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Let Us Eat Cake

by Hilton Kean Jones on July 30, 2008

in Florida, Food

Well, there’s no doubt about it, times are tough for almost everyone. When it’s like that, it’s the little things that can make a big difference. Some of the happiest music every created was from the era of the Great Depression: Louis Armstrong, Nat “King” Cole, Fats Domino, Duke Ellington, Benny Goodman, Lionel Hampton, Coleman Hawkins, Woody Herman, Billie Holiday, Harry James, Spike Jones (just threw him in to see if you were paying attention!), Red Norvo, Les Paul, Louis Prima, Fats Waller, Teddy Wilson, Lester Young…and the list is so long, I realize I can’t even come close. Perhaps, out of adversity, really does come achievement.

Here’s a quote excerpted from “JAZZ A Film” (dir.Ken Burns) by the jazz saxophonist Jerry Jerome from the PBS Jazz for Kid’s webpage that sums up how the masses recognized their need for joy amidst the pains of the Great Depression:

I traveled with Harry Reser and his Cliquot Club Eskimos back in l936 through the mid-West on a series of one nighters only, the whole summer literally. And it was very hot and destructive, it was just terrible … and people were poor, they had no money, the Depression was on…. I turned around to Harry one time, I said, “Harry, why do, where do people get the money to come hear us?” ‘Cause we, you know we had people come hear us. He says, “You know, Jer, they save their pennies for the weekend so they can get … some beer and go out and pay whatever it costs to go to a dance with their wives or girlfriends, have a ball, forget about their trouble and then … after it’s all over, start all over again, get that money back.

Audio clips of this quote, and another related audio clips are available at that webpage.

And the same is true for food. After all, the Twinkie– invented in 1930 by Jimmy Dewar–was a depression era culinary treat!

Of course, day-to-day eating during the depression wasn’t a wall-to-wall Twinkiefest. It was the era of “Hoover Gravy” that was made with flour and water instead of milk (no milk!). Or “Depression Cake,” which had little or no milk, sugar, or eggs (no milk! no sugar! no eggs!).

I was born well after the Great Depression, but survival attitudes learned during that period still were much in evidence when I was a child. As a poor, primarily rural, Methodist minister’s family, “Preacher Pie” was a main entree in our home on many occasion. It was similar to Depression Cake, but very thin like pizza crust and with a sprinkling of sugar on top.

I remember listening to the Nat King Cole 1951 release of Red Sails in the Sunset on a jukebox in one of those “family restaurants” of the 50s whose typical weekend special dinner was two slices of Wonder Bread cut on the diagonal and artfully positioned on each side of a extremely well-done, very thin slice of roast beef with an ice cream scoop of mashed potatoes plopped at the top, a bit of brown gravy precisely indented in its center, the rest of the gravy ladled not-too generously over the meat and bread.

While we were eating our supper (probably the Roast Beef Special) and listening to the music (which I distinctly remember for some odd reason), an old-timer from the “old folks home” across the street shuffled in and asked for a “Cemetery Special” which he noisely slurped and gummed with great relish.

Can’t believe it, but I actually found the recipe for this while researching this post, only it’s called “Cemetery Stew:” “2 slices of white bread, torn into bite-sized pieces, 1 cup milk, (sprinkle of sugar if you have it), Mix ingredients together and enjoy like a bowl of cereal.”

If you’re interested in more depression era recipes (remember ice box cake?), you might check out these websites:

If you’d like something to prop up on your kitchen counter while you’re cooking try “Stories and Recipes of the Great Depression” which you can order from the following link:

There’s nothing better to lift one’s spirits than a bakery. Just the smell of freshly cooked bread—even the memory of the smell—awakens some species memory of the hearth archetype, comfort, safety, and friends and family.

