One day last week I ended up in West Baltimore eating potato chips fresh from the fryer. The next day I was in East Baltimore eating Russian rye bread, fresh from the oven.
The chips came from the Mrs. Ihrie's Potato Chip plant, a 75-year-old business on the corner of West Baltimore and Smallwood streets. The plant was recently bought by Joseph Bernard, who also owns Wye River Inc., a crab soup and seasoning operation in Queenstown.
Over the years the fortunes of Mrs. Ihrie's had dimmed. Then Bernard spruced up the plant, expanded the hours of the 130-person force. Bernard wanted to show off his crisper chips, so he held an open house.
For the occasion Bernard wore a bright blue, double-breasted suit and a baseball cap. The suit was to impress chip-eating dignitaries, like Baltimore Mayor Kurt Schmoke, as well as a couple of grocery store executives from Philadelphia. The baseball cap was to comply with health laws requiring that you either wear a hat or hairnet when you tour a food plant. I, too, chose the cap instead of the hairnet and followed Bernard on the tour.
Watching a spud become a chip is not all fun. The dull part is watching a potato get washed, shaken, peeled, and sliced. The rewarding part comes when the once-raw potato slice emerges from the fryer of cottonseed oil. It is fragrant, inviting, extremely edible.
Somehow this part of the potato chip miracle held my attention more than any of the others. Another good part came in the next room, when potato chips fell from the sky. It was something I had dreamed about as a kid. In official potato chip-making terminology, the chips were moving from a conveyor belt near the ceiling, down onto a scale, into bags, and down a chute. This was the packaging operation.
They can call it what they want. For me it will always be the room where it rained potato chips.
The next day, I smelled the rye bread before I saw it. The aroma of baking bread rolled out of the basement of Holy Trinity Russian Orthodox Church, an old brick church perched at 1723 E. Fairmont Ave. between Fells Point and Johns Hopkins Hospital. I followed my nose to the church basement. There the scene was vintage East Baltimore. Posters announced the approaching ethnic festivals. This one was Russian, Oct. 17 and 18. And in the kitchen, church members, many of them past retirement age, were hard at work preparing food to be sold at the festival. Loaves of long brown bread sat on tables, cooling and filling the air with a magnificent aroma.
This was "Jack's rye," the sourdough Russian rye made by Jack Plaskowitz, a retired clothing designer at London Fog and lifelong church member.
How he makes the bread is a secret. So secret that Jack did not put the recipe in the church cookbook, "Holy Trinity Russian Orthodox Church Favorite Recipes." It, too, is sold at the festival.
The recipe for "korovai," or sweet wedding bread, is in the cookbook. But that came from Jack's wife, Kay.
When I met him, Jack struck me as a pleasant but busy man. He had bread to bake.
He did offer up a few pieces of his bread-making beliefs. His bread is made with sourdough starter. He doesn't use only rye flour. He mixes rye and high-gluten flour. He lines the bottom of his baking pans with cornmeal to give the bottom of the bread that Old World feel. And he likes seeds in his rye bread.
"Those caraway seeds have such flavor," he said. Nonetheless . . . he also makes a seed-free version of bread using caraway powder, for folks who have trouble with seeds.
Bread, I was told, is a big deal in Russian culture. When a bishop visits a Russian Orthodox church, he is greeted with a gift of bread. Some families make a meal or snack of bread. "When my sister and I used to come home from school," said Marie Zelinsky, one of the church members assisting Jack, "my mother used to cut the top crust off that bread, and rub it with garlic and give one piece to me and one to my sister."
Mrs. Zelinsky said she once worked in a downtown tailor shop, a once-thriving downtown business. "On Baltimore Street from Paca to Howard, there was a tailor in every alley," she recalled. She and Jack shared a few stories about the day when Baltimore had a garment district. Then it was back to work.
Bread was in the oven. By next weekend they had to make 260 loaves, cool them, flash-freeze them, then sell them, thawed, in the church basement at about $3 a loaf. First come, first served. Doors open at 11 a.m.