Was it really as good as I remembered?
My wife asked. For years she had heard me rave about the rye bread of my youth, and now, after decades of hardship, I had the real article in front of me: a sandwich about Gottlieb’s rye.
Gottlieb’s bakery in downtown Savannah, Georgia, had closed its doors in 1994, and I had left town years earlier. It was more than 30 years since I last tried his rye bread. It was conceivable that I’d romanticized it in the past few years.
The sandwich was pedestrian: vegan Bologna, power-washed greens from a plastic tray, a slice of purple onion, and Dijon mustard. But the first sharp bite carried rye. Last time I ate it I was a carnivore and made reubens with my mom’s corned beef instead of the tempeh I use now.
The pine-paneled kitchen of our suburban house after the war was steaming and smelled of corned beef brine, mixed with the heady rush of rye that turned golden in the chrome-plated Sunbeam toaster. My job, which I enjoyed as a teenager, was using a finely sharpened butcher’s knife to carve thin, even slices for the whole family to use. As the six of us huddled around the kitchen table, the usual jokes and arguments gave way to quiet industriousness as we all put our sandwiches together.
I took the bread for granted. But now I realize my parents have made an effort to make this Old World taste a part of our mid-20th century American diet. The standard was then packaged factory bread from the supermarket.
Every now and then, on the way home from his downtown office, Dad would pick up Gottlieb’s bread and ask for it to be cut into thin slices. As a child, when I happened to be with him, I watched in awe as one of the Gottlieb men snuggled it into a machine, flicked a switch and a maw of jagged blades jumped up and down and sawed it into an accordion of perfect slices .
The bread, with its chewy crust and pungent smell, adorned school meal sandwiches with chicken and roast beef. At home I would roast it for a shrimp salad sandwich. But there was nothing like a bare slice of rye for breakfast, toasted with butter; Eggs and grits optional.
When I moved to New York in the early 1990s, the slightest problem was finding a suitable replacement. The city was after all the world capital of Jewish baking. It had the best bagels, the best kugelach. The brash New Yorkers I’d met in college had assured me that everything in New York was “the best.”
When I was a child I had wondered about the city’s Jewish delis, the black-hatched Hasidim, and the Jewish mayor, all of whom were astonishing to a boy from Savannah, where Jews were a tiny minority. Surely this town had top quality rye bread.
I’ve tried the city’s brands and bakeries for years. One of my childhood friends, a kid named David Levy, had a poster in his bedroom of a smiling black kid who was selling a rye sandwich that said, “You don’t have to be Jewish to love Levy’s. “
I tried Levy. I didn’t love it.
I’ve tried the other supermarket brands. I picked up breads from the best Jewish bakeries in the Lower East Side and downtown. I ordered sandwiches on rye from the famous Jewish delicatessens (“the best!”) In Manhattan and Brooklyn, where I lived. None of them corresponded to the rye in my memory.
After a few years, a terrifying truth came my way: this rye was a rare thing.
And a consequence: maybe New York didn’t have the best in this case.
I find that I don’t claim to have tried every rye bread out there. I also didn’t do strict blind tasting side by side. I cannot claim with any objective authority that Gottlieb’s rye was the best in the world that ever existed.
My wife wisely suggested that the best rye was the one you grew up with. I am sure that is true. Especially if you grew up in Savannah when Gottlieb’s was there.
Gottlieb’s was the only Jewish bakery in town. It wasn’t always the case. For the first few decades it faced competition from Buchsbaum Bakery, my great-grandparents’ shop. My grandfather delivered bread by horse and cart to the working class Jewish community on the west side, then Savannah’s shtetl of aspiring Eastern European immigrants.
Our family’s bakery did not survive my great-grandparents, but Gottlieb, founded in 1884, held out.
One reason Gottlieb endured had to do with local synagogue politics. To the amazement of my friends at Yankee College, Savannah had been home to Jews since shortly after it was founded in 1733. By the beginning of the 20th century, the few thousand Jews had divided into three communities that represented the main branches of American Judaism. And for any community-wide activity, like the Hebrew school or the day camp, the Orthodox rabbis tried to impose their strict rules on everyone, including kosher food.
One consequence, since Gottlieb’s was the only kosher bakery, was that the snack in the day camp consisted of insect juice and a thick, dense Gottlieb’s shortbread biscuit.
