March 30, 2020

The Baker: Episode Twenty

Ernie Fuld

For Ernie, the first years in Lake Tahoe were marked by frequent trips back to Israel and Eastern Europe in search of answers to his past.

And new girlfriends.

On most trips, he’d place an ad with a matchmaking service and interview countless women who wanted a ticket to the U.S. 

In some regards, it wasn’t romance that drove them, but economic necessity. 

And so it was with the woman named Marika he met in Budapest in 1991. 

She was the last of a long line of potential spouses Ernie had interviewed that day. And he liked her right off. He took her to dinner at a place where gypsies played violins. 

It was more interview than date. 

Marika was divorced with a grown son. She was also at least 25 years his junior. At the time, she worked in a factory but had experience in the kitchen.

She made pastries.

Those words were music to Ernie’s ears. 

Still, he wanted to make sure Marika could handle life in America — and his kitchen. 

He brought her to the U.S. two times, for six months each. 

Finally, on the third trip, the immigration interviewer said “Why don’t you two just get married?” 

And so they did.

That was 25 years ago.

Now, as Ernie slows down, Marika does most of the baking. Especially since he suffered a stroke a few years back. 

He still drives — to the local casino and even down to the Bay Area, but most days he sits in a wheelchair in the kitchen, answering the telephone with a playful lilt to his voice.

“May I help you?”

Marika speaks little English, but the two communicate in Hungarian.

“I used to give her instructions,” he says. “Now she orders me around.”

Customers view Ernie as a sardonic, winking elf, making sheer magic in his kitchen. “We were in Tahoe last month for a week,” one woman wrote on Yelp. “Ernie was one of our most favorite finds.”

And another: “Ernie is a 91-year-old legend. He and Marika are both master bakers with a wonderful sense of humor. We will certainly be back for more.”

Another called him “a very special man with a great story to tell.”

Not everyone can penetrate Ernie’s gruff interior.

“This guy is a cantankerous old man that does not understand modern business or customer service,” one man fumed.

The customer had called several times asking how to locate the hard-to-find bakery. 

Ernie was having none of it.

“I felt this sense of superiority from him — that it was up to me to find his stupid business,” the man wrote. “I kept asking, and then he hung up on me.”

Another story also captures the mystery of dealing with Ernie.

One day, a Jewish doctor and his wife stood outside the shop, peering in the window.

Finally, mustering up courage, the woman walked in and asked if Ernie sold challah. 

He invited her behind the counter, showed her his baking ovens and gave her a little piece of dough to sample.

“You’re Jewish?” she asked.

Then the couple laughed. 

They told Ernie they were afraid to come in because he didn’t look Jewish.

He looked German in fact, they said.

This time, Ernie admitted he was Jewish.

In fact, he said, he was proud of it.

He closed the shop early that evening and invited the couple to a nearby hotel, where he conducted a ceremony with the challah and wine and a candelabra.

Then he made an Israeli dinner with pita, felafel and humus.

“They couldn’t get over it,” Ernie recalled.

And then he smiled, this proud Jew.

The Czechoslovakian boy who once sneaked bacon behind his relative’s backs had indeed come a long way.

He still eats bacon, sort of.

While visiting Chicago, he discovered pastrami, which now takes the place of bacon.

“I haven’t heard one customer say it’s not bacon,” he said. “And it’s kosher, too.”

“So now I eat kosher bacon.”

Most customers aren’t as lucky as the doctor and his wife.

Usually, there’s an edge to Ernie’s encounters.

“Did you make these pastries by yourself?” one asked.

“Of course. You weren’t here to help me make them.”

The visitor persisted: “Are the cookies soft?”

The answer was pure Ernie.

“You won’t break your teeth on them.”

Maybe his mother Sarah would have been proud.

Maybe not. Maybe she’d be ashamed. 

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