Butter Gems

by Charles McGrath

Click on photo to enlarge:

Does anyone remember Butter Gems?

Are you aware that they were born in Vailsburg?

Over the years Vailsburg was birth place of many firsts. There were always small start up businesses in our area. The first diner was Fred's Diner. It was located on the northeast corner of Stuyvesant Avenue and 18th Avenue. It was the old traditional silver metal tube shaped diner.

Fred Steinke's house was located on Stuyvesant Avenue adjacent to his diner. Using local produce was not unusual then nor is it today. Fred was German and back in the early 1940's he raised some of his own animals for the diner. He raised Kaninchen. That's German for rabbit. His diner was torn down and replaced with a Texaco gas station in the early 1960's.

Across the street from Fred's house was another small business. It was a florist shop in the front with several traditional glass greenhouses in the back. The owner was Julius Zeboyan. I think he was also German and he was a little on the grouchy side.

My father loved gardening and was a good customer, if not a friend, of Julius. As a young boy in the 1940's I was amazed that he had orange and lemon trees growing in his greenhouses. To see oranges and lemons growing on trees in Vailsburg was hard to comprehend.

To a little boy Julius seemed like a very old man. It's funny how the mind of little children can enhance or distort what they see. Looking back Julius was probably not much more than 50 years old.

To the right of Julius lived another old man. I never knew his name but he was also German. He was just as grouchy and ornery as Julius. They would get into arguments in their backyards over gosh knows what. Many times their confrontations would degenerate into stone throwing. That would blow my mind to see two old men throwing stones at each other. They may have unwittingly provided the material for that movie Grumpy Old Men.

The Florist Shop and greenhouses were torn down and replaced by two brick two family houses in the 1960's.

On the northeast corner of Stuyvesant Avenue and Lindsley Place was another unusual business. It was a commercial bakery called Ernest's. Ernest started this bakery around 1944. To the best of my knowledge he baked only one item (not unlike a bagel shop today.) It was a biscuit around the size of a small peach. It was very unique and he was its creator. This biscuit appeared to be sliced like a loaf of bread. But in this case it was when the biscuit was in the dough (unbaked ) state . The biscuit could be easily broken apart into little slices. Butter would ooze out of these slices. They were simply delicious.

He called them Butter Gems. He delivered them to local stores in packages of six. Because they appeared to be sliced they easily broke apart during baking and packaging. He would retail the broken ones from a small counter in his store. I would buy a big bag of them for a nickel or a dime. What a breakfast treat they made.

Ernest went out of business in the late 1950's or 1960's. He must have sold his recipe to a large bakery like Taystee or Wonder bread. I remember seeing them in later years packaged and sold by one of these companies. Then they just disappeared from the shelves.

Over the years many things change and that's to be expected. But what's sad is when things are lost. "Butter Gems" were but just one of our many losses from Vailsburg.

* * *
Response from Don Randolph

Email this memory to a friend.
Enter recipient's e-mail: