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Food

Decline Of The Coconut ‘Macaroon King’

Since 2008, couple Elka Gould and Ami Kaplan, director and producer, have been filming the Badner family coping with the slow decline of their macaroon factory in Williamsburg. A forty-minute film was whittled out of fifty hours of footage, and The Macaroon King documentary was born. The film is an unexpected time capsule into the financial repercussions of the 2008 financial crisis and the growing impossibility of small business in New York.

The opener simmers with tension. It’s 2008 and the macaroon company is operating in a ruined economy. “You don’t make excuses for failure,” says a spry but elderly Arnold Badner, owner of the failing Williamsburg bakery where he sells his “Jennie’s macaroons,” named after one of his daughters.

Macaroons are the default Passover spring dessert, hearty lump-like sweets made of shredded coconut. Of course, coconut isn’t native to Eastern Europe, so how did macaroons become such a constant in the Passover tradition? This is one of the many questions the film raises but fails to answer.

The macaroons in this film are treated with a particular coldness, which is fair, considering the unsuspecting treats are the thing that pulled the Badner family into such trouble. Nonetheless, there are none of the expected shots of people relishing their macaroons, of children greedily eyeing macaroons cooling on a platter.

“You want a macaroon?” Badner offers the camera operator. The answer is not forthcoming and the can remains frozen in the air, proffered, a microcosm of the way the world is refusing to want Badner’s macaroons. One can sense the tension between Badner and the filmmmakers, with all the attendant subtext between the filmmaker and the filmed.

The film is unexpectedly depressing, with scenes of Badner surveying an empty factory, speaking about how union costs jumped 500%, while noting how companies like Stella D’oro, run by a hedge fund, can absorb these costs. Badner, the stoic, old Jew, who was used to going at it alone, can no longer. He’s a man whose heyday was in the ’70s, who is struggling to figure out what his life will look like if he doesn’t have to wake up at five a.m. to head to the bakery. His daughter talks about him working in an unzipped jumpsuit, chest hair poking out, absolutely covered in macaroons, a man in the flush of success.

Badner tried to keep his “Jennie macaroon” as minimally Jewish as possible. “He tried to be so American, but it’s a completely ethnic bakery,” said his daughter, Lisa.

“The Macaroon King” is a stirring portrait of a company on its last legs, a glimpse into a Jewish family business facing a financial crisis, into the decline of a kosher staple, into a family drama in miniature.

Shira Feder is a writer for the Forward. You can reach her at feder@forward.com

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