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Charmed Life

Cod Piece

Sam Holden

By Charles Cohen | Posted 8/20/2003

Sometimes an era can be summed up by the most mundane of things. For many Baltimoreans whose childhoods hark back to the 1960s and earlier, for example, the era in which they grew up is entwined with the memory of a deep-fried fish treat served up on a mustard-slathered cracker.

"I'd give my two eye teeth for a coddie and a chocolate soda," says Eileen Himmelfarb, an employee of the Jewish Community Center in Owings Mills. Himmelfarb remembers that when she was a student at Forest Park High School in the '50s, she and her friends would head to the local soda fountain after school and snack on the treats. These days, it's not so easy to find the coddies she remembers. Though they can still be found at a few delis in the city, the ones she yearns for are no longer made.

The coddie, which seems to have made its appearance locally in the early 1900s, peddled by Russian Jewish immigrants in East Baltimore, could have easily been dismissed as a poor man's crab cake. But they were a perfect fit in a town already wild about seafood, and coddies grew in popularity. It probably helped that they were cheap back when they first hit the scene--2 cents apiece in most places, the price rising to around 5 cents each by the '60s.

The coddie, unlike the crab cake, was not known for its succulence. Rather, the plainness of the morsel is what makes the coddie great. A moist combination of cod flakes (not cod fish--as any connoisseur will tell you, a coddie is not a cod cake), mashed potatoes, and onions, the coddie is a concentrated comfort food in miniature.

Though they don't enjoy the high profile or popularity they did years ago, for decades coddies could be found virtually anywhere in Baltimore: delis, soda shops, pharmacies, bowling allies, and bars. Small rowhouse shops in East Baltimore, now now long-shuttered, turned out coddies by the gross. Now-defunct, family-run outfits like Sherman's, Lieberman's, and, the most famous, Cohen's Original Tasty Coddies (no relation to the writer) made the nosh the earliest of Jewish crossover foods, popular long before bagels were picked up by fast-food chains. During Lent, Fells Point bars used to put out coddies on Fridays for their Polish customers.

"My grandfather walked with a basket in his arms" through East Baltimore, says Elaine Cohen Alpert, the granddaughter of Louis Cohen, who founded Cohen's Original Tasty Coddies in 1910. "He walked with the basket from store to store, selling coddies. He had to make a living. It was bad in the early 1900s."

Alpert claims her grandmother invented the recipe for the coddie because her grandfather had wanted to sell nonkosher crab cakes, but being a traditionalist, "she wouldn't have it." Ironically, Cohen's coddies were deemed nonkosher anyway.

Though coddies became the rage here in Baltimore, their popularity never spread very far, unlike crab cakes. It seems that the only people who harbor a strong affection for the fried fish on a cracker are Baltimore expatriates, especially retirees who left the city for warmer climes.

"You go into Washington, and they don't know about it," Alpert says. "I am serious. But if I go today to Florida or California or anywhere else, and I say, 'I'm from Baltimore, but my claim to fame is Cohen's coddies,' people [ask], 'Do you have a recipe?' They love them."

I was able to track down Alpert recently while she was volunteering at a book giveaway at the Owings Mills JCC. She talked to me about her family's coddie business and expressed surprise that people still revere its role in making coddies a popular food in the city. Her grandfather eventually graduated from selling the snacks out of baskets to hawking them from a horse-drawn cart. Eventually, her father bought a truck to make distribution easier. But it was her brother Lloyd who propelled the business into what she likens to a mini Utz-style operation, with a fleet of seven paneled trucks delivering coddies throughout the city. The company became successful enough to buy a large building on South Bethel Street, and they were churning coddies out by the droves using conveyer belts and machines to mash the ingredients into little cakes. But in the 1970s, the cost of production was becoming too great for the little family-run enterprise, as prices for labor, ingredients, and gasoline increased. Cohen's stopped making coddies and focused its efforts instead on delivering other kinds of snacks, like potato chips. Now, Alpert says, she wishes she had kept a sign or a photograph of the old factory--even a recipe for the original Cohen's coddie.

"Is it crazy?" she asks, with the wave of her hand. "God willing, my grandchildren, they know a little bit about it."

Several months ago I found myself sitting at a bar next to Jay Sherman, grandson of the family that once ran Sherman's, a smaller family-run outfit that flipped coddies in the 1950s just a few blocks away from Cohen's. Sherman, now a globetrotting environmental consultant, never had the privilege of peeling potatoes to make the family's coddies, but he can still rattle off a list of long-gone coddie hot spots, like the old Sidlin's Pharmacy on Reisterstown Road. One recent summer's day, Sherman took me to meet an uncle of his who worked in the family coddie shop. His uncle Lou and aunt Esther invited us into their Milford Mill home and recalled working in an outbuilding next to their rowhouse on the 300 block of South Eden Street. Cohen's coddies may have gotten the glory, they say, but Sherman's coddies had the texture.

"When you ate it, it kind of crunched," Lou Sherman says. "You would never buy a 2-cent coddie and just be satisfied with it. You would have to have another one, maybe three." (The Shermans sold their coddie business in the '50s when they bought a small grocery near Patterson Park.)

Today there is no wholesaler or manufacturer that exists solely on coddies. But you can find them once in a while at a few grocery stores, and a handful of Baltimore restaurants and delis still serve them. Larry Abel, owner of Miller's Café in Pikesville, which goes through about 20 dozen coddies a day, says he's lucky enough to have a guy on staff who knows how make them. Joe Stowe, owner of the Suburban House restaurant, also in Pikesville, says that all day long at his establishment someone is making coddies. By the week's end, the restaurant will go through nearly 3,000.

"It's very labor intensive," he says. "With the cost of making a coddie, a lot of people have let it go by the wayside."

At Lexington Market, Nancy Faidley Devine of Faidley's Seafood, holds up a tray of newly minted coddies. At Faidley's, coddies go for $2.25 a pop, and Devine says they're made using real cod fish, which isn't cheap--these days it can cost between $7 to $8 a pound. But Devine knows that coddies are special and worth the little something extra it takes to keep them on the menu.

"It's a lot of work to make," she says. "You got to first make the potatoes and ground it up. . . . A coddie like this takes time."

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