There is a Baltimore that only exists in memory. Though my land of the lost—east of President Street, south of Lombard—may not be yours, all is contiguous on the shifting map of vapor we call the past.
Because nothing drives memory so powerfully as smell, I nominate this used-to-be for landmark status: Kramer's Golden Crisp Popcorn Shop at 3728 Eastern Avenue in the heart of the old Highlandtown retail district.
At “the popcorn store,” you could buy rock candy weighed on a scale and scooped into white paper bags stamped with a picture of a woman stirring a kettle; chocolate pecan eggs (made “special” every Easter); and, of course, popcorn—piled fresh in the front window from kernels popped on site and glazed with a caramel that perfumed the avenue.
At this time of the year—when the air is sharp, scents carry, and the past is more emotional than usual—the lure of Kramer’s was irresistible.
“When business was slow, Mom would say, ‘Turn the fan on…let ‘em smell it out there…that’ll get ‘em in,” remembers Dolores Kramer St. Ours, now 87.
“Mom” was the boss, the late Anna Kramer, who’d learned the trade at the Nut House near Lexington Street downtown and at a candy store at 33rd and Greenmount in Waverly. In the 1950s, at the urging of her husband—a butcher named Joe—she opened her own place a few doors away from Epstein’s department store.
“The only advertising we ever did was the smell of that popcorn,” says Dolores.
The exhaust fan in the transom spread the news that a fresh batch of caramel—a confection of water, brown sugar, corn syrup, and “real” butter (not margarine)—had been whipped up in a copper cauldron over gas jets.
“I’d make up to five tubs on a Saturday,” recalls Ray Kramer of Ocean City, Dolores’ brother.
“You could smell it all the way up in Patterson Park.”
True to her Polish roots and Depression-era instincts, “Miss Anna” let nothing go to waste.
“If there were scraps on a display plate of fudge or peanut brittle or coconut, Grandmom would come around the corner and throw it in the pot,” says Robert St. Ours Jr., Dolores’ son.
“If you told her it changed the taste of the corn, she just said, ‘Ah, they love it!’”
And if you happened to be a nun—whether from the nearby parishes of Sacred Heart of Jesus and Our Lady of Pompeii or any other—the cash register refused to ring.
“Her orders were, ‘Give the sisters what they want; don’t you dare take a dime from them,’” says Robert.
Kramer’s closed in the late 1970s after Miss Anna was mugged waiting for a bus, and the spinsters who owned the building—the Metzger sisters—sold to a man who doubled the rent.
The address is now home to Chicken Rico, a wildly successful Peruvian restaurant specializing in birds on the rotisserie.
It’s hard to beat the smell of spiced chicken turning slowly over an open flame. Like Miss Anna’s popcorn, the scent drifts out onto the avenue and draws people in.
But if you happen to be there, perhaps after a visit to the Frank Zappa statue across the street, ask yourself: “Wouldn’t it be great if they served caramel popcorn for dessert?”
More works by Rafael Alvarez can be found at his website www.alvarezfiction.com
He can be contacted via firstname.lastname@example.org