No bar mitzvah party was complete without a bad local band – a cover of the Doobie Brothers’ “China Grove” was de rigueur – and tables with Gottlieb’s goodies: rich brownies, moist rainbow cakes, canasta cakes and white petit fours with ice cream a silver one Candy pearl or the name of the honor boy or girl in blue glaze.
In those years Gottlieb’s rye was part of my parents’ care for my three sisters and me. It reappeared decades later when we were looking after my widowed eighty-year-old mother.
In 2018, she was struck down by Guillain-Barré syndrome, an autoimmune disease that kills most people her age. My sisters and I would visit Savannah on week-long shifts to care for them.
During a visit I learned that two fourth generation Savannah Gottliebs, Laurence and Michael, had reopened the family bakery in a soulless mall on Savannah’s Southside. It was shiny and modern, and lacked the flour-dusted feel of its predecessor in the city’s oak-lined Victorian neighborhood. But it had a lot of my old favorites: pecan rolls, Danish cheese, chocolate chewy candies and, I was delighted to discover, rye bread.
I made a stopover on my visits: I swung past Gottlieb on the way to the airport, took two thinly sliced and double-wrapped loaves of bread, packed them in my suitcase and froze them immediately on my return. I then made grilled cheese, tempeh reubens, tomato and mayonnaise sandwiches, egg salad sandwiches, and smoked white fish salad on toast until I ran out of supplies.
It was the same bread that I ate as a child, Laurence Gottlieb told me, the recipe that his father Isser Gottlieb had given him, who initially ran the bakery with his father and uncle for more than 50 years. According to Isser’s widow Ava, the recipe was the same one his grandfather brought back from Eastern Europe.
Jewish-style rye is a sourdough, and that rye smell embedded in my taste memory comes from the starter. Laurence makes his with medium rye flour, water and natural yeast.
The recipe is just as economical: “Salt, yeast, caraway seeds, flour, water and the starter – that’s it,” he said. “The shelf life isn’t there,” he admitted, but that’s not the point.
Minor adjustments have been made over the years, not to the heirloom recipe, but to the process. The old bakery on Bull Street didn’t have air conditioning, so the bakers tossed ice in the batter as they mixed it to lower the temperature. The starter was hand mixed in a large bucket, a job nobody wanted because it would stick to your skin like wet cement.
Gottlieb has made deli rye, corn rye, onion rye, seedless rye, rye rolls and marbled rye with pumpernickel swirls. They were shipped on the greyhound bus to small towns in Georgia and South Carolina that didn’t have bakeries of their own, and given overnight to fans further afield who were happy to pay a premium for a superior sandwich.
Like me, Ava Gottlieb remembers visits to delicatessen stores in New York City that were culinary exciting but the bread disappointing. “It wasn’t because I was prejudiced,” she said. “Our bread was better.”
The original bakery succumbed to supermarket competition in 1994, a victim of the American preference for convenience over quality.
Laurence, now 47, grew up in the bakery but trained as a chef and cooked in elegant restaurants. Then one day he came to a bakery. “I went in and fell in love with her,” he said. “The smell, the yeasty sweetness of the bakery just makes something in my head.”
In 2016 he and his brother opened the new Gottlieb bakery.
Our Savannah trips ended in March. My mother’s assisted living banned visitors as the near end of the pandemic came in sight. That didn’t stop my mom from getting Covid-19 and ending up in the isolation ward of an understaffed rehabilitation center. She recovered from the virus but died there in August alone after a fall.
My sisters and I flew to Savannah to bury them. Burial in a cemetery overlooking the swamp on a warm August morning was economical. A handful of relatives sat between rows of empty folding chairs and the haunting sound of cicadas. The rest looked at Zoom.
Before I returned to New York, I had one last job to do. I drove my mother’s battered Toyota to Gottlieb’s.
It was gone.
Part of the mall was demolished. The bakery had been evicted. The Gottlieb brothers had no plans to get the retail market going again. The all-too-brief repetition of Gottlieb’s rye was over.
The smell and taste of things, wrote Proust, hold the mighty structure of memory in the “tiny and almost imperceptible drop of their essence”. A piece of madeleine in a spoon of tea reminds you of childhood in a French village; A bite of rye and Dijon mustard calls mine in Savannah.
In the white silence of the plane back to New York, my mother’s voice was already weakening in my head, and the solid force of her life splintered into pieces of half-remembered anecdotes. The rye bread was gone.
It was as good as I remembered.