A Baker's Ghost Returns — and She's Not Happy
SCOTT SIMON, host:
This is WEEKEND EDITION from NPR News. I'm Scott Simon.
It's been too long since we've checked in with our ambassador to the world of children's literature, Daniel Pinkwater, so naturally the pile of books that he's been collecting has grown taller. Daniel joins us now from his home in upstate New York.
Mr. DANIEL PINKWATER (Children's Author): Scott, I missed you so much!
SIMON: I didn't think you'd fall for that. I missed you, too. What's on the top of your pile?
Mr. PINKWATER: I have something delicious. Now this is especially poignant for me because it's all about cake. And I swore off cake and similar art forms more than a year ago.
SIMON: And how's that working out?
Mr. PINKWATER: Well, I'm still fat. So we have this book called "The Bake Shop Ghost." It's by Jacqueline K. Ogburn, and masterful illustrations by Marjorie Priceman; beautiful watercolors of a kind of a classical nature suggesting--oh, I don't know--you know, Utrillo and Chagall and...
Mr. PINKWATER: ...Davinsky and everybody good. And this is art. This book, to me, it's all about art. I think we should just read it to the listeners and let everybody enjoy it.
SIMON: Sure. Now which one of us begins?
Mr. PINKWATER: Toss a coin.
(Soundbite of coin toss)
SIMON: OK, I get to begin. But go ahead and read it now in an abridged form.
(Reading) `Ms. Cora Lee Merriweather ran the best bakeshop in these parts, maybe even in the whole state. The chocolate in her Mississippi mud pie was darker than the Devil's own heart. Her sponge cake was so light the angels kept hoping it would float up to heaven. No birthday was complete without a Merriweather layer cake with her special buttercream frosting.'
Mr. PINKWATER: (Reading) `Cora Lee must have poured all her sweetness into her work because there wasn't much sweet about her looks. She had a lemon-pucker mouth and hair scraped back into a hard little bun. Most folks hardly noticed her looks, though. She was seldom seen anywhere except behind the bakeshop counter. Few looked up from the glass-fronted cases filled with fluffy meringue pies, glistening fruit tarts, flaky strudels and, most of all, cakes.'
SIMON: (Reading) `When Cora Lee died, the whole town turned out for the funeral. No one cried until the preacher read out the bakeshop menu and everyone realized that all those luscious desserts were now only sweet memories. Cora Lee didn't have any family, so the Merriweather Bake Shop was sold.'
Mr. PINKWATER: (Reading) `The Merriweather Bake Shop stood empty. The shelves grew gray with dust. Years passed.'
SIMON: (Reading) `Annie Washington had been the pastry chef on a cruise ship. She fell in love with the shop the minute she stepped in the door. "Just what I want, a kitchen that doesn't rock up and down." She even liked the apartment upstairs.'
Mr. PINKWATER: (Reading) `That night, Annie hummed as she assembled the ingredients for a batch of puff pastry. About midnight, footsteps creaked overhead, but Annie paid no attention. A cold wind swept the room, but Annie kept working her dough. A stack of mixing bowls went crashing to the floor.'
SIMON: (Reading) `Annie dusted off her hands and turned around. A tall white figure with a lemon-pucker mouth stood next to the worktable. Annie smiled. "Ms. Cora Lee Merriweather, I've been expecting you." Cora Lee frowned. "Get out of my kitchen." Annie crossed her arms. "This is my kitchen now," she announced. Hovering utensils whirled through the air to crash into the wall. Annie didn't flinch. She turned her back on the astonished ghost. Cora Lee wasn't flummoxed for long. She let out a shriek that cracked the windowpane. Annie kept on rolling out her dough. Cora Lee rose up through the counter into the middle of the puff pastry, making a most horrible face. Annie slapped a slab of butter on top of the pastry and folded it up, ghost and all.'
Mr. PINKWATER: (Reading) `The battle went on all night, neither baker giving an inch.'
SIMON: (Reading) `At the crack of dawn, Cora Lee clawed open a 50-pound bag of flour, creating a blizzard that gave them both sneezing fits.'
Mr. PINKWATER: (Reading) `"Enough!" Annie cried. "What do you want? What can I do so you'll let me work in peace?" Cora Lee stared through the swirling flour, then smiled a tight little smile. "Make me a cake," she said. "Make me a cake so rich and so sweet it will fill me up and bring tears to my eyes, a cake like one I might have baked, but that no one ever made for me." "Then you'll leave me to my work? No more pranks?" said Annie. "The kitchen will be yours," Cora Lee agreed. "Piece of cake," Annie said.'
