Vesecky's Keeps the Bohemian Bakery Alive in Berwyn
On the wall of Vesecky's Bakery in Berwyn there's a framed Chicago Tribune Sunday Magazine piece from 1971, by the writer and poet Norbert Blei, who grew up in this area (and died last year in Door County):
There are almost as many bakeries along Cermak Road in Cicero and Berwyn as savings and loans... Nobody knows what it is between Bohemians and their bakery. They just never seem to get enough of it... No matter how many housky, or kolacky, or coffeecakes are on the table Saturday morning, someone in the family will usually be told, "Stop at Vesecky's (or Fingerhut's or Vales' or Stetina's or Minarik's) for some Bohemian rye... maybe a poppyseed Babovka, too."
Hardly a word of it remains the case 40 years later. Berwyn and Cicero are increasingly Mexican, all those other bakeries are gone, and the association between savings and loans and Bohemians (aka Czechs and Hungarians) is incomprehensible today. (Bohemians, despite their association with careless Parisian artists thanks to a certain opera, were notoriously the tightest bank customers in Chicago, impossible to sell credit cards or installment loans to; as an officer at the late Talman Federal Savings and Loan once told me, the Bohemian version of buying on time was "If you want a refrigerator, you save for ten years until you have the money to buy it.")
And yet Vesecky's Bakery survives. Old Man Vesecky, James Sr., 62 when Blei wrote about him, passed away in 2005 at 97, and the frantic overnight baking scene Blei describes had surely calmed down long before. Today it's a quiet place, a couple of young female sales assistants serving the customers. But someone who knows the place's heritage must still be in the back, cranking out both Czech apple srudl with its flat crust:
and flakier Hungarian strudl:
and hot cross buns, studded with candied fruit like panettone:
and braiding colorful houska for Easter:
Surprisingly, it was the simplest thing, houska, that I think proved the most satisfying in the end. It's basically raisin bread, but with brandy-soaked raisins, I think, and a dough made with milk and egg (close to challah or a less rich brioche). Simple, as befits a people who watched a buck like it was Dillinger planning an escape, yet completely satisfying. As long as you can swing by Vesecky's for that, Norbert Blei's world isn't completely gone.