On the strength of her new contract, she had a phone put in, and began to drum up more trade with the neighborhood customers, on the theory that a few extra pies were no more trouble, but that the extra money would be so much velvet. For pies one at a time, she charged, and still charged, 85 cents each. Shortly, as a result of the neighborhood trade, there dropped into her lap another restaurant contract. Mr. Harbaugh. husband of one of her customers, spoke of her pies one night at the Drop Inn, a cafeteria on Brand Boulevard, not far from Pierce Drive, and they called her up and agreed to take two dozen a week. So within a month of the time she went to work as a waitress, she was working harder that she knew she could work.
-From Midred Plerce. by James M. Cain. [WORLD ILLEGIBLE]Reprinted by permisson of Harold Oter Associates
MILDRED PIERCE tried to make ends meet during the Depression by baking pies at home. She dreamed of earning enough money to open a restaruant in Los Angeles. In those days she didn't need to worry about the health department closing down the kitchen in her house because it didn't conform to the sanitary code.
Mildred Pierce's real-life lineal descendants, Bubbles Horowitz, Loretta Shine, Nadine Korman, Helen Bercovitz and her son Dennis, are still baking away in Los Angeles and doing a lot better than Mildred did. But when several of them began, their greatest fear - actually realized on occasion - was that the health department would swoop down on their home kitchens because someone "squealed" about their "illegal" activities.
All of them dream the dream Mildred dreamed, too - of opening restaurants, franchising their secret recipes or being bought out by a multi-million-dollar corporation.
Los Angeles, which spawns dozens of trends that eventually make their way east, is the home of an extensive cottage industry of bakers and cooks. Most are women. Almost none of them has had any professional training. There is such a demand today for non-plastic food, for first-class ingredients put together without the catered look, that these women are up to their elbows in doughs and batters, providing restraurants and private homes with "homemade" dishes. Some of the products are so good and so homemade-looking that the people who buy them sometimes claim them as their very own.
Nadine Korman is one of Mildred Pierce's successors who was closed down by the health department for selling the "mousse pies" she made in her apartment. "Someone," the owner of La Mousse said, "sent an anoymous letter."
Korman got into the mousse business when Nixon froze everyone's wages in 1972. Her boss, a literary agent, called her into his office and told her her salary was "frozen now and forever."
"What he really said to me was 'you are a women and your wages will be $160 a week forever.'"
Korman did the only thing she could. She quit and turned to her first love - food. Her passion for sweets was so well known, dates used to leave pies on her doorstep. "I was a big fat ked before I went to college where I didn't have any money. I couldn't buy food and I lost weight." So much so that today Korman woyld be described as downright skinny.
In the beginning she peddled her "illegal" mousse pies from door to door."People knew me because I grew up in this town so they bought from me." One of her first customers was the very "in" restaurant, The Saloon.
Forced to move from her apartment, where she shared her bedroom with a freezer, Korman had an intermediate stop at a wholesale meat operation, but that was illegal, too. Four years ago she moved to her present quarters in a somewhat seedy part of Los Angeles between a synagogue and a kosher vegetarian restaurant. She's looking for something larger now to house 24 employees who turn out between 1,000 and 1,200 mousse, pecan, and cheese pies a week.
Korman has finally concluded that she is a success and can relax. The realization came to her when she was able to say "no" to customers who made "unreasonable requests" for special services. It was also part of her "liberation."
"I grew up to believe you bow, you scrape and you are subservient.
"When I began I would do anything to please. I would meet a car half way to Newport Beach (2 hours away) to deliver a mousse.But not any more.
"Anyone will push you as far as you want to be pushed, but I decided I don't want '1,600 mousses sold in one week,' on my gravestone. I want time to play tennis."
Korman's mousses, made without additives, come in 14 flavors, all set in dark, rich crusts made of chocolate wafer crumbs and sweet butter. The cookies are crushed by hand because, Korman said, "if you use a machine it gets too oily." Someone tried to talk her into buying a piece of equipment for folding in the egg whites and the whipped cream "but it just wasn't the same," so the folding is done by hand.
