Saturday, April 25, 2009

Marzipan at Lutz

It was not an everyday treat, rather an indulgence. In Chicago in the 1970s, when I was in the earliest years of elementary school, my parents would sometimes get the car (which was used on weekends and for road trips) and drive northwest to the city's  Ravenswood neighborhood, stopping at 2458 West Montrose Avenue. This is the address for Lutz Continental Café and Pastry Shop, which I'm happy to learn is still there (though no longer operated by its founders, Mr. and Mrs. Fred C. Lutz). The authentic Bavarian pastry shop, also called a "konditorei," was opened as a corner store in 1948 in its present location. In the mid-1970s, when we frequented Lutz, the shop had just expanded to include the café and an enclosed, seasonal garden space. If we ate meals there, however, I don't remember them at all. About Lutz I remember only one thing: marzipan. This was the place where, to my knowledge, I first tried the traditional confection of almond paste and sugar. Never before or since in any pastry shop I've visited in the U.S. have I seen a selection of marzipan treats to rival the display at Lutz. I would likely have to make a trip to Luebeck, Germany, the proclaimed home of marzipan, in order to come close or else surpass it. The marzipan at Lutz was kept in the last of several long pastry cases set end to end along the left-hand side of the shop when you first walked in. Along the right-side wall, I believe there were a few small tables and chairs, and this is where I remember sitting to eat whatever treat I selected that day. The thing about the marzipan was not so much the taste, which was always delicious, very fresh and moist (dried-out marzipan is a confectionery crime), but rather the alluring, fanciful figures into which it had been shaped by hand and precisely painted with food dyes. I remember fruits, of course, and also animals: frogs, ladybugs, dogs, horses . . . I'm sure there were dozens more. I remember wondering if the fruit shapes tasted like what they represented (they didn't, which was fine since I liked the marzipan the way it was). I remember a feeling of reluctance to eat the animal shapes—a child's internal conflict between the desire for sugar on the tongue and the protectionist instinct to not harm creatures that looked so real by biting off their heads or tails or limbs. Of course I ate them, but tried to do it slowly. In adulthood, I still love marzipan, though now I prefer it robed in rich dark chocolate. I can still appreciate the fantasy and imagination of a well-sculpted and painted marzipan figure, but I will leave those to my son to discover and enjoy . . . as soon as I find the New York equivalent to my childhood Bavarian haven. (For those of you interested in Lutz, you can click here to visit visit their somewhat kitschy, stuck-in-the-seventies Web site; if you happen to be in Chicago, maybe one day you'll let me know if the marzipan still measures up.)

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