SIMON: (Reading) `At the stroke of midnight, Cora Lee appeared in the kitchen. For the first time in years, the shop was buttery and warm with the scent of fresh baking. "Please, be my guest," Annie said, motioning to a place setting of fine china and silver. Cora Lee sat, shook out the linen napkin and placed it in her lap. Annie uncovered the first offering.'
Mr. PINKWATER: (Reading) `"This doesn't bring tears to my eyes." Still, she ate the rest. Annie presented cake after cake and Cora Lee devoured them all. She showed no sign of being full and her eyes hardly blinked, much less shed a tear. At sunrise Cora Lee said, "You're a good baker, Ms. Washington, but I'll not leave until you have baked me a cake to fill me up and bring tears to my eyes, a cake like one that I might have baked, but that no one ever made for me."'
SIMON: (Reading) And so it went. Annie made every kind of cake she knew. She made white cake, chocolate cake, fruitcake, spice cake, cheesecake, carrot cake, cake with nuts, cake with candy, cake from Asia, cake from Argentina, cakes from Vienna, Paris and Rome. She made torts and tarts, babkas and Bundts, pound cake and panforte.'
Mr. PINKWATER: (Reading) `Each time, Cora Lee would sample the offering and remark on its quality before finishing it. Annie began to fear that she would be stuck forever making cakes for the hungry ghost.'
SIMON: (Reading) `After a month and hundreds of cakes, Annie had run out of recipes. She went to the library looking for inspiration. In a slim volume of town history, she found a section on Cora Lee and the Merriweather Bake Shop. When she finished reading, she knew exactly what kind of cake to bake. At midnight, as she had for the past month, Cora Lee appeared in the kitchen, her place was set with china and silver, but there was just one covered cake on the counter. "Well, have you made me my cake?" asked Cora Lee. "Yes, Ms. Merriweather, I believe I have," Annie replied.'
Mr. PINKWATER: (Reading) `She lifted up the cover and tilted the cake toward the ghost. Across the top in piped icing it read, "Happy birthday, Cora Lee." The ghost looked up at Annie, her eyes brimming. "How did you know?" "I found out that today is your 100th birthday and you grew up an orphan," said Annie. "Besides, whoever makes cake for the baker?" With her finest knife, Annie cut a slice of the chocolate layer cake with buttercream frosting and served it to Cora Lee.'
SIMON: (Reading) `Cora Lee ate her slice, tears trickling down her cheeks. When Annie offered her another, the ghost said, "I do believe I'm full." The two bakers sat quietly for a moment. Cora Lee rose into the air. "It's your kitchen now. I'll keep our bargain and leave you in peace." "Wait," said Annie, "I'd like to show you the new menu." She handed Cora Lee a menu card. The top line read, "Washington and Merriweather Bake Shop."'
Mr. PINKWATER: (Reading) `Now the Washington and Merriweather Bake Shop is busier than ever. The old folks say the cakes are almost as good as Cora Lee's. Of course, they don't know she still bakes many of them. And every year the shop's finest, most luscious, most beautiful birthday cakes are the ones that Cora Lee and Annie bake for each other.'
SIMON: Oh, Daniel, I love this story.
Mr. PINKWATER: When you turn the page, Scott--turn the--and on the back...
Mr. PINKWATER: ...there's a recipe.
SIMON: Exact--for `ghost-pleasing chocolate cake.'
Mr. PINKWATER: Yeah, and let's not read the ingredients because that would be cruel to me.
SIMON: Yeah, I know. Oh, darn, you anticipate me. It's just a wonderful story, isn't it?
Mr. PINKWATER: It's all about making art and the kind of generational dissent that makes art...
Mr. PINKWATER: ...and it's just a sweetheart.
SIMON: Yeah. Daniel, thanks so much for bringing us this book.
Mr. PINKWATER: It's a yummy book.
SIMON: Yes. The book is "The Bake Shop Ghost." It's written by Jacqueline K. Ogburn, illustrated by Marjorie Priceman. Daniel Pinkwater is the author of many fine books for children. His latest books are "Bad Bear Detectives" and "Dancing Larry." Both are illustrated by the illustrious Jill Pinkwater.