Latino holidays take root in Highlandtown

holiday procession

In Highlandtown, they take piñatas seriously. Since the papier-mâché vessels of sweetness are part of a centuries-old tradition, perhaps they should.

ProcessionOn Dec. 20, over 100 people walked in a procession from the Creative Alliance at Eastern and East avenues to Sacred Heart of Jesus Church, four blocks over and one block south, at Fleet and Conkling streets. Along the way, they banged on a couple doors, looking for a warm place to stay. In a lyrical, call-and-response dialog, the innkeepers replied that they had no available rooms, and the travelers marched on.

It’s a familiar story, the journey of Mary and Joseph through Bethlehem, looking for a place for Mary to have her baby. What does it have to do with piñatas? To Highlandtown’s Latino community, plenty.

“This is the time when you see piñatas everywhere in the streets of Mexico,” said Maria Guadalupe Lopez at a mid-December piñata-making workshop at the Creative Alliance, where she helped community members use papier-mâché, paste, colorful paper and decorations to fashion their own piñatas.

Pinata making 1Lopez, who is from Mexico City, explained that the procession—or posada—is traditionally followed by a piñata-breaking party. While Highlandtown had one posada, there are typically nine such events in Mexico. That’s a lot of partying, but for Lopez, it’s no problem.

“Sometimes, when it’s a weekend, it’s better to have an even bigger party,” she laughed.

Breaking the piñatas is a symbol of good triumphing over evil. The piñata itself is evil—traditional versions sport seven cones representing the Seven Deadly Sins. The swinging club, which eventually vanquishes evil, represents faith. True faith is blind, so the clubber wears a blindfold.

And the candy?

“It’s all the treats from God,” said Lopez. smash it 2

“It’s so funny,” commented Maria Aldana, “because when I look at so many traditions, they’re all connected to religion—like religion is keeping them alive.”

Aldana, outreach coordinator for the Creative Alliance, rediscovered the Christmas piñata tradition and facilitated its reanimation in Highlandtown this holiday season.

Charged with bringing the community together through group art projects, Aldana was looking specifically for folk art. At Día del Niño, a children’s celebration in Patterson Park, she met members of Mis Raices (My Roots), a Latino mothers’ group from Patterson Park Public Charter School, a preK-grade 8 school at Baltimore St. and Lakewood Ave. Specifically, local artist and mother Rosa Vasquez revealed the piñata tradition to Aldana.

“She’s so joyful and so humble when she works,” Aldana said. “I wondered where all the piñatas came from. I found out they were all handmade in southeast Baltimore.”

Aldana decided that the tradition should be shared with all of southeast Baltimore, not just the Latino community. Cliff Murphy, director of Maryland Traditions—a division of the State Council for the Arts—agreed, a grant was granted, and “Piñatas Navideñas y Posada” was born.

The program included three piñata-making workshops, including one children’s workshop, as well as the Dec. 20 procession through the streets of Highlandtown.

“We come together tonight remembering that there are many people looking for room at the inn,” said Rev. Robert Wojtek, pastor of Sacred Heart Church, at the conclusion of the procession. “We are challenged to open our hearts, our minds and our hands to help them.”

With proper respects paid to the solemn part of the evening, the 100-or-so neighborhood participants sat down to a home-cooked meal.

“A lot of people brought food; it’s really a party made by everybody,” commented Lopez, adding that she hopes America will continue to embrace Latino traditions.

“We are a people that has lots of love and faith, and we want to just mingle,” she said.

At Hoehn’s Bakery, as city changes, they’ve stayed the same since 1927

chocolate donuts

If you are looking for the sweet spot of Highlandtown, it’s Hoehn’s Bakery, right at the corner of Bank and Conkling streets.

The bakery has been there since 1927, when William Hoehn opened the doors and started selling buns, pastries, bread and cakes. His granddaughter, Sharon Hoehn Hooper, now runs it. She has been baking there since the 1970s.

