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It’s a Long Story


I was a surprise.

A pessimist might say I was an accident, but I’m the glass half-full type. My parents each married once before they were married to each other. With five children between them, they didn’t plan to add to their collective brood.  It’s rumored my siblings were more excited about the surprise than my mom or dad.

My parents worked hard with very little to show for it. My dad worked on an assembly line for Westinghouse. My mom put bumpers on vans for General Motors during the week and worked as a small town caterer on weekends. Her rough hands, capable of pulling a finished tray of cookies from a hot oven without a potholder, told her story. In spite of their hard work, we still found ourselves below the poverty line and standing in a line for cheese and butter. My mom made the best macaroni and cheese with the government’s handouts; I haven’t tasted another that’s creamier or more delicious.

Birthdays were bright spots in an otherwise unsavory childhood and provided a break from our usual fare of wieners and beans, tuna casserole, and countless forgettable dishes made with canned cream of mushroom soup. For my birthday, I could have anything I wanted to eat – mom’s fried pies with cherry filling, lasagna and German chocolate cake.

A passion for food was perhaps the only interest my mom and I shared. I loved helping in the kitchen – especially with the baking. Many of the parties mom catered involved cookies. These were my favorite to bake. Delicate sugar wafers with butter cream icing sandwiched in between. Caramel pecan tarts. Coconut haystacks dipped in dark chocolate. The mindless repetition and emphasis on consistency fed my rapidly developing perfectionist tendencies, while my adolescent inner foodie marveled at the intensity of sweetness and complexity of flavors that could be baked into a single bite.

When I wasn’t helping mom in the kitchen, I was toiling with my dad in his woodshop making assorted crafts that only a mother could love out of wood scraps and wire brads. As college approached, I planned to study engineering and channel my interest in wood design into a lucrative career. I remained passionate about baking, but never thought of it as anything more than a hobby. I knew people who tried to profit directly from their hobbies, but they weren’t successful. After 18 years of living hand to mouth in a home we rented but never owned, making money was important to me – maybe too important then.

I studied civil engineering at Carnegie Mellon University in Pittsburgh, home of many food oddities including salads with hot steak and French fries piled on top and sandwiches made with coleslaw. I never warmed to the concept of combining multiple courses into a single unruly dish. Pittsburgh is special to me, because it’s where I fell in love with pizza. Mineo’s Pizza still serves up some of the best pies in Pittsburgh. Keep it simple – mushroom and cheese. It takes half an inch of napkins to soak up the extra grease on top; a task Mineo’s Pizza lovers don’t seem to mind.

I paid my own way for college and worked as many jobs as I could manage without letting my grades suffer. My favorite job was working in the metal and wood shops of the civil engineering department – a major upgrade from my childhood basement. At 22, I could swing a hammer better than most, regardless of gender. I supplemented my workstudy income by baking cookies for university employees. My last Christmas on campus, I sold over 400 dozen cookies in more than 25 varieties.

Civil engineering degree in hand, I headed to The University of Florida for my masters degree in Building Construction and an associates degree in tail-gaiting. Those Floridians were serious about their football, and it was contagious.  They were also serious about barbeque. Endless amounts of pork were prepared in industrial sized smokers. The delicious, woody aromas lured barbeque lovers from miles away. Serious contenders devoted an entire restaurant to as few as three menu items simply because they made the best pulled pork sandwich in three counties. Florida was also where I had my heart broken for the first time by a guy that preferred Keebler Fudge Stripe cookies to anything homemade. I should have known better.

I left the Gators behind and headed to Greenville, South Carolina for my first real job – suit required. I worked for a large company in the “chemicals, plastics, and fibers” division. That probably says it all. At my spot on the totem pole, I was relegated to designing repetitive industrial structures assembled with bolts the size of my head. South Carolina was even more serious about barbeque than Florida. The sauce varied regionally throughout the south, as it does today, and the matter of which sauce was the best was frequently debated by locals. Mustard, ketchup, or vinegar-based?

I got an itch to return north of the Mason Dixon Line though I can’t really say why; maybe it was the lack of decent pizza. (I miss the early springs of Greenville almost as much as I miss their ubiquitous pimiento cheese spread.) My company granted my request and transferred me to Chicago where I fell in love with architecture and deep dish pizzas with cornmeal crusts. Inspired by the graceful skyscrapers, I said good bye to industrial structures and took a job designing buildings like the ones I passed everyday on my walk to the office. There I fell in love again – this time with my future husband, fellow pizza lover and structural engineer Greg Lakota.

Sitting behind a desk doing calculations all day proved to be a bore regardless of the type of structure. As it turned out, playing in my dad’s woodshop was much more satisfying than any of my engineering jobs had been. But I couldn’t go back. My father died before I finished college and before he could see my own basement woodshop. My mom lost her battle with cancer eight years later, and I became an orphan at 30. During our last months together I wrote down as many recipes as my mom could recall. It would be years before the sadness faded enough for me to try them without her.

Fueled by a heightened sense of mortality, I was ready for a big change. I traded the design world for marketing and landed a position with a trade association that represented the structural steel industry. I started a national information center to handle questions about steel and spent the next five years immersed in marketing, branding and customer service. Certain my formal engineering days were behind me, I returned to school part time and received an MBA from The University of Chicago Booth School of Business. My last four years at the association were spent overseeing the company finances and managing the division responsible for industry quality standards. In many ways I was thriving; my job was challenging and always changing. But the frenetic pace seemed pointless at times and often left me feeling empty. I didn’t mind the hard work; I just wanted it to be more meaningful.

In nearly twenty years, I had collected three degrees and compiled a comprehensive list of what I didn’t want in a career. When I was busy, the feeling of dissatisfaction in my work was like a dull, constant hum that I could ignore; at other times it was deafening. And then I got a wake-up call (another long story) that gave me the courage to quit – to give up the job, the fancy title, the regular paycheck, the whole enchilada and pursue a more sedentary path.

I spent the next six months working as the general contractor for the renovation of a 100-year-old structure very near to my heart – the home I’d shared with Greg for nearly ten years. In between the maddening sounds of nail guns, saws, and roaring and beeping tractors, I sorted out my next steps. My passion for food was only matched by my passion for writing. And so I assumed my position at the bottom of the totem pole once again, but this time it was different; this time I chose my path with my heart rather than my head. It felt like coming home.

And now the real story begins.

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