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Saturday, Apr. 30, 2016

Gray Matter: Bakery tradition will be sorely missed

Monday, January 23, 2006

In view of the fact that things seldom stay the same - that change is inevitable - I sometimes wonder why we humans resist it so strongly.  Hearing  recently of the closing of the Vander Meer Bakery in neighboring Le Mars brought this to my attention.  They have been in that exact spot for the 60-odd years I have lived in this area, and for at least 10 before that.  I guess I shouldn't have expected them to stay there forever, but somehow, I did.

More than twenty years ago I interviewed Peter Vander Meer, the second- generation owner of the bakery, and then wrote a piece about his operation.  He told me at that time that his father, also Peter, had started the business in 1934.   He said, too, that his grandfather, the first to immigrate from the Netherlands, was also a baker, and that they were following a family tradition that went back more generations than they had been able to trace.  That, alone, tells us something about his devotion to his craft. 

I remember being singularly struck by his dedication to quality.  Every ingredient, from the various flours, shortenings, fruits, nuts and spices, right down to the particular brand of plastic wrap he used, had to meet his standards of excellence.

Christmas was approaching at the time of our visit.  Their legendary gingerbread houses, the first I'd ever seen, were scenting the air. (By the way, from that time on, until the bakery stopped making them, those little houses were our annual gifts for our married children.)  After telling me how these little wonders were created, he went on to explain the two kinds of fruitcake they sold.  The dark variety contained dates, candied fruits and pecans.  For the golden variety, he omitted the dates and used walnuts instead of pecans.  That year the walnut crop had not met his exacting requirements.  Rather than risk the quality of the golden fruitcake,  he had reluctantly used pecans in both varieties.  I doubt if any of his customers could have told the difference, but to him it was a detail of great  importance.  

He also described the characteristics of dates and the way they varied in the countries in which they are grown.  Beyond that, he told of keeping track of the crop in each area, to be sure he bought the finest fruit available.  Imagine doing that on a world-wide basis long before the days of the Internet!

Artificial materials, preservatives, and the like were never used.  As a result the shelf life of their breads was much shorter than that of most commercially baked products.  He reminded me, though, that " bread is for eating, not for saving."

All the information I got that day gave me an interesting insight into what made that place such a huge success. Since the bakery was sold in 1997, when  Mr. Vander Meer retired, things have not been quite so special, but it remained  a great place to shop for truly tasty treats.

So now,  I am really going to have to convince myself that "things seldom stay the same and  that change is inevitable".  Much as I dislike the idea, I'm working on it !