In my family’s case, it’s literally true. They’d sold it before I was born, but my great “gran’mut” Margrave (Laura Ann McKenzie Margrave) with her sons Loren, Joyce, and Dee, owned a bakery in Herrin, Illinois, in “Bloody” Williamson County. I remember my Uncle Loren very well. He got me my first job playing piano nightly all throughout my senior year of high school in a roadhouse bar and motel, complete with women of the evening, near the Marion, Illinois, federal penitentiary.

Williamson County had a particularly violent history: “the Bloody Vendetta, 1876; the Carterville Massacre, 1899; Coal Strike, 1906; The Herrin Massacre, 1922; the Klan War, 1924; the Birger/Shelton War, 1927.” My family, even though they owned a bakery, were strong supporters of unions. (Uncle Loren arranged for my first musician’s union card when I was still in high school.) A major union/strike-breaker war had taken place in Williamson County called the Herrin Massacre. Herrin was where our Margrave clan lived. A fascinating book about this part of American history is “Bloody Williamson,” available at this link:

So it was that yesterday a dear friend and I went to the Alessi Bakery (2909 West Cypress St., Tampa, FL 33609) to indulge our need for culinary solace.

At this time, that website is under (re)construction. However, there is a page I found lingering on the Internet, from some past, or perhaps future, incarnation of the site, from which I’ve excerpted the following details about the history of the Alessi Bakery:

…Nicolo Alessi arrived in New York City in 1905, he brought with him a knowledge of fine baking and a proud European heritage. Rosalia Massaro, later to be Mrs. Alessi, came to the U.S. with her family at nine years of age…Nicolo and Rosalia married in Tampa…1912, Nicolo opened his family’s first bakery on Cherry Street in Tampa…In the early 1920′s Nicolo moved his family back to Italy where they operated a small bakery two blocks from the Vatican. The family returned to Tampa in 1925 to reopen the family bakery on Howard Avenue with a full line of baked goods…John Alessi, the second generation of Alessi bakers, continued in the proud family tradition of baking…The third generation of Alessi’s arrived on the scene with the birth of Josie, Rosie, Nick, Phil, and Francis (affectionately known as Gwen). John Alessi never stopped striving for excellence. When his son, Phil, a frequent observer of his cake decorating expertise, would ask why he would want to change something so beautiful, he would reply, “I want to make it better. When I’m done, I want our customers to see the quality as well as taste the quality.

Alessi’s used to have a full steam-table at lunch time and had some of the best soul-food in town (collards, fried fish, etc.), but they’ve taken out the steam-table. However, they have expanded the cake section and widened their salad and deli sandwich selections to include a variety of subs, focaccia sandwiches, cubans, and steak burgers. They do still have my favorites, deviled crabs and crabmeat empanadas, and their terrific soups (garbanzo, lentil, minestrone, galician, chicken). It remains a special place to go for lunch.

Of course, it’s THE place to go for wedding cakes by cake designer, Melissa Maggiore. In keeping with the current national craze for cupcakes, they have “smaller” jumbo cupcakes such as the one at the top of this post (“I can’t believe I ate the whole thing!”) and the JUMBO jumbo cupcakes that are about the size of a football. The cookie my friend had (the second picture in this post) was one of dozens of types of cookies. Of course, being a bakery, there is fresh homemade bread of various varieties as well as tiramisu and tortes and cakes for all occasions (not only wedding cakes).

Hopefully “Happy Days Are Here Again” soon for our world’s economy, but even if things get worse and I have to become a hobo, I’ll still save up my pennies and once a month treat myself to a jumbo cupcake at Alessi’s Bakery and “The skies above” will be “clear again,” and I’ll “sing a song of cheer again.”

 

Alessi Bakery on Urbanspoon


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{ 8 comments… read them below or add one }

Lucy July 30, 2008 at 12:04 pm

Since I am older than you, I have my own stories about that bakery in Illinois! There were some very interesting family stories that came out of that era. So glad you mention it! Thanks for this post!

Reply

Marty July 31, 2008 at 10:04 am

My first experience with Alessi Bakery didn’t even occur in Florida. When I was living in Idyllwild, California my sister, Lilla, had come for a visit and while shopping in one of the local gift shops we ran across a packet of seasonings for making dipping oil for bread that had come from Alessi.

