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Monday, December 2, 2013

Roasting a community's turkeys

At Astoria bakery, the whole family pitched in to help

November 21, 2007 by JOE HEPPT. Special to Newsday /
Growing up, my family didn't have a Thanksgiving turkey,
we had dozens of them.

That's because we "took in" turkeys for neighbors. A European custom dating
back to when families cooked in pots over an open hearth and relied on the
local baker to roast their Christmas goose, my grandpa Joe adopted the
tradition on Thanksgiving in 1924 when he founded Heppt's bakery in Astoria, as
a courtesy to patrons short on oven space. As vividly as if it were yesterday,
my memory flashes back 45 years to a 6-year-old boy watching a bleary-eyed,
sleepy swarm of turkey-toting customers lining up outside the bakery on
Thanksgiving morning.

The frenzy started Thanksgiving eve, when my grandpa and my dad commenced
baking five hours earlier than usual, to prepare breads and cakes and pies in
time to free up the massive ovens for the turkey brigade. By 6 a.m., my mother
nudged me, my two brothers and my sister awake and shooed us downstairs to the
bakeshop. We appreciated that on Thanksgiving eve mom put us to bed in clothes
instead of pajamas to expedite events of the morning.

Growing into the business
Early on we merely helped out behind the counter, bagging rolls and boxing
cookies. Once my brothers and I grew strong enough to budge the heavy steel
oven doors and tall enough to reach them, we graduated to roasters, while my
sister mastered the cash register. We started by logging in and labeling the
turkeys. Next, we prepped the birds for cooking - a process that depended on
the way the turkeys arrived. Some came still sealed in supermarket shrink-wrap,
while others arrived lovingly stuffed and dressed to the nines.
Yet no matter how a turkey arrived, it left smelling delicious. Customers
often remarked how they could never recreate the flavors at home, especially
the pan drippings we gave out on the side to make gravy. It was our little
family secret: Baste the sorriest looking birds with pan juices from the best

Over the years we became quite adept at roasting, basting and timing turkey
to perfection, but I don't know why we bothered. We only charged clients a few
dollars, even less if they couldn't afford it, and my family let us kids
pocket the money.

Gradually, we all grew to dread Thanksgiving. Between the baked goods and
the turkeys, it was the busiest day of the year at our shop. We kids were the
extra help. It was no holiday for any of us. After laboring so intensively
throughout the long day, we lacked the energy and enthusiasm to sit down to our
own family celebration, so we never had one.
Although I never received a clear-cut answer, I think my grandpa - a
self-proclaimed narcissist - roasted turkeys for the praise and attention
customers showered on him. Then, once he retired and eventually passed on, my
father didn't want to break a neighborhood tradition that had flourished for
more than 50 years.

Despite rising before the sun and the drudgery of lifting and basting and
timing turkey after turkey, my brothers and I continued the roasting ritual -
even after we wed and started families of our own. We didn't need a reminder or
an invitation - we just walked in the front door of the bakery at the crack of
dawn every Thanksgiving morning. Then, sadly, this family and neighborhood
tradition ended abruptly just before Thanksgiving in 1985 when my brother
Eddie, an NYPD officer, died suddenly of an undetected heart condition at the
age of 29, leaving a wife and babies behind.

Heartbroken, my parents didn't open for business on Thanksgiving that year
and we never roasted turkeys again. My mother passed away, then my father
retired his rolling pins and closed up shop, although he still resides in the
apartment above the store, where he, and then I, grew up.
These days we enjoy a big, festive family Thanksgiving at my house in Port
Washington. The holiday starts off with a neighborhood father-son football
scrimmage, an annual event initiated when our sons played in the peewee league.
My wife, Wendy, orchestrates the family feast with my daughter Julie assisting
- but only if she feels like it - and I get an opportunity to joke around and
watch football on TV with my son Eddie, my father, my brother Bill and extended

Something lacking in leisure
I have the leisure I'd always dreamed of. Yet something's lacking. Back in
the day, Thanksgiving was a boisterous community event centered around Heppt's
bakery. Previously resentful for the part I was forced to play, now I'd give
anything to have it all back - my two brothers and I running in and out from
tossing a football around in the alleyway behind the store to baste the
turkeys, laughing over how we had secretly helped the less fortunate birds with
the bounty of their neighbors.
Now I regret that my own son never got to share in the Thanksgiving I knew
growing up. I secretly wish I could relive those days - especially the
brotherly camaraderie, father and grandpa watching over our shoulders. At least
I've stored the memories. And they spring to life every year on the third
Thursday in November.