The chocolate mousse is the most famous, though some people get that dreamy look on their faces when they contemplate boysenberry, chocolate chip, amaretto or raspberry (the last only in season.)
The mousses are topped with fresh whipped cream and crowned with chocolate leaves, made by coating camellia leaves with melted chocolate, a trick Korman learned from the back of an old box of chocolate years ago. After the chocolate hardens te camellia leaf is peeled away.
Her pecan pie is painstakingly paved with tight concentric circles of pecan halves. One year Bendel's in New York sold the pecan pies, made with three times the usual amount of pecans, for $40 apiece. She only charges $13, the same price she gets for her mousses, which serve 12.
Most of Korman's employees are women, though she continues to hang on to one of her pre-women's lib stereotypes. "Men are better chefs, more experimental," she said. "But with this kind of delicate work, women are better because they care. Men are like big bulls in china shops."
La Mousse sells to many of the better LA restaruants and to several in New York, Miami and Atlanta. Her private customers include Jack Lemmon and Sidney Poitier. "It really picks up your day when Sidney Poitier comes in," she said.
Nadine Korman doesn't want to be "another Sara Lee. Maybe a franchise where people would buy the recipes."
A few blocks away, in a fancier part of town, Korman's ex-sister-in-law, Loretta Shine, was putting the finishing touches to her remodeled bakery. It had served as the plant for Miss Grace Lemon Cake Co., but the business outgrew the location and now Miss Grace's lemon, carrot and chocolate cake plus th echocolate chip cookies, are baked in Encino. The Beverly Hills shop has been turned into a "dry store for picking up and placing orders."
Shine was not only related to Korman once, she was also her mousse pie assistant. (The members of this network of cottage industry bakers all seem ot know one another. After that job she decided what she really liked about th working world was not the baking, but the business end. "T've got four kids and it was nice to get out and be with big people," Shine said.
Four years ago, when Korman moved to her present spot, Shine bought Miss Grace from a man whose mother's name was Grace. Each year she has added a cake to the line (next year it's banana) to keep the baker busy. In order to keep her formulas a secret she mixes all the dry ingredients together herself before the baker comes in.
The Lemon Cake Co. is a family business. "When I first started, the bigger kids worked here. Over Christmas we were so busy they slept on the counter in sleeping bags."
Today her 20-year-old daughter has the "Miss Grace Junior franchise" in San Diego where she is at school. Her 17-year-old son can pitch in any time and take over from the baker. The chocolate chip cookies were another child's inspiration. Both her mother and mother-in-law run the Beverly Hills shop.
The lemon cake sells for $5.75 at the store, $8.50 by mail. The other cakes are a little more. Jack Lemmon buys from her, too. So do Walter Matthau. Rosey Greer. Lillian Gish and Bonwit Teller.
"I don't see us getting really big because of quality," Shine said. "We mix only nine cakes at a time. I feel if we went to larger machinery, we'd lose something."
She doesn't plan to be Miss Grace for the rest of her life, "only as long as it's challenging, and then I envision General Mills coming in and offering me $5 million."
If not General Mills, at least other large corporations have been in to see Bubbles Horowitz already. Bubbles Baking Co., named for its owner, hardly qualifies as a cottage industry any more. It produces between 5,000 and 7,000 cakes a day. Its owner and chief operating officer is a grandmother, somewhere over 60, and about as big as a minute.
Horowitz' first gainful employment began when her husband lost his business about 12 years ago. He bought a restaruant in Pasadena and Bubbles Horowitz began to do for money what she had always done for free - cook. It didn't take her long to become dissatisfied with the cakes she was buying for the restaurant so she decided to try a few of her own. Within five years the bakery had pushed the restaurant out the back door.
