Oma Sweet Oma

An Immigrant Family’s Journey from Nazi Germany to New Orleans, and the Recipes They Brought

When Mark Mayer’s grandparents emigrated from Nazi Germany in 1936, they arrived in America knowing just two people and unable to speak English. In those days, if you were Jewish and trying to get into the United States, you needed a sponsor — someone who would commit to ensuring you had clothes, a roof over your head and the basic necessities of life. By sheer happenstance, two of Mark’s uncles had immigrated to New Orleans years earlier, and started a sock factory. They sponsored Mark’s grandparents — Hilda and Erhard — and Mark’s father, the couple’s six-year-old son, Peter.

It was very much the traditional immigrant story. They cried at the sight of the Statue of Liberty, were processed through Ellis Island and, upon settling in New Orleans, sought a better life and brighter future. Employment did not come easy, however. Erhard had a hard time finding work without the ability to speak English. Hilda, however, spoke a language that transcended words: She was a gifted baker.

“My Oma had remarkable baking skills and set out immediately to feed the family,” said Mark, who is the chairman emeritus of PETERMAYER, an advertising firm in New Orleans. “She made unbelievable German specialties: plum cake, cheesecake, pecan cookies — there was always an incredible smell coming out of her kitchen.” Hilda began baking professionally from her home almost immediately. “The family quickly became middle class because my grandmother had such a strong clientele — people would buy from her every single week.” It was something of a whole-family operation that she maintained throughout her adult life and into her 70s. Most famously, she made schnecken, a German sweet roll similar to a cinnamon roll.

“It was loaded with butter. She would coat the dough with cinnamon, pecans, butter, a lot of brown sugar and caramelized sugar, and roll everything up in a long tube. She would then chop it into discs about the size of hockey pucks.” In special baking tins she had brought with her from Germany, she put butter on the bottom, added the discs of dough, and topped them with yet more pecans and sugar, then into the oven they’d go. “Even today, when I go into a bakery, and there’s that heavy buttery pecan-cinnamon smell, it just transports me right back to Oma’s kitchen. It was just unbelievably good — the whole neighborhood smelled like schnecken, down the entire block.”

Hilda was self-taught, a “touch baker” as Mark describes it. “She did not have any recipes. None. Zero. She could feel the dough and be able to tell you if it needed more flour, if it was dry enough…. She could tell when it was ready to bake just by how it felt. Everything was in her head, and she could make anything — and these were very complicated recipes.”

One of Hilda’s secrets: lots and lots of butter. “Schwegmann’s [the defunct New Orleans grocery store chain] always had discounts on butter, 29 cents a pound,” Mark recalls. “There was a two-pound limit per person.” Hilda’s solution? Family. “My parents and all the grandkids would have to stand in line, each with two pounds of butter, so she could come through with 12 pounds total, which is what she needed to get her baking done.”

The Mayer home had two enormous freezers, a huge kitchen and a room where Hilda assembled the boxes for her pastries. “Everything was done from her house,” Mark says. “People would call and place an order, and come by to pick it up. The grandkids would help Oma assemble the orders for the day, put the boxes together, put stuff in the right boxes, and tie the boxes off with string while she watched.”

Mark describes the life of his grandparents and father as a typical immigrant story. “My father — from the tender age of six — became the interpreter for the entire family, translating official things into German for Opa and Oma when they would get mail.” Slowly, Erhard learned English and eventually got a job as a traveling salesman of women’s clothing. (In Germany, he had been a wine merchant.)

Though his grandmother has long since passed away, Mark’s aunt, Ann, was determined not to let the schnecken recipe die with his grandmother, so she sat with Hilda and wrote down the recipe. Alas, Mark says, something was lost in translation. “Some unmeasurable element of my grandmother’s skill died with her. While the recipe exists on paper, all of us have tasted the results and declared it inferior to the original. It cannot be replicated, a recipe by this touch baker who had magic in her fingertips.”