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My neighborhood baker was a celebrity

The current storefront of William Greenberg Desserts, in NYC
Ralph Gardner Jr.
The Madison Avenue storefront today

I was pleased to discover that the New York Times rightly devoted as much space to a recent obituary for my local baker as they would to a statesman, a Nobel Prize recipient, or a movie star. And well they should.

William Greenberg Jr. died on February 7th at the age of 97. I don’t know if he consumed as many of his brownies, linzer tarts and schnecken, or sticky buns, as I did over the years. But I’d like to suggest that his longevity was proof of a concept that I’ve long promoted: food that makes you happy is good for you.

Mr. Greenberg, a tall, confident man whose cheerful manner belied a heroic work ethic – he could usually be found in the front of the store decorating one of his ambitious cakes, often for the rich and famous, while his staff served customers and rang up sales – did for the Upper East Side what Mr. Rodgers did for his television neighborhood or Big Bird for Sesame Street. He helped transform it into a village.

William Greenberg Desserts on Madison Avenue was not my local bakery growing up. I lived on the West Side. Our highly decorated and heavily frosted birthday cakes, and our petit fours, came from local institutions such as Cake Masters and Éclair. Mr. Greenberg’s cakes and cookies – pecan sandies, raspberry thumbprint and chocolate chip – were tasty but by comparison austere. They resided in plastic tubs below the counter and had about them the aura of the diamond rings and bracelets that Tiffany sold at its Fifth Avenue showroom. They were also priced accordingly.

My first exposure to the grandeur of the bakery’s goods may have come in ninth grade when I spent Christmas vacation in Vermont with the family of my high school classmate Doug Tishman. The Tishmans, members of the real estate and construction clan, were to me what the Patimkin family was to Neil Klugman in Philip Roth’s Goodbye, Columbus. Of the Patimkin wealth and abundance Roth memorably wrote that “Fruit grew in their refrigerator and sporting goods dropped from their trees.”

Ahead of the holidays Doug’s mother Jan bought multiple shiny red tins of Greenberg cookies – cherry red and white was the company’s motif and still is -- and carted them from their New York City apartment to their Sugarbush ski house in the family’s Country Estate wagon. I’m probably overindulging my imagination, but I can still see the tins stacked one atop the other, forming a tower of buttery bliss, as festive any Christmas tree.

Ralph's brother blows out the candles on a cake made by William Greenberg Desserts
Ralph Gardner Jr.
Johnny Gardner with his William Greenberg birthday cake, 1971

On only one occasion did we commission Mr. Greenberg to craft a family birthday cake. It was for my younger brother Johnny’s 15th birthday. It took that many years before we felt worthy of a Greenberg creation. By the way, the Times obit highlighted a colossal American flag cake that William Greenberg, frosting gun in hand, created for President Bill Clinton’s 50th birthday in 1996. On that occasion the baker donated his services.

Truth be told, Johnny’s cake was a bit disappointing. Our standard birthday cake, inspired by the Viennese confections whose know-how Jewish refugees fleeing the Holocaust brought to the United States and opened bakeries ahead of World War II, was filled with layers of mocha cream and apricot jam, topped with a blanket of yellow frosting and marzipan spiked flowers. Not to mention cowboys, rocketships or whatever decor the birthday boy wanted.

The Greenberg cake was chocolate upon chocolate – chocolate cake, chocolate frosting, and decorated with chocolate squares – and a bit dry. Perhaps it was just too sophisticated for our juvenile palates. But that early experience didn’t prevent me from later becoming a Greenberg devotee – especially of its delicate linzer tarts, moist brownies, and sticky buns. I visited Greenberg the day my daughter Lucy was born and the baker gave me three free brownies. I felt I’d arrived.

The family sold the company, which Mr. Greenberg opened fresh out of the army in 1946, during the 1990’s – by then several shops as well as the flagship store on Madison Avenue – and my impression was that the taste had lost something after their departure. Not a lot. Just a little. The brownies were a little less intense. The linzer tarts slightly chunkier.

I ran into Mr. Greenberg on the street and shared my reservations. The difference was subtle enough that it could have been my imagination. Maybe the only ingredient missing was him. But he agreed. And he knew why. “Salt,” he said.

One word. He provided no further explanation but his appraisal was so confident there seemed no reason to doubt him. He may as well have said joy or love. It sounded like he was sharing sacred information, not just for baking but for life.

I still visit Greenberg’s often. I typically stick to the schnecken, the black and white cookies, and occasionally a linzer tart. The renovated and enlarged store – with its new red awning – continues to serve the neighborhood and the pastry-loving world beyond. All that’s missing is a little magic. Only one person could have provided that. May his memory be a sweet blessing.

Ralph Gardner, Jr. is a journalist who divides his time between New York City and Columbia County. More of his work can be found be found on Substack.

The views expressed by commentators are solely those of the authors. They do not necessarily reflect the views of this station or its management.

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