Every Thursday, Edelweiss Bakery offers German food, music, memories

A good spot to eat, sing and be merry

Maryland Journal

November 06, 2006|By Nicole Fuller | Nicole Fuller,Sun reporter

It was Alfred Zeller, a native of Stuttgart, Germany, an accordion player and certified ladies' man at 82, who had the vision.

A few years ago, Zeller stopped at the Edelweiss Bakery and Cafe on Harford Road, about two blocks from his North Baltimore home, and spotted a fellow countryman behind the counter.

Owner Dietrich Paul was serving up treats like schnitzel and springerle in the small Parkville shop that make the mouth of anyone who professes German ancestry water.

FOR THE RECORD - A photo caption in yesterday's Maryland section accompanying an article about Edelweiss Bakery misstated where it is located. It is in Baltimore's Hamilton neighborhood. THE SUN REGRETS THE ERROR

The place, the food and Paul's faint but undeniable German accent ignited all sorts of fantasies of reviving the glory days when Zeller and his band, the Happy Wanderers, performed at Oktoberfests and civic halls from Frederick to Baltimore. The band's no more, but Zeller puts on a rousing one-man show.

Could he play his accordion at Edelweiss on Thursdays? Have some sauerbraten, or sour beef, potato dumplings and cabbage?

"Ja!" was the reply.

And so a tradition began. Every Thursday at Edelweiss is German Day.

"When they opened this, there was no place we could come together," Zeller said. "Nobody plays this type of music anymore. They play the piano. The young generation plays the keyboards. I play everything by ear."

It's about 2 in the afternoon when his audience begins to trickle in - the ones who talk about a time when, they say, the city's German population was so huge, hearings at the downtown courthouse were conducted, by request, entirely in German.

They reminisce about when Redwood Street near Maryland Shock Trauma Center was called German Street, and when the country's language was taught at public high schools - all before the two world wars, before America's goodwill toward Germany wavered.

Most who remember hearing these tales from their parents are in their 70s and 80s now.

But they rouse themselves from the pinochle games that so occupy them now in retirement, to sing along to the songs from the old operettas that Zeller plays on his accordion. And to sit at the bakery's simple wood tables and reminisce with their own, and enjoy a taste of the old country.

The revelry is not just for Germans, of course. Other Edelweiss patrons come and go, snatching up their specially ordered birthday cakes, chocolate chip cookies or vanilla frosted cupcakes.

But it's mostly the folks who pronounce W's with a "V" sound and Schunkeln, or link their arms and sway, when Zeller starts up his accordion, who fill Edelweiss on Thursday afternoons.

For the next couple of hours or so, Zeller plays. On this day, he is joined by a Polish buddy, Charlie Rutkowski, who is 74, from Perry Hall and knows his way around an accordion, too.

"I enjoy it - good food, good fattening bakery food," Rutkowski said. "I played with a band for 35 years. They all died on me. Mostly German."

Just as they did in his day, the ladies still swoon for Zeller. After listening to his accordion playing at Edelweiss in the past, some of his female fans have aggressively courted him. The image of the hot rocker guy apparently doesn't falter with age.

"He needs to be prepared because those women are wild, like wild turkeys," said Paul's daughter, Nancy Tsagos, who staffs the bakery's counter and knows most patrons by name.

Paul, who left his home in East Germany in 1959 as a baker on tour with the German merchant marine and eventually ended up in the states - first New York, then Pennsylvania and finally Maryland - opened the bakery and cafe in 2001.

He called it Edelweiss, the name of a lovely mountain flower found in European countries. "An American bakery with a German flair," Paul said.

He lives atop the shop, a small white house with black shutters, with his wife, Genevieve Brogan-Paul. They make most of the cakes, cookies and pies themselves. For chocolate lovers, there's the German classic, Sachertorte, and for breakfast, brotchen - German breakfast rolls.

Frank Hobbs knows most everybody here. He's president of the Edelweiss Club, a German social group that began in 1966 and shares the bakery's name by coincidence. He sees them at Zion Church downtown, where the Rev. Holger Roggelin offers a service in German on Sunday mornings.

On most Thursdays, Hobbs is dining at Edelweiss, tapping his foot, enamored with Zeller's accordion playing.

Hearing the tunes, talking to the people - "It absolutely lifts my spirits," Hobbs said.

Between songs, he'll talk of a famous wine town in southern Germany on the Rhine called Ruedesheim, home to a street lined with bars and eateries - Drosselgasse - one of the world's narrowest streets.

"No matter how much you drink, you'll be walking," Hobbs said. "You can't fall down because you'll bounce off the walls."

And then he'll lament the absence of German language classes in schools today.

"My grandchildren wanted to learn German so they can talk with me," he said. "They're letting a treasure slip away. The culture of Germany is a gift to this country."

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