Rising to the occasion

Cooks: Retirees help their church raise money for renovations by returning to the kitchen to bake scores of Thanksgiving pies.

November 22, 2001|By Mary Gail Hare | Mary Gail Hare,SUN STAFF

For the past few years, members of tiny White Rock United Methodist Church in Sykesville have been working to renovate the exterior of their 133-year-old building, raising money by holding barbecues and bake sales to finish the job.

Three red-brick walls are built, and a half-finished fourth could be complete by the end of the year with money earned from yesterday's sale of pies and cakes for Thanksgiving.

"We want this church to stand for 100 years after we're gone," said Bill Hudson Jr. "Everyone needs to know where they came from, what their heritage is. This was the mother church for African-Americans in South Carroll."

Many bricks are ready to be added, imprinted with names of church founders, forefathers and families who worshipped there for generations, like the Hudsons.

"People can walk up to this wall and see history," Hudson said. "These are names that have been in South Carroll for generations."

Hudson and two other bakers honed their culinary skills as cooks for Springfield Hospital Center, often preparing daily meals for a thousand patients. They are retired now, well into their 60s, but a 12-hour shift in the church kitchen was a piece of cake, they said. Besides, they had 79-year-old Bill Hudson Sr. as supervisor, packer, cashier and chief inspiration.

Baking more than 100 pies in a day would intimidate most chefs, but not these cooks. They peeled 60 pounds of sweet potatoes, mixed gallons of pumpkin filling and seasoned hundreds of pounds of apples to taste.

A savory aroma of cinnamon, nutmeg and cloves wafted from the church and clung to the air around the building.

"All three of us have a unique gift for tasting," Hudson said. "If it tastes good to us, we all agree everybody will like it. The secret is the filling. You can buy the dough, but without the right seasoning in the filling, you got nothing."

The pie assembly line had several stations: spice and stir fillings, roll and flute crust, monitor the oven, then cool, box and label the pies immediately so as not to confuse lookalike sweet potato with pumpkin.

The church's double oven can bake 16 to 20 pies at a time, with space to cook the applesauce cakes Bill's brother Gary Hudson was mixing in one corner of the kitchen.

Problems arise, but more in organization than in the kitchen, said Bill Hudson Jr. One order sheet was lost, so those requests had to be filled from memory. Then, late orders persisted.

"I need two more apples by 12:30," said Bill Hudson Jr. after one of many last-minute telephone calls. "If we've got it, we'll bake it. We don't like turning people away."

Boxes were sometimes mislabeled and occasionally borrowed to fill a more pressing order. No matter - replacements were in the oven. When the bakers realized five pies had gone home with the wrong customer, nobody flinched. They would bake a few more.

"I like talking to these gentlemen as much as I like eating their pies," said Bob Dustin of Sykesville. "It is so refreshing that they don't have to look up an order on the computer."

Or a recipe. Bill Hudson Jr. had scratched his "secret" recipe for pumpkin pie on the back of an envelope. The popular applesauce cake was part Betty Crocker, mostly mother and a bit of his improvisation, Gary Hudson said.

"This is done from scratch, like people baked in the old days," Gary Hudson said.

Ben Carroll arrived as the cakes he ordered a month ago went into the oven yesterday. Baking time would be about an hour. Carroll ordered his cakes at the last church barbecue, a feast of pit beef, soups and seafood that was orchestrated by the same cooks for the same renovation project.

"I can wait," Carroll said. "The longer it takes, the better it smells here and the better it will taste. I can't get that applesauce cake anywhere."

Carroll was buying two spicy confections filled with raisins and walnuts "just in case the Thanksgiving guests eat up one too fast. I want some left over for me."

He carried two warm, hefty boxes from the church, unsure whether he could make it home without taking a taste.

"You smell it and you just want to take a bite," Carroll said.

Mike Ritter took a deep breath as he entered the church, eager for three pies he had ordered. "I could smell the cooking from the outside. Eat one and it will make a believer out of you. The trick is to make sure you don't eat it all before you get home."

From the kitchen, Bill Hudson Jr. yelled, "It is hard to eat pie and drive."

"No, it's not," Ritter said.

The baking continued all day: more than 100 pies and about two dozen applesauce cakes. Then, the chefs went home to cook for their families' Thanksgiving dinners.

"Bill will be starting to fix our turkey around midnight and cooking all day Thanksgiving," said his wife, Joyce Hudson, scanning a kitchen filled with cooling pies. "I bet he hasn't made our apple pies yet."

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