AS A CHILD, I was ruled by only a few commandments, none of which were worth testing.
Oh, I could spy on the Christmas presents hidden in the damp cellar room under the front porch. I could torture my sisters. I could booby-trap the dining room with strands of my mother's knitting wool.
I could not, however, help myself to any jar in the ice box marked by the name Jordan Stabler's. Food deliveries from a Bolton Hill firm named Fiske's were also untouchable. And I couldn't even think about raiding great Aunt Cora's pink cardboard box of Maron's candies. Never. Never. Never.
Jordan Stabler's, Fiske's and Maron's were the holy trinity of untouchables, select foods held in almost religious awe by their loyal Baltimore customers. These were our truffles and caviar. We enjoyed them on state occasions, birthdays, anniversaries and holidays. And, of course, should you be a little under the weather, these foods seemed to humor the ailing and cranky patient.
Jordan Stabler's produced mayonnaise and a salty ham spread. Fiske's made ice cream, cakes and cookies. Maron's made candy, specifically a paste-like confection that was always sold in pink boxes.
Each product was made on the spot in curious, ancient Baltimore buildings that seemed medieval (and charming) in 1954. And befitting the status of luxury items, they carried price tags that made tight-budgeted Baltimoreans wince and
complain. (Baltimoreans are some of the thriftiest people you'll ever encounter. Any price rise from the level of the Great Depression is taken as a personal affront.)
There were certain parts of the kitchen icebox where my mother hid, or tried to hide, her private stash of the mayonnaise and ham spread. She acted as if it were the work of some master salad dressing chef. She overpraised its taste while overprotecting the contents of the jar.
If I wanted to put mayonnaise on a tomato sandwich, there was always the A&P; version for everyday use. For everyday ice cream, there was Hendler's -- a very good local name. And candy was candy, but Maron's was what women of a certain age kept by their sides for special consolation. It was also a good peacemaking present should you need to mend a fence, score a point or express some tender emotion. It was also just plain delicious to scarf up.
If your legs were really good, you could have walked from Fiske's (Park Avenue, just south of North) to the Jordan Stabler's grocery store on Madison Street, then head downtown to Maron's on Lexington. I can't actually imagine anyone doing this circuit, except for members of my own family.
As a child, I got away with more in these stores than I did in my own home.
At Maron's candy shop, I perfected a sympathy-engendering routine about buying candy for my grandmother and her sister. This much of the story was absolutely true. I never told the counter clerk that they had in fact paid for their own sweets and merely commissioned me to do the hauling. It worked. I also got my free pick of the wares.
On Sundays, after a lengthy Mass (Latin, of course) with a Jesuit sermon full of lengthy English words, my father often took me to Fiske's, the Park Avenue caterer that had a retail operation. Dressed in my church clothes, I knew that Mr. Fiske would offer me just about anything in the showcase if I behaved. Thus my deportment radiated perfection.
When the dark blue Fiske's delivery truck rolled up Guilford Avenue, we prayed the driver would brake and park at our curb. Odds were he would, but there was often a cruel disappointment when he turned to the left or the right for our neighbors' homes. Worst of all, he might go to our door and leave a box packed with ice cream and dry ice for a neighbor who wasn't home just that hour.
I never did tricks for the Jordan Stabler's stuff. The ham spread was too salty for a child and I couldn't taste the difference in the mayonnaise, no matter what its cost.
These valuable lessons in Baltimore economics and food snobbery learned 40 years ago have served me well. And to this day, whenever the raspberry water ice and macaroons are passed, I know just what is meant when some voice says: "It's good, but not the same as the old Fiske's."
Pub Date: 9/12/98