By Jim Schutze
By Rachel Watts
By Lauren Drewes Daniels
By Anna Merlan
By Lee Escobedo
We regret the error.
Erin Flynn is a pirate cake baker in the White Rock neighborhood of Dallas. "I bake birthday cakes a couple of times a month for friends," says Flynn (not her real name). "I sell a big cake for 20 people for $60." Health laws mandate that food sold commercially must be prepared in a "certified kitchen," approved and inspected by the health department. And a certified kitchen cannot be located in a residence.
"I don't advertise or anything," the White Rock cake pirate says. "But technically what I do is illegal. With the economy the way it is, I need the money. When things got really bad a few months ago, the cakes were paying the electric bill."
Robin Goode is a pirate cupcake baker in Houston. She once ran a successful commercial bakery in Los Angeles. When she moved back to Texas, she decided to take a low-key approach—she bakes custom wedding cakes for upscale customers. When she needs to bake a wedding cake, she rents a commercial kitchen, but sometimes she also bakes cupcakes for people with food allergies out of her home kitchen.
"I am always worried I am going to get busted by the health department," Goode (not her real name) says. "But I need to make a living, and I can't afford to rent a commercial kitchen every time I have to bake a dozen cupcakes."
Goode says that it is nearly impossible to make gluten-free or nut-free baked goods in commercial bakeries due to cross-contamination. "My home kitchen is cleaner than most of the certified kitchens the health department wants to make me rent."
Lizz Shirey is a home cook who organized a bake sale at her Grand Prairie church to raise emergency funds for the Grand Prairie Food & Clothing Assistance Co-op, a food bank that serves the area and feeds hundreds. Just to be sure, she called the city office in Grand Prairie to make sure everything would be OK. "I was told the bake sale would be fine, just come and get a permit. When I went to get it, I was told this information was wrong, and I could not have a bake sale for the church. The food was already there. It was a nightmare."
Laws forbidding home cooks to contribute to bake sales or sell a few tea cakes to friends were seldom enforced in Texas—until recently. The national mania about food safety in the wake of the egg recall and other disasters has changed the climate.
Callye Alvarado, a young housewife who has won national acclaim for her amazingly decorated sugar cookies (see sweetsugarbelle.blogspot.com), was surprised when Zachary Holbrooks of the South Plains Health Department knocked on her door in the small town of Seminole (between Lubbock and Odessa) last summer and told her to stop selling cookies. "I was shocked—his wife used to order cookies from me," Alvarado says. "He told me that somebody turned me in. Maybe it was the new bakery that opened in town. He told me to take all the cookies off my website and Facebook page, too."
Alvarado loved decorating cookies, and the extra money came in handy. "But I don't want to open a business," she says. "I want to be home with my kids." When Alvarado was growing up in the tiny town of Crane, Texas, there were a cookie lady and several tamale ladies in town, she says. "My brother and I had our favorite tamale ladies growing up. I liked one and he liked the other, so we bought tamales from both of them. This has always been part of our community. Some day when there are no more homemade tamales at Christmastime, we are going to look back and ask ourselves why we let them take away our culture."
Bake sales and homemade tamales are only two of a long list of beloved Texas food traditions that health authorities are stamping out. Your tax dollars are also helping eradicate the dewberry jam, mayhaw and muscadine jellies, and other preserves that were once sold at farm stands. To the disappointment of many budding local food entrepreneurs, homemade food products may not be sold at farmers markets either.
Local food lovers are pushing back. They are gathering support for a change in the state health code being considered by the current session of the legislature. The Texas Cottage Food Bill (HB 1139), nicknamed "The Bake Sale Bill," would allow the licensing of home kitchens for production of nonhazardous food products for direct sale to consumers at farmers' markets, roadside stands and bake sales. Jams and jellies, syrups, flavored vinegars and mustards, herb and spice blends, candies, breads and baked goods are among the foods that would qualify as nonhazardous.
Efforts to pass a cottage food bill started with a letter-writing campaign and then a website, texascottagefoodlaw.com, launched in 2007. "There never has been any actual organization," said the home baker responsible for the site. "How could we form a formal group when what we do is illegal?"