There are two kinds of dough in Mort Zachter's memoir of that name: a bakery product, and money. Coincidentally, I began reading Dough (winner of the 2007 AWP Award in Creative Nonfiction) with a show called Millionaire as background noise. I was trapped in a medical waiting room, small and crowded. On the loud TV, a contestant tried to answer enough questions to win that tantalizing sum.
Usually such an absorbing book eclipses annoying noise. But several people in the waiting room were calling out answers as if they could help the contestant, as if they themselves could win the million. Against that backdrop, I read Mort Zachter's description of the out-of-the-blue phone call that spilled a family secret: his uncle, sitting right across the room from him in a haze of advanced Alzheimer's disease, had stocked away a million dollars.
We've all heard of them, hoarders like the Collyer brothers, people who live penny-pinching, restricted lives with hundreds of thousands of dollars in the bank (or stuffed in the mattress). One strand of Dough traces the lives of two such men, his mother's brothers. They slaved away in the family business, the Ninth Street Bakery in New York; shared a small bachelor apartment; and lived quiet, work-centered lives.
That same strand explores Zachter's childhood in a family strapped for money (the dining room of their Brooklyn apartment was his makeshift bedroom), his mother's frustrated dreams, and daily life in that bakery, a place where nothing was baked, where day-old bread and cakes were shipped in to sell locally.
In a chapter aptly named "The Food-Stamp Seders" he recalls the family's meager Passover celebrations at his uncles' apartment. There his mother waited on everyone and the only Haggadah, the story of the Jewish exodus from slavery in Egypt, was provided free by the Manischewitz kosher wine company. (Later he learns that there are hundreds of versions of the Haggadah, many quite beautiful, but not provided free by Manischewitz.) [End Page 186]
As the youngest (and only) child, at Passover Zachter has the honor of singing the Four Questions in Hebrew. But no one ever answers. "No one said Kiddush, the blessing on the wine, before my chanting of the Four Questions," he writes. "Afterward, no one broke the middle matzo for the hiding of the afikoman. I did not know what an afikoman was." Only as an adult does Zachter learn that children hide and then return the afikoman for a gift or money, that the Seder cannot even end until that occurs. "But in my uncles' apartment, the Seder never began since we never read or discussed the Haggadah. The only sound was the slapping of Mom's house slippers on the linoleum floor as she brought in the soup plates for the first course of chicken soup and matzo balls."
The book—and the strand that interrogates his past—opens with these powerful lines: "Bread. As a child, before I noticed much else, I smelled bread; but, had I known where to look, I would have experienced more." From there, Zachter lays out the history of the bakery, begun in 1926 by grandparents who'd immigrated from Russia. He describes an old photograph of the uncles (and includes that photograph in the book, the uncles at the cash register, breads laid out before them, as well as a vintage shot of the business from the outside, window packed with piled-high, unwrapped breads and cakes). He creates a gorgeous portrait of a lost time and place.
The other narrative strand in Dough moves forward from Zachter's discovery of the hoarded money. The most powerful chapters in that story reflect upon various family members' attitudes toward money and what those ideas about money mean. At one point, Zachter's mother brags of him that "my Morton doesn't like money." Long confused by what she means, he is at first "convinced they gave out awards for not liking money." If so, what to make...