Sara Bircher, a stay-at-home mother of three, nuzzles her 5-month-old baby boy in the living room of her spacious Hyde Park house, which she and her husband have been slowly renovating for the past few years. "I baked a lot with my grandma growing up, and to have people think that my pies are something special is really rewarding," she says. "It's really exciting to find one of those things that somebody else doesn't like to do or is afraid to do but you enjoy doing it."
Bircher, who's behind the still-developing one-woman operation Sweet Pea Pies, is just one example of the many women – and yes, Texas' new cottage food law benefits primarily women in its current iteration – who stand to benefit from the newly legal practice of making and selling cakes, pies, jams, and jellies from home without the prohibitive start-up costs associated with such a venture, from renting a commercial kitchen to licensing, food handlers' permits, inspections, and insurance. And while this image of the beatific mother lovingly making pies for her friends and neighbors in exchange for a few dollars to help support her family certainly helps engender good will toward these cottage industries, it raises other, more immediate questions: Whither homemade? And can Texas' home bakers help divert corporate creep into our tasty treats and, by extension, our kitchens?
Thanksgiving, more so than Christmas, evokes nostalgic, Norman Rockwellian images of Dad carving the golden-brown roasted turkey, of bowls heaping with creamy-smooth mashed potatoes and perfectly whisked gravy, of green bean casserole and fresh-from-the-oven, scratch-baked pumpkin and pecan pies. Of course, the reality of this painstakingly prepared meal is heavily informed by shortcuts – who has the time to thaw a 20-pound turkey for days on end, then spend countless hours babysitting and basting it? Who owns a rolling pin and buys Crisco and lard anymore? More and more, that gigantic annual meal we associate with home and hearth has been outsourced: We've turned the Thanksgiving meal over to the grocery stores and their spiral-cut hams, smoked turkeys, pecan-cornbread stuffing, spinach-artichoke bread pudding, roasted brussels sprouts with apples, whipped sweet potatoes, and mass-produced pies.
According to the Farm and Ranch Freedom Alliance's Judith McGeary, who worked closely with Reps. Lois Kolkhorst and Eddie Rodriguez on their respective bills at the beginning of the 2011 legislative session, the impetus behind the cottage food law (also known as Senate Bill 81) is a growing "interest from the consumers' side for value-added food. Yes, people want fresh fruits and vegetables and meat and eggs, but they also want the convenience of having premade goods." While there is indeed a market for ready-made food items, there are people who want something a little more personal, perhaps with a bit more integrity than what the big chains have to offer. SB 81 makes it possible for people to outsource their Thanksgiving pies, but through local relationships rather than merely transactional ones.
SB 81 began its life as House Bill 2084, authored by Kolkhorst, a Brenham Republican and chair of the public health committee. (Rodriguez authored a similar bill; Kolkhorst's is the one that emerged from committee hearings.) A similar bill died in committee in 2009; this time around, grassroots activists harnessed their collective power, including a vibrant social media presence that helped mobilize advocates to send an onslaught of letters, phone calls, and personal testimonies when it looked like the bill would not survive the 2011 session. Before Sept. 1, if an entrepreneurial baker wanted to start a legal baked-goods business without opening a brick-and-mortar shop, she had to rent a commercial kitchen, obtain a food handler's certification, and jump through many other prohibitively expensive administrative hoops. Such constraints prevented many, many people from being able to pursue such a goal, and it all seemed a bit excessive for something as innocuous as cookies and cupcakes.
Now that many of those restrictions have been scaled back, home bakers are free to sell the aforementioned baked goods and jams, as well as breads and dry herb mixes. Products requiring refrigeration, such as cream and custard pies, and products that contain protein or are neutral to slightly acidic (with a pH of 4.6-7.5) are prohibited. Sales must be conducted at the seller's home, and while sellers may market their wares via Twitter, Facebook, and websites, no Internet sales are allowed. Profits may not exceed $50,000 per year, ensuring the small-scale scope of the law. While cottage candy- and salsa-makers were left out in the cold, this is considered a major victory for home-based microbakeries in Texas, one of half a dozen states to enact a cottage food law in 2011. Says Kolkhorst, "It is very heartwarming to know that we have given independent operators and small business, which is the engine of our American economy, the ability to operate legally now."
McGeary, who earned a law degree at the University of Texas, sees the stakes for the new law in pretty clear terms: "If you own your own business, you would like to make money at it, but you probably have a dozen other, equally important reasons why you are doing this business here and now. For big corporations, the sole motivation is profit. They may try to be responsible corporate citizens, but legally they have one duty: to make as much money as possible. The people working in the plants are paid labor, they have no ownership of the product, and they're under huge pressure to move as quickly as possible in the name of efficiency and the highest profits possible. This is diametrically opposed to the incentives of a small-scale local producer who owns their own business – whether it's a cupcake venture or a farm – who is hands-on management, who is selling under their name directly to people."
