Union Street Bakery by Mary Ellen Taylor
Union Street Bakery is a wonderful book on so many levels—its straightforward plot, well developed characters, helpful ghosts (ok—some are not so helpful!), and hidden lives that slowly become revealed all in historic Alexandria..
Mary Ellen Taylor weaves several threads together: the life of the bakery, its owners and bakers; the journal of a slave in the 1850’s; and the concept of family, specifically, mother figures. Some of the mothers are hidden and are revealed, others are adopted and still others are visions or ghosts.
Mary Ellen Taylor, pename for Mary Burton a southerner by birth, told me how these layers became one story. “The [bakery's] owner Daisy McCrae came to me before the plot. She was one of those rare characters that arrived almost a she appeared on the page (believe me, that rarely happens). Next came the idea of the diary. And the final piece came while I was leaving a writing conference in Arlington, VA….[and] stopped at the Archeology Center in Alexandria…[T]here were several displays about the city of Alexandra and I knew at that moment I had the location for the novel. Then the hard part was figuring out how all these elements connected. This book went through several drafts as I tried to hone in on not just the historical angles but also the emotional ones as well.”
The novel’s hidden figures are intriguing.and play prominent roles: birth mothers, real identities and the bakery's resident ghosts. I asked Mary about the importance of the hidden in these characters' lives. “The hidden is what draws me to… a particular story that’s cooking in my head. I never have all the pieces to a story figured out before I start writing and I am always curious to solve all the mysteries. It’s my hope to that the hidden and the unknown is what draws readers to my novels…. As a novelist, if I’m sitting on the edge of my seat as I’m writing, I’m fairly certain my readers will be doing the same thing.” Ghosts, in her estimation, represent “unfinished business in life, … emotions anchoring them to this world. Daisy’s life is filled with unfinished business….”
One thread comes from a curious gift of an 1850’s journal of a slave, Susie, working in the same bakery of Daisy's family. While the lives of Susie and Daisy are very different, from different eras and one enslaved, one free, their personal quests intersect leading to their eventually revealed relationship. Both are lost children with harsh early lives that strengthen them for later challenges. As Daisy begins to peel back the layers of Susie’s life, she arrives at an understanding of her own.
The Union Street Bakery is based on the Jameson Bakery, open in Alexandria, VA from 1836-1888. Jameson’s was known for their hardtack biscuits, a favorite with sailors because of their long lasting shelf life. The Union Street Bakery moved on to very luscious modern delicacies that we are able remake today. Mary Burton, a very successful writer, also received a pastry certificate at the University of Richmond’s Culinary Arts program. She joked that how much she has baked on any given day reveals the status of her writing. “My family knows if the counters are full of cupcakes and cookies, the story hit a snag and I’ve retreated to the kitchen to bake until I can unknot the story.” Many of her recipes can be found at http://maryellentaylor.com/recipes/
Mike’s Chocolate Espresso Cake is a favorite recipe. The ‘real’ Mike, a former bakery owner, gave Mary this recipe.