Today, Horowitz, her husband, Reuben, and their daughter Judy Geffen run a 40-person operation in Van Nuys, making 19 varieties of frozen cakes and other sweets. They sell to 75 Los Angeles restaurants, several supermarket chins and elsewhere in the country, including Bloomingdale's, Macy's and Hamburger Hamlet.
Each morning Horowitz gets to the bakery at 5 a.m. to mix up batches of her secret recipe formulas. When she is short of help she goes back to the ovens.
With a great deal fo pride, Horowitz points out that her products contain "no preservatives, all fresh products, everything is pure. Only the carrot decoration on the carrot cakes (their biggest seller) contains artificial color."
Ingredients which are pretty scarce in most bakeries of that size are Bubbles' trademerk: three tons of carrots and a ton of zucchini for the zucchini-yogurt cake are grated there each week. Fresh lemons and oranges, fresh grapefruit for the grapefruit cake, whole fresh eggs are their stock in trade. the zucchini yogurt cake - zucchini in the cake, yogurt in the frosting - has attained a new status : Someone just had it made into a wedding cake.
"Gold in, gold out," is the company motto.Judy Geffen described the brownies as so scrumptions that "you don't eat them; you rub them all over your body."
The company still has a small retail trade which Geffen said "may be the most fun." How else would you have Robert Redford, Paul Newman and Dustin Hoffman as customers?
"It's unbelievable how we're being copied," Horowitz said, but she doesn't really think it's unbelievable. "People tell us we're the Gucci of the cake business."
Then modesty takes over and Horowitz adds. "The elegant neighborhood bakery is just as good." One of those neighborhood bakeries she admires is La Mousse.
Just down the street from La Mousse are two more much admired entrepreneurs. Delights by Denis is a 4-year-old operation run by Dennis and his mother, Helen Bercovitz. Bercovitz makes the sweets and handles the customers, and Dennis makes the quiches for which the tiny bakery has become famous.
Between conuseling customers over the phone about party-giving plans - what they should serve and how much they need - Helen Bercovitz explained why her son decided that if he wanted permanent employment he would have to be self-employed. Dennis, who is a professional baker, is also spastic and deaf. He had learned the trade because he knew he could get a job at a large Los Angeles bakery which made a point of hiring deaf people. But by the time he finished his training the bakery had closed. He tried working elsewhere, but his mother said, "If you are handicapped, you are the first one fired. The world won't let people like Dennis do what they are capable of."
So the Bercovitzes started baking in their kitchen and for four years "expected the health department to swoop down on us. Dennis sold door-to-door and we finally had enough money to open this place four years ago.
"The first year we had 45-cent days. Now Dennis has employees (several of whom are relatives), he's drawing a salary, everything is paid for, and we have $1,500 and $3,000 days."
The business is half retail and half wholesale: they will not divulge the names of their customers who like to pass off Denis' Delights as their own.
Nothing is sold frozen because Helen Bercovitz thinks "there are enough frozen products in the world now."
The nine different quiches, which sell from $2 to $9.25, depending on size, are "the mainstay of the business," but Dennis also sells lots of applw strudels, New York-style cheese cakes, Coca Cola cakes and each Christmas they ship bourbon cakes all over the world.
The Bercovitzs don't intend to go on baking forever.
"A lot of high rollers come in who want to back us," Bercovitz said, "who think it's just money, but that's not what we want.
"Both of us think we would like to have a restaurant, maybe with a carryout." Not a woman to mince words, Bercovitz is willing to bite the hand that feeds them. "We think the day of desserts is on the way out. They're not good for you.
"We don't like selling to a woman who weighs 250 pounds and is on the way to being a diabetic. We don't like contributing to her delinquency.
"The next generation," Bercovitz said, "is going to read and understand that sugar is lousy for you."
But until they do, these and dozens of other little bakeries and one-person catering operations are thriving, feeding the Beautiful People of Los Angeles who love good food, have plenty of money to spend on it, and would rather have someone else make it for them.
Mildred Pierce, you couldn't lose.