We bought those seasonings and enjoyed them very much and we still talk about how fun it was to find that little slice of Tampa so far from “home.” She became a big fan of Alessi Bakery, visiting numerous times, and I’ve yet to go!

So your post has inspired me to get there before we leave Florida.

Thanks for another great post, Hilton.

Marty

Reply

hkj July 31, 2008 at 12:15 pm

Thanks for reading my blog, Marty, and for taking time to post a comment. After reading your comment I got to wondering…I’d always thought Alessi oils, seasoning, breadsticks, etc. were the local bakery folks, probably because those products are in so many Tampa stores. But reading your post, I got to questioning it and decided to look things up. Here’s what I found out: the Alessi Bakery isn’t the same Alessi who makes the seasoning you’re referring to. That company is Vigo Alessi (http://www.vigo-alessi.com/). To complicate matters even further, there is a designer line of kitchen products by a company called Alessi (http://www.alessi.com/en). And, if that weren’t enough, a member of the Alessi Bakery family is going to open a Tampa restaurant under the Alessi name (http://careerseeker.tbo.com/careerseeker/MGBAFW3F4EE.html)! So, don’t feel bad about confusing the different companies. I had the same confusion until your comment which got me to wondering. Even though they’re all different Alessi’s, if you do get a chance to go to the bakery, I think you’ll enjoy it!

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Jennifer L. McCrackin February 27, 2009 at 11:40 pm

Melissa Maggiore (Alessi Bakery, Tampa, FL) is THE only baker I refer my wedding and special event clients to. LOVE her and consider her a good friend, very talented woman!

Jennifer L. McCrackin
Owner
QuickCare Event Planners

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gary April 2, 2009 at 1:53 pm

wow — just ran across this post while trying to figure out the name of that big cake that you can buy by the pound that sits on top of the counter — its like a brazo gitano but stacked up high. tall cake seems to be a thing in tampa. when i was a kid i worked at busch gardens and they had chocolate cake with a faux whipped cream icing kind of thing stacked to the roof.
anyway i was just in tampa and took my friends to alessi — one of my favorite food spots in the world. tampa scores two — alessi and la teresita. its a lot harder getting non-locals to go to la teresita though. ok — end the digression. my friends were wowed by alessi bakery. the sicilian sandwiches rank up there with the best muffalettas in new orleans and their eyes were all diverted from the cases of beautifully crafted pastries by that big huge cake on top of the counter.
next trip i will have to remember to introduce them to scachatta even though i didn’t see the huge pans of it out like when i was a kid. it was great growing up in tampa. i remember when the columbia in ybor was a big deal – we would dress up and go and it was full of mafioso. school closed for gasparilla which is now only a big corporate advertisment.

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Linda April 25, 2009 at 12:25 pm

Love Alessi’s too, what a great bakery for cakes, pies and other yummy treats! One of my other favorite bakeries is in S Tampa called Chocolate Pi (http://www.chocpi.com)! Absolutely incredible deserts, and another location for unique wedding cakes and special orders. It’s located on MacDill just north of Bay to Bay. While the individual ‘mini-cakes’ seem a bit expensive, most of the chocolate ones are so rich I can’t eat more than 1/4 or 1/2, so figure that’s the price for at least two, not one. The chocolate praline crunch (with Hazelnut praline) is quite rich and decadent! My friends and I usually go in and each get a different one and share.

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dar June 13, 2009 at 12:47 am

the name of that big cake that sits on the counter and is sold buy the pound is called roman punch cake. It rocks along with the rest of the delectables. try the gooey butter bar the next time you are there.

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CFB May 9, 2010 at 4:14 pm

I grew up in Tampa, going to Alessi’s Bakery every day on my way to school. I’ve been away from Tampa for 35 years but I still miss the Scachatta from there so very much. You don’t happen to know where I could find a recipe for it that I could try, do you? Thanks so much!

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