My former boss and mentor, Roger Eatherton, passed away a week ago, adding one more layer of sadness to an already surreal world. To say Roger was a wizard of efficiency was an understatement. Born and raised in South Dakota, Roger learned the art of pie baking from three generations of mid-western women; his great grandmother, his grandmother and his mother. Roger was much more than a formidable baker; he was a productivity expert, a brilliant mechanical engineer and a visionary.
Roger’s purchase of a Bucks County farm forever changed my career. Following a ten-year stint owning and operating a restaurant, I was ready for a change. Ignoring the fifty minute commute in good weather, (longer when it snowed), I found myself working in a kitchen framed by windows overlooking apple orchards, fields of wildflowers and meandering rows of pick-your-own berries.
The original bakery was compact, outfitted with Roger’s bench, a double door refrigerator, a wall of deck ovens, and two commercial mixers. An imposing dough sheeter ran the entire length of one wall. Freezers were located on the other side of the building, beyond the weathered cider press.
As the business continued to flourish, Roger and his wife, Jane, saw the clear need to expand the bakery. The new space was meticulously designed with the vision of an engineer, equipped with time saving technology Rube Goldberg would have applauded.
Amidst the convection ovens, dough rounders, and rotating bread oven, stood one of Roger’s favorite pieces of equipment. The humble doughnut fryer and batter depositor was an engineer’s dream. Cider-spiked batter fell into a pool of hot oil, sizzling and bobbing towards the surface. Armed with a giant pair of tongs, Roger plucked the doughnuts from the fryer, dropping them into a cavernous tub of cinnamon sugar. On Saturday mornings, the tangle of hot oil and cinnamon wafted through the screen door of the bakery, assaulting my senses before I’d barely stepped out of my car. “Have a doughnut,” Roger would say as I crossed the kitchen with my first cup of coffee. In all of the years I worked for Roger, that Saturday morning doughnut, dangerously hot out of the fryer with a thick coating of cinnamon sugar, was impossible to resist.
Roger and I approached baking from two vastly different perspectives, agreeing to disagree on many things. Roger was a devout believer of cakes slathered in frosting, I felt cakes should be adorned with buttercream. I vouched for cake pans in graduated sizes while Roger swore by baking cake layers in sheet pans. My idea of pie crust called for unsalted butter while Roger was an unwavering supporter of shortening. Roger relied on the consistency of Individually Quick Frozen fruit while I avoided frozen fruit like the plague. Roger also had a strong aversion to any diminutive baked goods he felt required “too much fiddle.” Roger spoke fluent Metric system, while I spoke Imperial. When I said ounce, Roger said twenty-eight- point-three grams. Potato, potahto.
When it came to mise en place, I liked to assemble all of my ingredients side by side on my workbench. Roger’s version consisted of emptying ginormous bags of flour, sugar, and leavening directly into industrial sized mixing bowls. One of my first days at the bakery, I gathered together a number of ingredients, among them cake flour. Determined to produce a silky batter, I scanned the utensils looking for a sifter. “Roger,” I asked, “do you have a sifter?” Roger paused before responding, answering my question with an incredulous look. Exploding with laughter, he doubled over in hysteria, punctuating his laugh with a few knee slaps, before finally dabbing his eyes with the edge of his apron. Over the years, he loved to retell the story in excruciating detail, “And then Ellen said, ‘Roger, do you have a sifter?’ A SIFTER!!!” Working for Roger taught me more about production and less about minutiae.
It’s impossible to forget Roger’s infectious laugh, the well-worn baseball cap perched on top of his head, or the way he rolled pie shells at a dizzying speed. There always seemed to be a fine mist of all-purpose flour circling him as he worked. Because of Roger, I purchased my first kitchen scale all those years ago and allowed frozen fruit to occasionally edge its way into a pie plate.
Embracing challenge over retirement, Roger and Jane began a new chapter in upstate New York several years ago. Another farmhouse beckoned, this time attached to 250 acres of rolling vineyards framed by the Finger Lakes. I visited with them last summer, touring the vineyard and the new bakery, designed by Roger. The bakery housed all of the equipment I remembered, including the doughnut fryer. Driving south along the Seneca wine trail with Roger’s signature laugh echoing in my ears, I felt my nose twitch; cinnamon.
Professional Pie-isms & Seasonal Sarcasm