next morning, Marianne called her husband.

She’d had it. Now the two weren’t even talking. They would only glare. Customers were becoming embarrassed at their bickering.

After only four days, she was ready to come home. The fish was rotting.

“I can’t believe you lasted this long,” Morde said.

Before she left, Marianne made Ernie his favorite dishes — meat rolls with hummus and tahini sauce.

Years later, Ernie recalls the visit, saying the two fought like Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump. But he insists the episode with the customer and the $100 bill never happened.

“Baloney,” he said.

John M. Glionna is a Las Vegas-based freelance writer who chronicles the American West. He’s also a former national reporter for the Los Angeles Times, based in Vegas, and served as the Seoul bureau chief on the newspaper’s foreign desk, where he covered the 2011 Japanese earthquake and tsunami and the subsequent death of North Korean strongman Kim Jong Il. He has also written extensively about California. For more on Glionna visit his website.

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