They still use William Hoehn’s tried-and-true recipes, with a couple of exceptions. They have had to change the shortening in the butter cake and smearcase twice—once during World War II, when butter and shortening were rationed, and once a few years ago when Baltimore City imposed a trans-fats ban.

“Other than that, nothing has changed,” says Sharon Hooper. “The sweet dough recipe we use for flat cakes, buns and doughnuts remains the same.”

Hoehn’s Bakery is beloved for its everyday goods, but it is nationally renowned for its fresh peach cake: just google “Hoehn’s peach cake” and you will see. The peach cake, quartered fresh peaches arranged on a slightly sweet, yeast-raised flat cake, is absolutely delicious, and for $5 a slab, it’s a bargain. You could get four to eight servings from one slab, but after a long winter without it, the fresh peach cake is best divided in two and shared with someone you love.

Sharon could paper the walls with the local awards the bakery has won over the years. When Hoehn’s opened, there were bakeries every couple of blocks. Hoehn’s has outlasted them all, a tribute to quality, tradition and neighborliness.

Stepping into the bakery is like stepping back to a simpler time before Hostess and Tastykake established themselves as the national overlords of dessert. The case is loaded with doughnuts, Highlandtown’s official breakfast food, as well as buns, turnovers and danish. The cakes, cloaked in fresh fruit, and the smearcase are closest to the door.

Lifelong Highlandtowners will know what smearcase is. The delicious dessert with the unlikely name is a little like cheesecake, but lighter and less sweet. Hoehn’s sells it with a dusting of cinnamon on top.

Hoehn’s customers are traditionalists. Over the years Sharon and her business partner, cousin Lou Sahlender, have tried to introduce some new products. A sweet deep-fried burrito stuffed with apples and dusted with cinnamon sugar was wildly popular for a while, then fizzled out. They have introduced a bread pudding made from raisin bread and custard, and it remains popular.

“We have had to adapt to the shifting demographics of the neighborhood,” says Sharon. “There are more single people, so we have introduced some products in a ‘mini’ proportion: Pennsylvania upside-down cake, strawberry shortcake, German chocolate cake, black forest cake, and they are selling well.”

The center of the bakery is the oil-fired brick oven that William Hoehn installed when he opened the bakery. It was built in place from plans that came from Germany. The oven is so efficient that when it is turned off for the staff’s annual vacation, it still registers about 350 degrees after two weeks.

Not much has changed in the back room. In professional bakeries all the ingredients are weighed–flour, eggs, milk, yeast, flavorings, all of it. The old-fashioned balance scale that Sharon uses is the same one used by her grandfather. The bins that hold the flour and other ingredients were there in the beginning. The “peel”—the long spatulate pole used to move baked goods into, around and out of the oven, is ancient, but Sharon won’t swear it’s been there since the beginning.

The staff has been there forever. Day clerks are Shirley and Marie; afternoon clerks are Alma and Anna. Mary works in back with Sharon and Lou. Their baked goods are picked by hand and packed in old-fashioned boxes with candy-cane string, and the ladies behind the counter are always good for a chat as they’re wrapping your purchase.

There is a sign over the counter: “It’s nice to be important but it’s important to be nice.”

That is the best description of Hoehn’s there is.

Hoehn’s Bakery
400 S. Conkling St.
Hours: Wed, Thurs, Frid, 7:30 a.m.-6 p.m. and Saturday 7:30 a.m.-4 p.m.

History of Painting Screens

william-oktavec-painting-screenIn 1913, Southeast Baltimore grocery store owner, William Oktavec, painted the screens of his store with images of his produce, both shading and showcasing his wares. At a time when there was no central air conditioning and a keen awareness of the danger of mosquito borne malaria, the safe, cool breeze afforded by a window screen was highly valued. Residents quickly noticed that Oktavec’s brightly painted screens, allowed for people to see out from the inside, but prevented people from seeing inside the store, providing air flow with privacy.

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