February 18, 2020

The Baker: Chapter Twelve

Ernie Fuld

PREVIOUSLY: Ernie is finally freed from British captivity. is he ready for civilian life?

By 1948, Ernie was 23 and had already survived two wars. He thought he was ready for a more sedate life in Israel. 

He just didn’t have it in him.

He partnered with numerous other bakers: they supplied the capital investment while Ernie worked his miracles in the kitchen.

The work came easily.

Once, Ernie landed a contract to cater a diplomatic garden party at the Weitzman Institute, named in honor of Israel’s first president, Chaim Weitzman.

In 1957, on the ninth anniversary of Israel’s acceptance in the United Nations, Ernie got the idea to bake a cake for then-president David Ben-Gurion.

“I was a chef in a hospital, and I built from sugar, hot sugar, just like for my wedding, a whole cake,” he recalled. “And on the top was a giant globe and the map of Israel.”

Ernie sent a letter with a picture of his cake to Ben-Gurion. The president’s office wrote to thank him for his efforts, suggesting soldiers in a nearby camp might enjoy the cake. 

“And I gave it to them. And they ate it,” Ernie recalled. “I got two letters from Ben- Gurion’s office to commemorate that I made this cake.”

His baking was going gang-busters. 

His marriage, not so much.

By then, Helen had given birth to their first and only child, a son the named Morde.

Ernie and Helen worked long hours in the kitchen, where he harangued her every move. 

After years of heartache and emotional abuse, she eventually left Ernie, moving to the San Francisco Bay Area with the help of family members.

Ernie was devastated by the loss. It wasn’t long before he decided to follow her — with Morde in tow.

When he arrived in California in 1957, Ernie couldn’t speak a word of English. But he had pluck. His skills got him quick work in various bakeries. At first, he could only make a few dollars an hour because he couldn’t communicate with other kitchen workers. 

Then Ernie got his first break. 

On Geary Street, in San Francisco, he saw a sign that read “Kosher Deli.” 

The owner was a man named David who spoke Polish and Hebrew. Ernie showed him the photos of his bakery creations.
“He said ‘Oh, these pictures are beautiful. You come in at night.’ He didn’t have a baker, just a kitchen. He said ‘You go there and make anything; I want to see.’” 

The relationship lasted five years, and the two men became friends. 

In 1959, when Soviet Premier Nikita S. Khrushchev visited San Francisco, David got the job to supply food to the Russian traveling contingent, including Khrushchev himself.

He asked Ernie to bake a Russian cream cake (with whipped cream and vodka). When FBI agents visited his shop to vet his background and make sure he wasn’t a threat to the visiting dignitaries, Ernie told them he respected the Russians.

After all, he said, they’d saved him from the Nazis. 

Now 33, Ernie worked hard, laboring at the bakery from 6 p.m. until 1 a.m. 

After grabbing a few hours of sleep, he rode his new scooter across town to attend classes toward his GED. 

The high school gave him credit for his education in Czechoslovakia and Ernie worked on his English skills, an adult student sitting beside classmates half his age. 

He earned his high-school diploma at the not-so-tender age of 35.

To celebrate, he catered a party for the faculty and baked a cake shaped like a textbook. He wrote his teaches a poem. 

They awarded him $50 as the best student. 

He gave it back.

“All the kids — they were really kids — I’m making money, so I said, ‘Give it to somebody else who needs it.’”

The teachers convinced him to enroll in the San Francisco City College hotel management program. 

He lasted a year.

One day, he saw a newspaper ad: a bakery in Berkeley was for sale. 

The price was $1,000. 

“What a funny country,” he thought. “When it’s free, or something, watch out.” 

As it out turned out, the seller had inherited the bakery and wanted no part of it. David helped Ernie with the financing. He took out an interest-free loan to buy equipment. 

Once again, his Judaism had stepped in to influence the course of his life. 

Later, Ernie finally left David and opened his first bakery in Berkeley. He called it Ernie’s International Pastries. 

And the bakery lived up to its name.

Ernie could make whatever his customers wanted, like a deejay taking requests. 

Soon, Arabs began stopping by his bakery, drinking coffee at his outside tables. Ernie put on some Arabic music and served hummus and falafel.

When German customers came in, he played Franz Lehar and Bach. He also catered to the Israeli crowd and the Greeks. 

“People came in,” he recalled. “And they said it was an international place.” 

For Ernie, making food that people enjoyed was a thrill that never got old. 

“It’s not just baking,” he said. “It’s body and soul.”

Ernie also found a way to get his baking expertise back into the realm of international politics. 

It started with his business cards. 

While in Berkeley, he printed cards with a globe and the name Ernie’s International Pastries. His correspondence had the imprint on letters he sent for loans and purchases as far away as New York.

Then one day Ernie received a remarkable invitation. 

A letter from the United Nations invited him to attend a conference in Africa on how to bring industrial technology to developing nations. 

“There were big companies — Goodyear Tires, Coca Cola. And they saw Ernie’s International Pastries,” he recalled. “They thought it was something, I don’t know what. So, they send me a letter — I don’t know. I read it. Me?”

And so Ernie went — the baker among the world’s decision-makers. 

At the symposium, he rubbed elbows with Uomo Kenyatta, the president of Kenya, as well as other political luminaries. Ernie shook hands, attended meetings, shaking and baking.

But he hadn’t gotten out to meet real Africans, until a priest he encountered arranged for a safari trip to Mount Kilimanjaro. 

He still has the pictures of him posing with Kenyan villagers. 

But time began to fly fast in Ernie’s bittersweet life.

He later sold the Berkeley bakery and opened another one in Oakland.

In 1976, he moved to Lake Tahoe, where baking sugar, casino chips and women slipped through his hands.

NEXT: Marianne meets her future husband and his irascible father

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