Baking with Bertha

WHEN Through 7/22: Sun 7:30 PM

WHERE Live Bait Theater, 3914 N. Clark


INFO 312-239-8570 (for theater reservations and lessons)

Bertha Mason is in my kitchen, mashing acorn-size chunks of frigid butter into a bowl of flour, her sausagelike fingers working with twitchy intensity. It’s an insufferably humid June afternoon–the worst possible weather for making a flaky piecrust, she laments. A drop of perspiration snakes out from under her lacquered brown hair and stops just short of her silver-rimmed glasses. “I’m trying to do like they taught me in the anger-management class, don’tcha know,” she says, thick Minnesota accent squeezing through a pinched smile. “Take all the hatred, bury it down in a very dark place, and let it come out in your dough!

“Is there any bacteria on this counter I don’t know about?” she wonders aloud. “Well, what you can’t see can’t hurt you. That’s what my husband, Lou, said on our wedding night. I married him not for his charm but for his lack of back hair.” She adds a bit of white vinegar to the mixture, explaining that it weakens the gluten in the flour and makes for a “much more tenderer crust.” And if you’ve got a good crust, she continues, “people will forgive the filling.”

This six-foot-six, 57-year-old hausfrau from Franklin, Minnesota (“just like Lake Wobegon, except we have a Wal-Mart and a crystal meth problem”), in her size-13 white pumps, white hose, and light blue polyester floral print dress, is the creation of 30-year-old writer, performer, and pastry chef Michael Bowen. He borrowed the name from Jane Eyre: Bertha Mason is Rochester’s mad first wife. Bowen, who read the book in college, says, “It was a bit of an in-joke with my friends that when you found love you either were a Jane pining for your Mr. Rochester or a Bertha–crazy, locked in the attic setting fires. I was always a Bertha.”

For the modest fee of $50 per person (which can vary with the number of guests and the menu), Bertha will come to your kitchen and give you and your friends a unique baking lesson. Bertha provides the vintage aprons, polka music, board games, and the stories; hosts come up with the baking basics (flour, sugar, etc)–or not, though then the cost is greater. And for four Sundays in July, starting July 1, Bertha will be talking about her recipes, spinning yarns, and serving premade baked goods at Live Bait in her first one-woman show, Baking With Bertha.

Kneading a few tablespoons of ice water into her dough in my apartment, Bertha remarks, “You know my daughter Brenda up there in Minnesota, she’s so funny. She said I put the mother back in smother. What a character. Now she’s starting the therapy, and she tells me, ‘Ma, you’re gonna pay for it because you’re the cause.'” Bertha puts her dough into the refrigerator, then dumps a few cups of diced rhubarb into a bowl. She tosses in sugar, cinnamon, nutmeg, and a little flour and smooshes it all together with her hands. “National pie day is January 23, don’tcha know. Anything can be a pie. I’ve got a recipe for a raisin funeral pie. You hydrate the raisins, bake them in a kind of fruit filling, and bring it along when someone dies. People just want to know you care.”

She sets the gooey rhubarb mess aside, then pulls out cans of condensed milk, fruit cocktail, and crushed pineapple for another treat: her “famous” frozen fruit cocktail pie. “Everything’s in cans! Easy peasy Japanesey!” She dumps all the ingredients in a bowl, then peers out the kitchen window toward Halsted, a few blocks west. “My nephew Chris and his little friend Steve live over there in the gay town,” she says. “They’re thinking about completing their modern gay lifestyle by getting a little Chinese baby from Vietnam.” She peers into her bowl. “It looks a little bit like throw-up.” To camouflage it she folds in some Cool Whip Extra Creamy and a handful of pecans, then pours the mixture into a store-bought crust and slathers another layer of Cool Whip on top. As she pops it into the freezer she chirps, “If you don’t have diabetes, this’ll give it to you!”

Bowen created Bertha in 1997, while he was working as prop master at the Bristol Valley Theater in Naples, New York. That was the summer before his senior year at Buffalo’s Canisius College, where his major was English and his minor was theater and creative writing. “We had a white-trash party, a chance for the actors and tech crew to blow off steam,” he says. “A fellow techie and I decided that we were going to lip-synch to a Patsy Cline song. In the costume shop I found a pair of glasses and a wig that fit my head. Thus Bertha was born.”

After graduating Bowen spent two years in Atlanta as an AmeriCorps volunteer before moving to Chicago in 2000. But it wasn’t until the 2003 Gay Pride Parade that he brought Bertha out in public, walking the route and handing out penis-shaped cookies. “People were so happy to see her,” Bowen says. “Everyone wanted their picture taken with Bertha. I think she reminds people of someone they know from back home.”

For Bowen, Bertha is a tribute to the “strong, overbearing women” who ruled his family in rural Sidney, New York, a town of about 5,000 in the foothills of the Catskills. “No matter how bad their lives get, everything and anything can be fixed with a slice of pie and a fresh coat of lipstick,” he says. His family owned a restaurant, where both his parents cooked. “And all my aunts baked. It’s what farm women do. So baking is just very natural to me. It’s very soothing to have my hands working butter into flour.”

Bowen figures his great aunt Mildred had perhaps the greatest influence on Bertha. She sported a tight perm, floral print dresses, and sensible pumps and lived to 97. “She was an upright, churchgoing farm woman who made the best coffee tapioca pudding that I’ve ever had,” he says. He inherited her rusting recipe box, crammed with scraps of paper covered with handwriting from most of the women in his family. The box provides Bertha with some of her more suspect confections, including the fruit cocktail pie, beet cake (flour, sugar, baking powder, beets, cottage cheese, crushed pineapple, and “nutmeats”), and the shiver-inducing tomato soup cake. “It has raisins, pineapple chunks, and tomato soup baked together into this orange loaf that looks like foam rubber,” Bowen says.

Growing up gay in a small town, Bowen had a difficult time fitting in. “Since I didn’t play sports and was bookish and into theater, I didn’t really have friends my own age. I spent a lot of time with older adults, the people on my paper route. I would go on Sunday nights to collect, and I would sit with all these old people on their front porches, eat Ritz crackers with peanut butter, and visit. In a way, I think that Bertha tries to provide a similar experience to people.”

Bowen hopes to turn his lifelong passion for baking into a full-time career. “A few years ago I was walking across Federal Plaza downtown, heading to my soulless cubicle job, when I realized that my life had become gray and dull. I stood there under the flamingo sculpture and asked myself, ‘What have I always wanted to do with my life?’ The first thing that popped into my head was to bake pies.” Bowen quit his job and enrolled in the pastry program at Kendall College. He graduated just last weekend and hopes that, between working in a bakery and giving cooking classes in a dress, he’ll never have to see the inside of another cubicle.

While Bertha waits for her rhubarb pie to bake, she plays a few hands of Rack-O with me, talking a blue streak. “You know I was at church, of course, and this couple had a baby. It was the most ugliest baby I’ve ever seen in my life. But I thought I had to say something nice. So I said, ‘Oh! He must look like someone in your family!'” Finally rhubarb juice bubbles through the slits, and it’s time for pie. Despite the humidity the crust is TV-commercial flaky, and the filling is perfectly poised between sweet and tart. The frozen fruit cocktail pie, on the other hand, could short-circuit your pancreas. Or insulate your attic.

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo by A. Jackson.