The trouble with success Westminster's Muffin Lady made it big: People magazine, 'Good Morning America' and now her own cookbook. But the recipe for fame, Linda Fisher found out, was full of unexpected ingredients.

November 09, 1997|By Jackie Powder | Jackie Powder,Sun Staff

WESTMINSTER -- It's 4 a.m., and darkness fills the engine bays and bingo hall at the Westminster Volunteer Fire Department. The only sign of life is in the kitchen, where Linda Fisher is starting her workday.

While the ovens heat and butter melts in a pan on the stove, Fisher chops apples and peaches. An oldies radio station plays in the background as she moves deftly between her workstations, from mixer to stove to cutting board.

Fisher expertly wields a rolling pin to flatten the dough for cinnamon buns. She's a petite woman, but her arms are strong and muscular from 20 years of rolling dough and hoisting pots and pans.

This is the time when Linda Fisher feels most confident and content: in her kitchen before dawn, occupied with the work of scratch baking. During the next three hours, 12 dozen muffins and cinnamon buns will be baked, then delivered warm and bursting with fruit to office workers in town.

Over the years, baking has seen Fisher through some tough times. Once, she sold carrot cakes to buy Christmas presents for her children, paying for her cooking supplies with food stamps. After her mother's death in 1994, she turned to baking to deal with her grief.

Within the past year, however, Fisher's baking has become more than a way to make a living or a therapeutic diversion. Now, her entire identity is wrapped up in it.

She has become the Muffin Lady. The transformation has taken her on a dizzying odyssey through the strange landscape of modern-day celebrity. The Muffin Lady has written a cookbook. The Muffin Lady may franchise her business. The story of the Muffin Lady may be made into a television movie.

But sometimes the Muffin Lady just wants to go back to being Linda Fisher -- a 48-year-old divorced mother baking muffins in the cramped kitchen of her rent-subsidized townhouse and selling them from a red Radio Flyer wagon that she pulled through the streets of this town of 15,000.

"Anything I do with this baking thing has been out of passion and to earn a living. Very simple, very basic."

But there's no turning back. Not since that cold morning last January when the Carroll County Health Department intercepted Fisher on her early-morning delivery rounds and ordered her to stop selling her homemade goods because she didn't have the proper license. Not since outraged citizens rallied to her defense so she could continue to peddle her oversized, underpriced muffins to support herself and her teen-age son. Not since Fisher's story nabbed the attention of People magazine, "Good Morning America" and a New York publishing company.

For almost a year, the Muffin Lady has consumed Fisher's identity, and the way she sees it, she's arrived at the center of something beyond her control. Life is complicated now: She has business obligations, and can no longer take refuge in the comfort of anonymity. It's still her story, but now somebody else decides who she can tell it to -- and where, and when.

If this is success, it isn't what Linda Fisher ever imagined.

Fisher wasn't supposed to be a baker.

Lenzie and Catherine Barnes had something else in mind for their eldest daughter. College was a given, and they hoped she might even become a doctor or a lawyer.

Growing up in Washington with her two younger sisters, Fisher was a good student and obedient daughter. At the urging of her mother, she attended a more academically challenging high school in an affluent neighborhood outside of her district. She was among only a handful of black students in the class of 1967 at Woodrow Wilson High School, which was populated by the sons and daughters of politicians and high-ranking officials in the administration of President Lyndon Johnson.

Fisher's college-educated parents had jobs with the federal government. Her mother worked for the Defense Department, and her father rose through the ranks of the U.S. Postal Service. Now 82 and living in North Carolina, he still runs a general contracting business.

"I'm their biggest disappointment because I didn't finish college, plus I didn't work for the federal government," Fisher says. "Back then, it represented stability and security."

After graduating from high school, she married her teen-age sweetheart. By the time she was 22, she was the mother of three children. She had hoped to become a commercial artist, and while attending George Washington University she took art classes at the Corcoran Gallery. But the demands of being a parent forced her to leave school.

After the birth of her third child, Fisher's marriage began to deteriorate, and she left her husband in 1973. Around this time, she was diagnosed with clinical depression. Because of her condition, Fisher's husband was given primary custody of their children, and she had them on weekends and holidays.

Today, she has a close relationship with her three grown children, but she says they see her as a sister rather than a parent. She lives with the regret that the choices she made affected her ability to raise her children.

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