Kelley Masters, the home baker (www.homesweethomebakery.com) who spearheaded the grassroots movement that ultimately helped get the law passed, puts it more plainly: "If you spend $100 at Walmart this Christmas, where is that money going? If you really want to Occupy Wall Street, spend your money locally. They don't really care that you're camping in a park. Stop spending your money; then they'll take notice." Masters, who makes special occasion cakes, was writing letters to her legislators as early as 2007 after learning that she could not legally make and sell wedding or baby-shower cakes from her home for friends and church members who requested them. "That's the story to me: We had to fight this hard just for this basic right to make a cake or a cookie in our house and sell it locally.
"Even if we don't want to make a lot, we should be able to [operate small-scale home baked-goods businesses]. Some of the letters I got would break my heart – people whose husbands had lost their jobs or who had disabled children or were caring for elderly parents. There are people who can't leave their houses that could do this." Kolkhorst agrees that laws like this help give a leg up to those who need a personal economic stimulus: "One of the women who testified had a husband who had become ill and lost his job and had a daughter in college. She worked full-time during the day, and at night and on weekends, she baked cakes. That's how she was able to supplement her salary and hold the family together and keep them above the poverty line. How can you be against that?"
But SB 81 does not just provide opportunities for struggling wives and mothers to supplement their family's income, which was the dominant narrative surrounding the efforts to get it passed; it also provides opportunities for young, pastry-minded entrepreneurs to establish their businesses without going into hock.
Nora Eddings is a 27-year-old graduate of St. Edward's University who started baking as a hobby a number of years back. After receiving positive feedback from family and friends, she began looking into starting a small business. On Sept. 1, Eddings' new venture, the Conscious Cupcake (www.consciouscupcakeaustin.com), featuring goodies made from locally sourced organic eggs and milk, opened for business. "I'm really thankful that the bill has passed," she says. "We've been waiting for years for it to happen, and that it has finally gone through is a big victory and enables us to do something that we're passionate about and make a little money. We are legit now, and that's a good feeling."
"The cottage foods law is a pretty big step for home bakers," agrees Kristen Davenport, a 25-year-old vegan pastry chef who's been baking professionally for nearly four years. "It allows me to get my product out there. Most people aren't starting out with a lot of funds to get all the permits and everything, so the bill helps us get the word out." Davenport, who details her pastry undertakings, including an enticing-looking speculoos cupcake, at www.sugar-skull.com, hopes to own her own vegan pastry shop in Austin some day, and she sees the freedoms afforded her by SB 81 as a step toward achieving that goal.
Sometimes the reasons for pursuing a home-baking business are more complicated than survival or ambition. They're about identity. "As a stay-at-home mom, I need some sort of outlet," confesses Bircher, who has not yet officially turned on the lights for Sweet Pea Pies but plans to offer pies and pie pops for birthdays, weddings, and other occasions, as well as pie-making classes. "It's funny because my older daughter is getting to an age where we talk about what she's going to do someday, and she told me that she wants to stay home and dust and paint nails and let her husband go to work. And so part of this is about her not having a concept of me outside of 'mommy.'"
For Lindsey Long, the proprietor of Lollipop Cupcake Shop (www.lollipopcupcakeshop.com) who counts Dennis Quaid among her recent clients, SB 81 allows her the freedom to be creative (Long has perfected the rainbow cupcake, her signature treat) and set her own schedule. "I don't know what I would have done if the bill hadn't passed; I might have had to take out a loan to open up a shop," she muses. "It has been so empowering. It's like they say: 'Happy wife, happy life.'" What's more, Long asserts, it's the personal touch that makes goods like hers particularly special. "People should be able to make the choice to buy a cake from their neighbor rather than something that was just whipped up and shipped out to a big store, and at the same time helping her support her family rather than giving their money to some big chain."
Whether Texas home bakers will be able to wrest Thanksgiving pies (and birthday cupcakes and wedding cakes and so on) from the assembly line in the long run remains to be seen. What we do know is that if you can't or won't make a pie for your holiday dinner, chances are there is a woman nearby who would be happy to be your proxy. Eating locally never tasted so sweet.
For a user-friendly summary of the cottage food law, as well as a number of other resources regarding the law's history, consult the Texas Cottage Food Law website: www.texascottagefoodlaw.com.
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