Essential Outsider: More about Berenbaum's bakery in the season of Passover | Food
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Saturday, April 16, 2011

Essential Outsider: More about Berenbaum's bakery in the season of Passover

Posted by on Sat, Apr 16, 2011 at 7:00 AM

click to enlarge Matzo
  • Matzo

Not long ago I profiled the fledgling Berenbaum's bakery, which sets up a table across the street from the Durham Farmers' Market on Saturdays and is now offering what proprietor Ari Berenbaum calls a "CSB"—a community-supported bakery in the well-established CSA tradition.

Berenbaum's is unusual for multiple reasons. The first of them is quite obvious. To refresh the memory:

The first provocation comes when you fish out your money to pay and are told that your bread, donut, granola, etc. (there’s also coffee) costs whatever you feel like paying. The proprietor, Ari Berenbaum, says that "people like the gambit,” as he calls his fair-price practice.

Berenbaum is a tinkerer, as you might expect a baker to be, experimenting with recipes. But he's also a thinker—his blog invites the reader into his reasoning for how and why he's doing what he's doing. He recently followed up a conversation about what he does with quotes from the French metaphysicist Gilles Deleuze, about whom he wrote a 160-page monograph in graduate school. When Deleuze was rejected as the topic for his thesis, Berenbaum said the hell with it and started baking for Ninth Street Bakery, where he eventually became head baker before finally striking out on his own.

The thinker and the tinkerer meet up often in Berenbaum's strategies. For example, he has already rethought the term "fair-price" for his business, and decided to replace it instead with "sliding-scale," which more accurately gets at what he's after—Berenbaum thinks "there’s a feeling of guilt" that tends to visit customers when they are forced to come up with a "fair" price (fair to whom, anyway?). "Sliding scale" reminds people that "they’re one buyer in a community of buyers in different income classes," Berenbaum says. The concept raises awareness, socially and economically, and "results in more contemplation on the part of the buyer," he believes. He also believes it has made him more money.

If pricing is "the first provocation," what's the second? Less obvious, but potentially deeper and more unsettling than the idea of sliding-scale pricing, I had to see it evolve a little before I was sure it was there—and it is there, even though Berenbaum doesn't intend it himself. It has to do with the meaning of a Jewish bakery.

When Berenbaum's first got started, in mid-January, among its offerings was mandelbrot, which the bakery's chalkboard described as "a Jewish biscotti." There was also Irish soda bread, donuts, white and wheat loaves and other goods. But the bias gradually revealed itself: Mandelbrot led to hamantaschen, a poppy-seed (or prune) filled pastry long associated with the Jewish celebration of Purim. Berenbaum then revealed that he is planning to make matzoh for Passover—look for it Saturday, if the weather behaves.

In typical fashion, he's been thinking and tinkering as he approaches his matzoh project, speculating that the Jews fleeing Egypt probably added starter to their dough, which was presumably intended to be traditional bread but which was then prevented by the desert sun from rising. So although modern-day matzoh is unleavened (it's considered non-kosher if it's leavened), Berenbaum's reading of Exodus, which is essentially the story of Passover, has led him to consider using a starter. His baking practices, like his business practices, are unfailingly iconoclastic. No wonder his blog mentions the great, irreverent New York cook Kenny Shopsin. ("I was reading a James Beard article about eggplants and he said never put eggplants in a microwave. So I went and put an eggplant in a microwave...")

The thought-provoking book, Essential Outsiders, is a collection of essays and case studies that draw comparisons between Jews in Central Europe and the Chinese in Southeast Asia. (The Chinese have been referred to as "the Jews of the East.") The book helps make sense of Berenbaum's iconoclasm—which is aptly illustrated by the physical location of his bakery's stand: not in the Durham Farmers' Market, which rejected his application for admission, but on its margins. "We look like the biggest bunch of outcasts," Berenbaum jokes. But it isn't entirely a joke.

Essential Outsiders, illuminating as it is, can't quite figure out what to do with the longstanding association of Jews (and Chinese) with moneymaking ventures. The book's quizzical, almost resigned assessment: "For whatever reason, the Chinese in Southeast Asia, like Europe's Jews, have produced an astounding number of success stories in business"—they've long been identified with the merchant class and with moneylending—"and what used to be called the 'liberal professions.'" Both minorities have "commercial skills and disposition," but it isn't clear to the authors of Essential Outsiders exactly where those skills and disposition come from—a mystery whose insolubility enables racist conclusions: The Chinese and the Jews must "just be that way." As Randy Newman, a Jew, sang satirically: "Oh, Yellow Man, Yellow Man ... He keeps his money tight in his hand." And for Jewish stereotyping, look no further than Ezra Pound, who spent the better part of his life trying to convince everyone that Semitic usury was the great evil of the world. (Or flinch at that joke about the Jew asked to lend someone $50: "Forty dollars?! You want to borrow thirty dollars? Whaddaya wanna borrow twenty dollars for?"

Berenbaum, as you might guess not just from what he bakes but also from his name (but does that make you racist?), is Jewish himself. He claims no ulterior motive in bringing traditionally Jewish baked goods to the market: It just "happens to be that I grew up on it," he says. "In some cases I’m trying to improve recipes I learned as a kid." What complicates that innocent culinary motivation, though, is that hamantaschen and matzoh are both ritually linked to Jewish religious tradition, and they are both eaten only, and necessarily, at certain times of the year: You would scarcely think of eating matzoh at any time but Passover; nor would you consider not eating matzoh at Passover.

Adding Berenbaum's sliding-scale pricing scheme to that complicates matters further. The whole notion of bargaining or haggling with a Jewish merchant is heavily mined with explosive cultural ordnance: that ugly old stereotype of the cheap Jew, the greedy Jew, with the moneygrubbing shyster lawyer and with Bernie Madoff—culminating in the villainous Shylock. There is that horrendous phrase: "Don't Jew me down" (on the price). Ingeniously—though probably accidentally—Berenbaum's inverts the power-structure of the transaction: Because you can pay what you wish, you could conceivably rip off the bakery if you decide that your haul of goods is worth, say, 50 cents. If everyone did that, Berenbaum's would go out of business. You, the customer, have the upper hand in the deal, not the merchant.

So you have to make an ethical choice, and that, too, is deeply rooted in one of the most positive and noble aspects of the Jewish cultural tradition—as one of Berenbaum's customers noted during a transaction there. Ethics come from study, learning, the application of the intellect to the practicalities of human interaction and exchange. Essential Outsiders, claiming early on that "European Jewry ... maintain[ed] some semblance of common identity by ... a heroic tradition of learning," goes on to add this observation, not without some of its own complications:

An essential feature of Jewish entrepreneurship in east-central Europe was the regular combination of very high monetary and intellectual investments. Whenever comparisons are made between Jews and Gentiles of the same socioeconomic class, Jews are found to have had more formal and informal education. They were much more frequently bilingual or multilingual than others were, for example, and often had a special interest in the control of information. Even when standardized by class, Jews had substantially higher levels of schooling than equivalent classes among the non-Jews. This resulted in a kind of "overinvestment" in education.

So when will Berenbaum's do bagels?

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