Baking-whiz Bertha Mason aims to become everybody's surrogate pie-making aunt.
By Jason A. Heidemann Photograph by Erica Gannett|
A group of friends and I, dressed in aprons and cupping zinfandel, are hovered around Bertha Mason as she rifles through a box of note cards. She’s searching for a recipe, and even at six-foot-four (taller if you count the high heels), she seems to be feeling a bit hemmed in. “When I get nervous I finger my box,” she says, cutting the tension with a salty joke. Suddenly, she pulls out an index card and reveals a recipe for basic butter pie crust that looks as if it was typed up on an antiquated Remington. My friends and I wash our hands and prepare to be homeschooled by Bertha in the art of baking.
Bertha Mason is the alter ego of Michael Bowen, an upstate New York transplant who moved to Chicago eight years ago after studying English and theater in college and working briefly in Atlanta. “I liked Chicago because it had good public transportation, accessible theater and people who are bigger and fatter than I am,” he says. “Also, there are a lot of encased meat products.” Bowen, who worked for AmeriCorps VISTA in Chicago, was crossing Federal Plaza one afternoon when he decided to ditch his current life and start a new one. He enrolled in culinary school at Kendall College in 2006 and graduated the following year with a degree in baking and pastries. Little did he know that cooking in a girdle would soon become his life’s work.
But baking has always been in Bowen’s blood. His parents attended culinary school and later ran an Italian restaurant in New York until his father died when Bowen was just two. Bowen says he was a lonely kid but took comfort from the feisty aunts in his life, many of whom made pies. He decided to give it a try while home sick one day from school. “I made this really terrible apple pie,” he says. “It had an oil-based crust. I remember it was so bad, but I was happy to get the recognition and the praise. People are happy to come home to baked goods.” So Bowen continued to bake. In tenth grade, he sold homemade cheesecakes to pay for a trip to France and for two years won the pie-eating competition at his high school.
But he never forgot about his aunts. After moving to Chicago, he began swapping recipes with them as a way to stay in touch, while perfecting his pies around town working for esteemed bakers at Hoosier Mama Pie Company, Fox & Obel, Milk & Honey and M. Henry. It occurred to him that by mixing his interests in theater and cooking, he could make some, ahem, dough while simultaneously paying tribute to the women in his life.
In Bertha Mason, Bowen rolls the wisdom and stature of Julia Child, the comic timing of Lucille Ball and the Midwestern sensibilities of his own aunts into one larger-than-life lady dreamed up one night at a friend’s party. “She’s named after the crazy woman in Jane Eyre,” Bowen says. “The maniacal woman who sets the house on fire. It’s also my initials spelled backwards, which I got from Tootsie.” Bertha made her official debut at Ebenezer Lutheran Church in Andersonville two years ago where she whipped up a bunch of pies for the church’s diverse congregation. Recurring gigs at the Second City’s Donny’s Skybox Theatre and a monthly residency at Mary’s Attic followed. She also hosts a biweekly podcast at berthamason.com (it’s also available on iTunes) where she dispenses sage culinary advice while trading barbs with made-up guests.
But best of all, Bertha makes house calls. For a fee ranging from $200–$300 depending on the number of guests (and the number of baking ingredients the host has on hand), Bowen brings Bertha into the homes of busy city dwellers for a hands-on evening of entertainment and instruction coupled with baked goods. The evening includes legitimate kitchen training and useful advice like, “add apple cider vinegar to the pie dough, it will help to relax the gluten in the crust,” coupled with Bertha’s naughty wit: “My husband gave me this pearl necklace,” she says with a wink. Bowen arrives at a host’s house in character and customizes the recipes and entertainment to each audience. He recently taught a group of 14-year-old girls, for example, how to make snickerdoodles while discussing Zac Efron.
“Bertha is a way for me to teach people in a fun, nonthreatening way,” Bowen says. “[She’s] a way to build a sense of community and home. A lot of people who enjoy Bertha are in similar situations as I am. They’re outsiders, they’re removed from their family, but they miss feeling connected. I think Bertha is a way to remind people of the past. It’s kind of like all the pleasure of the family without any of the guilt.”