It was an unassuming white house that sat on a short street that was almost as narrow as an alleyway. It was cute, like the cottage that sits along the Wisconsin shores of Lake Michigan my family and I have vacationed to since I was a young girl. The symmetry of this tiny abode, with its twin gables that faced the street and hobbit-sized screen door, brought to mind an image of a mother, father, and a handful of small children wearing britches or long dresses sitting and laughing by the fireplace over which would be stewing squirrel and okra soup. If the little house of the infamous book, Little House on the Prairie, were to be constructed today, in the hubbub of a big city, this house would be that house. There were actually no windows on the front of the house, just a closed, white door from which a sign read, “Come in! We are open!” Another sign decked the house, a larger wooden sign that was nailed above the door. Painted in blue, yellow, and bright red read, “The Pastry Queen,” under which was printed a name, “Maria Rico.” It was not just my affinity for visiting bakeries wherever I go (it’s nearing an obsession), it was something else that was telling me to go inside. It was some spirit, some visceral reaction, that was telling me, “Come, come, come and see!”
I definitely went down the rabbit hole and found myself in…a wonderland. A wonderland of, well, wonder. Why are the lights off? Why are candles burning in every nook and cranny? Where is everyone…anyone? Why are there about three hundred small toy cars on the shelves of the refrigerator case? If this is a bakery, where is the pastry display? The walls were plastered with vintage posters of past music gigs that happened in Austin years ago. “Bobby G plays at The Continental Club on South Congress 7pm,” and “A Round of Blues, a City-Wide Austin Experience” were just some gigs that the posters advertised. One table, dressed in a black and white checkered tablecloth and a stack of papers and recipes, sat in the corner of the room, upon which a small candle was burning. I was struggling to find the actual baked items that were for sale, if any. The search was like going on an Easter egg hunt, or playing the Sesame Street game “which one of these things is not like the other?” A carrot cake slice sat next to an antique candle holder; a loaf of banana bread was neighbor to a jewelry box; a mini almond encrusted chocolate mousse tart lay under a stained glass lamp; and a container of chocolate-drizzled macaroons kept a pile of vinyl records company. Each time I found a baked item for sale, it was like spotting Waldo.
I stood in the middle of the room, with my mouth open and jaw dropped, my eyes running around the room observing as much as I possibly could. I heard a small racket from the kitchen, which was in the back part of the house (I later learn that the house has three kitchens!). I was in such awe of the ambiance and visuals of this place, that when an apron-wrapped woman, perhaps in her early fifties and clutching a small red book to her chest, walked out of the kitchen, she responded to me by taking off of her glasses, giggling, and blossoming a humble smile. Her reaction told me that she was elated to observe someone so enamored by “the experience” of her pastry shop.
“Wow, what’s going on here?” What’s…the story? What…,” I spewed immediately, still looking around the room. I then turned to greet the woman. I saw a small-framed woman, who looked to be of either Native American or Hispanic decent, with pure olive skin and small, yet boundless eyes and lips that melted into her overall countenance. She was still smiling a smile that comforted and protected me, as if she knew that I was her daughter and was supposed to walk in her doors.
In fact, I was supposed to walk in her doors, because walking into the doors of her bakery was like walking into her life. I was supposed to walk into her life, and she into mine. Maria is her name and she is the magical woman behind the one-woman pastry show. Over the next hour of completely unplanned and serendipitous time we spent together, we shared beliefs, values, and truths that two people may not ever get to share together over the course of a lifetime. We got down to it, connecting our hearts and souls to one another and to the essence that connects us all – love.
I could tell you that Maria came out of childhood hardship. I could tell you that she is just as much of a value-driven barterer as I am in my days. I could tell you that her husband recently died, she thinks George Harrison is a “hunk,” she is both a great questioner and listener, and she wants to be able to run but she thinks she would die trying. And, I could tell you that she loves our current economic state because it has pushed her into finally doing the thing she has most longed to do since childhood.
But, what I really want to tell you is that Maria believes “God is in a cookie.”
“Love…it is what we are meant to do…be love, do love, feel love, give love, just love…because it is the only thing that remains.” Maria said. I could feel the genuineness of her words emanate, like a sound wave, from her to me. She was so real.
We were sitting across from each other at the shop’s one table, my eyes fixated on hers, and hers on mine. The lights were still off, and I could see the flicker of the tabletop candle out of the corner of my left eye. “Yes, mmmm, that is so true!” I agreed.
Maria continued, “I go to my kitchen, my place, and I can just feel buckets and buckets of love falling out of me into these pastries, cakes and cookies. If it is love that we are supposed to be, than we can be the actual thing that we love so much. I love this life, this kitchen, and the art that comes out of it. There is so much love in these cookies…and this is how I exist in the world…through giving and sharing cookies that are filled with the reason why I am here,” she confessed to me as she waved her hand towards the other side of the room where plates and plates of pastries sat upon a lace-clothed dresser. “Every detail matters in the kitchen, in this craft, just as in an Olympic race every second or inch matters. I must bring intention with me when creating each batter, because you can taste it when the love isn’t there.”
“If love is the only thing that remains, and the only thing we can be is what the Creator has created each one of us to uniquely love so much, than God is in this cookie,” Maria said as she mimed holding a cookie in her palm. “All I want is to share this love, so Katie, all of this…anything you find in here, it’s yours.”
I was speechless. My hand sat content on my chest over my heart, something that I instinctually do whenever I feel moved and inspired by something so gosh darn powerful, unknowable, and unexplainable. I could not possibly receive bags and bags of baked nuggets of Maria’s love without giving something in return.
“How about we barter…love for love!” I offered. She gave me a walking tour of every single pastry in her shop for me to choose from, handed me three H.E.B. plastic grocery bags, and told me to “go for it.” I offered to run around the city of Austin with a staple gun putting up “The Pastry Queen” posters (coincidentally she had been praying for someone to do just this!). The deal was then sealed.
After a long embrace and the exchanging of phone numbers, I said to Maria, “Thank you for being my blessing today.” My next endeavor was to deliver these baked goods – chocolate chip cookies, macaroons, a lemon cream tart, bread pudding, coffee cake, molasses cookies, and a piece of chocolate decadence cake - to those that I love around the city.
She responded, smiling, “Ditto, my dear. Ditto. You are my angel.”
And then I walked out the door, both Maria and I giggling, with a newfound afternoon goal: To scatter happiness and love, from the Creator to Maria to me to my friends, via gifting decadent sweets.