Baker's recipe for success Tradition: Tina Paul owns a West Baltimore bakery, where her goods are made from scratch, based on her grandmother's recipes.

September 19, 1998|By Rafael Alvarez | Rafael Alvarez,SUN STAFF

If your taste buds itch for truly Southern baking, then you've got to scratch 'em on the goodies at Tina Paul's West Baltimore sugar shack.

For Paul -- a former forklift operator who began selling baked goods at flea markets -- "from scratch" is a family tradition: Many of her signature specialties have been passed down from Florence "Puddiny" Johnson, her 91-year-old grandmother.

"Everybody says they bake from scratch, but most of them are talking about something that came out of a box," says Paul, owner of the Truly Scratch Bakery at 1103 W. Baltimore St. "Baking by taste and touch is the true measure of scratch. We do it without recipes, and nothing is ever the same. We measure things out in the pit of our hands."

From the pit of Paul's hand to the bottom of your stomach go butter poundcakes, sweet potato and blackberry pies with distinctive hand-fluted crusts, homemade dinner rolls, butter-pecan cookies, cornbread, peach cobbler, coconut cookies and rice pudding. Dinners include chicken and dumplings, and crab cakes with collard greens and yams on the side.

Nearly all of the ingredients used at the tin-ceilinged, former beauty-supply store near Arlington Avenue come from the Hollins Street Market a few blocks away.

"Everybody's eaten my food, even Tipper Gore when she was here," says the 50-year-old Paul, who runs the seven-day-a-week business with her mother, Elaine Paul, and her son, Thomas Pendleton. "The very rich and the very poor come here."

Though folks go bananas over the sweet potato pie -- "I use a lot of butter and pay no attention to health when it comes to sweet potato pie," says the licensed nutritionist -- Paul's calling cards are dinner rolls so good that neighborhood youths who have never tasted homemade bread prefer them to candy.

The rolls, made from dough that rises three times, are another legacy of her grandmother's kitchen, although vegetable shortening has been substituted for the bacon fat grandmother used.

'Wear and tear'

"It costs me a cent and a half per roll to make them, and I charge 50 cents a roll. They're the most expensive dinner rolls in the city, $6 a dozen and it's not open for discussion," she says, pinching out balls of dough before dawn yesterday morning at the start of a typical 15-hour day. "But I'm charging for the labor, for the wear and tear on my hands. The pennies that come into this place are the glue that holds my family together."

Paul is a Christian -- a chalkboard next to a bubble-gum machine lists folks who need prayers, and gospel music fills the store -- but many of her friends and customers are Nation of Islam Muslims. In deference to their beliefs, Paul not only sells no pork but has cut pig meat out of her diet so that the hands that bake from scratch never touch swine.

Paul, a 1965 graduate of Douglass High School, decided to start her own business after several companies she worked for, including the medical-supply company where she drove a forklift, folded.

Friends had raved about her cooking -- she had good luck trying it out on the public at the annual Heritage Festival in Essex -- "and I thought, I can do better taking care of myself," she says.

To test the market, she began baking at home and selling goods at the sprawling flea market on North Point Road in 1991. Sales were discouraging the first weekend, but her customers came back and told their friends.

The family has sold baked goods from several locations since then, including a monthlong stint at Harborplace, before buying the current building about six months ago.

Discouraging factors

She gave up a longtime home in eastern Baltimore County to come back to North Fulton Street, near a house where she grew up.

When Paul gets discouraged by profits that don't stretch as nicely as her piecrust and the lack of skilled labor -- even from the local culinary college -- to duplicate her family's secrets, she turns to the Lord and her baking buddy, Ron Peluso.

Peluso, a baker for Geresbeck's market in Middle River who once owned Herchowski's Bakery in Canton, befriended Paul when she would come into his store to buy cakes and ask his advice.

"I helped her out by lending her some equipment to get her started," says Peluso. "She only uses the best ingredients, but her only detriment is she can't do everything herself and still keep up with demand.

"Her biggest challenge is to build customers, but she doesn't have any advertising budget because she's always using one day's receipts to pay the next day's bills. But she won't give up."

How can you give up, asks Paul, when someone bites into a buttermilk biscuit that brings tears to his eyes?

"It's not all about money. It pays off in feeling good about yourself," she says. "People look at me and say, 'Oh, Lord, this reminds me of my mother. My mama is gone, but you brought her back.' "

Pub Date: 9/19/98

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