My family did not patronize Baltimore's suburban shopping centers in the days after Thanksgiving. We were downtown people and adhered to the customs of the day. I watched the old Hochschild-Kohn Toytown Parade from the curb at Maryland Avenue and 29th Street; a night or two later, we drove downtown while the stores were closed and took in the window displays.
Finally, days later, we might begin Christmas shopping, possibly with a breakfast at the Read's drugstore, one of the anchors of the busy Howard and Lexington corner. Breakfast at Read's included a buttered and grilled strudel-like pastry. In a recent column I called them "nut sticks," but the name on the menu was different. There was nothing stick-like about them. They were a rectangular pastry that packed an amazing taste. Many readers commented on this Baltimore breakfast delicacy.
A few weeks ago, I heard from Joe Nattans, a definitive voice on Read's history. His family owned the Read Drug and Chemical Co., and he once managed the flagship store at Howard and Lexington streets.
"The heated and buttered 'nut sticks' which you referred to were titled 'cinnamon sticks' by our commissary and also because of their popularity, were sold in a six-pack wrapped for take-home. I loved them too," he wrote.
He then related the origin of the cinnamon sticks. "When my grandfather was visiting in Germany, he entered a bakery and was so impressed with the products that he hired the three bakers and brought them to Baltimore to guide the baking in our commissary," he wrote. "We prepared a great deal of our food products in the commissary early in the morning and trucked them to the stores daily before opening to maintain quality and freshness. There were many special recipes used for soups, salads and crab cakes."
Nattans added, "The one thing I don't miss is unloading the warehouse delivery truck every two weeks at 4:30 a.m. and hauling merchandise up to the fourth-floor stockroom. This was obviously done so that the tractor-trailer would not obstruct rush-hour traffic."
He said he had a lot of pleasant customers in those days. The store had three distinct, busy eateries. Nattans recalls the most popular spot was the balcony (where I first downed a cinnamon stick) that overlooked the main selling floor. There was a classic soda fountain just off the main door and the basement-level Town and Country Room.
I began many a morning or later coffee break with a cinnamon stick until the Nattans family sold their business to Rite Aid and the commissary closed in the mid-1970s, a bleak time for local retailers who had their own, distinctive bakeries. Both Hutzler's and Hochschild's, the department stores, had amazing baking departments.
I'll now connect some personal dots about the cinnamon stick. About a decade ago, I wrote the obituary of Otto J. Kruppa, one of the Read's bakers. He kept a diary that filled in many of the missing pieces of the cinnamon stick story. His family told me he brought his buttery confection from Switzerland, where he learned the recipe as an apprentice.
He was born in Grunewald, Germany, and raised on a farm where his family grew potatoes and raised workhorses. He went through a baking apprenticeship that took him to Basel, Switzerland, and obtained the formula for the flaky raisin, cinnamon and nut-studded pastry that became his signature confection. World War II intervened, and he was the only member of his family left outside the Iron Curtain when it was established. He never saw his parents again, and only rarely did he see a sibling.
He crossed the ocean on the SS United States in 1955 and settled in Baltimore. His nut-cinnamon bun appeared on the menus of the 58 Read's drugstore soda fountains and restaurants. They sold for 20 cents each. He also baked layer cakes and other desserts for the drugstore chain. After Read's ceased to be Read's, he baked for Mars Supermarkets. He died of a stroke while preparing to go to an Oktoberfest celebration.