Growing Up Bilker

Long before foodie blogs and obsessive locavores, Grandma Jennie and Aunt Rose understood the lure of gourmet groceries.

With the exception of one vacation in Miami Beach and another in New York City, my childhood travels consisted of train trips from my home in Indianapolis to Cincinnati, where my mother was raised as the youngest of the three Bilker daughters and where her family remained. We boarded the James Whitcomb Riley at Union Station and gathered around the passenger car window to watch my father wave good-bye from an abandoned train trestle a few minutes from town.

Grandma (Jennie) Bilker’s large home was situated on a wooded hillside in Amberley Village. She always greeted me as “Debbie, dahling,” in a thick, eastern-European accent left over from her growing-up years in Austria-Hungary, and offered a chilled Vernors Ginger Ale in a tall glass bottle. Grandpa passed away when I was around 5, but I knew the legacy of Bilker Foods, a fashionable market that moved to Roselawn from its original Avondale location in 1952. By the time I was old enough to visit, the business was run by my mother’s sister, Aunt Rose, and her husband, Uncle Nat.

Provisions were plentiful in the Bilker kitchen: Their multi-course meals—which always included a bibb lettuce salad dressed with oil and vinegar poured from glass decanters, a dish of fruit, and freshly baked dessert—were fancier than I was served at home. And everything in the house, from the formal furnishings to the painted concrete floor in the basement, shone. 

When Grandma wasn’t setting up play dates I didn’t want with girls I didn’t know, I was allowed to tag along with Aunt Rose to Bilker’s. There, I would roam the aisles and admire the many imported and unfamiliar items on the shelves. Aunt Rose placed small notes in a flowing script beside favorite items, suggesting how shoppers might best enjoy the gourmet foodstuffs. “Try this with toast rounds and shredded egg!” she might offer alongside a jar of fine caviar, or “This tuna is packed in water! Try it on salad.” I’m only sorry she didn’t live to see the current obsession with cuisine; Aunt Rose was a foodie before foodies were all the rage.

On those visits I could select whatever caught my fancy to take home, and Aunt Rose accompanied me to the checkout lane, where the biscuits, cookies, and jams were “rung up,” free of charge. In later years, boxes would appear on my doorstep at home, filled with sweet marmalades and syrups, crisp wafers and rich dark chocolates.

The coolest place to visit was the small office, up a few steps in the northwest corner of the store. There, Aunt Rose and Uncle Nat could oversee bookwork and watch patrons on the other side of a glass partition. Being allowed in such a privileged space was magical; I wasn’t a shopper down there, but somebody “in charge.” Surely this was how royalty must have felt.

Grandma Bilker blazed the trail for working women in the early 1900s, Aunt Rose worked tirelessly her entire adult life, and my own mother met my father as she sliced salami behind the deli counter in the 1930s. These were sturdy, upright, self-sufficient women, role models for the generations beyond. The store, and every item on every shelf, was personal. This wasn’t just their livelihood; it was their life.

There were no Bilker boys to carry on the family name, so I bestowed the middle name to my older son. I always wanted to call him “Billy,” rather than his first name of Gabriel, but the moniker never stuck. All the Cincinnati Bilkers are gone—my entrepreneurial grandparents, the aunts, my beloved mother—but I remember them, each and every one, whenever I see a stack of French macarons, a display of trendy coconut water, a spicy exotic tea. Mom was right when she said Grandpa Bilker had foresight—they were all ahead of their time.

Deborah Paul still lives in Indianapolis. As executive vice president and editorial director of Emmis
Communications, she continues to visit Cincinnati to look in on the action at this magazine.

Originally published in the Octbober 2011 issue.


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