There's a second Sweetish Hill cookbook in the works thanks to Next Door
It all started with a post in March on Next Door.
From “B.P.”: “Hi neighbors. In 1995, Patricia Bauer-Slate published a spiral-bound cookbook for some of the Sweetish Hill recipes, including the Prinz Tom torte. I’m looking everywhere for one of these cookbooks. If somebody has one, would they mind sharing the recipe with me for my son who still can’t believe that it’s not available on his birthday?"
People started chiming in.
“I really miss their raspberry gateau cake. We used to order it for all the birthdays in the family.”
“I look for that cookbook at every estate sale I go to!”
Ninety-five comments later, networking-minded Austinites had connected with Bauer-Slate herself. At 75, she continues to work as the owner/operator of Patricia’s Lunchbox, a school lunch service for kids. She was surprised to see her little cookbook was getting all this attention online.
After all, it has been almost 50 years since she and her business partner, Tom Neuhaus, opened Sweetish Hill. They’d known each other while living in Vienna, where they worked at the same bakery.
In 1974, they both returned to Austin, and, less than a year later, opened the European-style Sweetish Hill in a 19th century Victorian house on the crest of Swede Hill in East Austin. She was 28 years old.
“There was nothing like that at the time,” Bauer-Slate says. “Croissants, breads that weren’t white bread. It was otherworldly.”
In 1977, the bakery moved to the location on West Sixth Street where it would continue to operate until 2018, when a local restaurant group bought and reopened it under a new name, Swedish Hill Bakery, Deli & Cafe, the following year.
Neuhaus left the business four years in, but he and Bauer-Slate stayed close friends, even though he has been living abroad for years and now runs a foundation that supports cacao farmers in Africa.
Bauer-Slate says she knew people missed the bakery, but she didn’t think there was so much nostalgia and love for a cookbook that almost never happened in the first place.
“I’m not a writer,” she says. “She made me do it.”
“She” is her friend, Mimi Sheraton, the New York Times restaurant writer, who encouraged her to tell her story and share something special about each recipe.
Persuaded but not convinced, Bauer-Slate picked 20 recipes, one for each year. Her husband, Joe, did all of the illustrations, and her sister, Anne, who was then managing editor of Texas Monthly, acted as the editor. The book sold well, but before long, the buzz had worn off and the extra copies of the book got stored in a box at her house. Bauer-Slate continued running the bakery and then sold her ownershipto Jim Murphy in 2008.
Through an “amazing series of events,” the book is back in the news.
A cookbook revival
“I’m excited that the Next Door people found me,” Bauer-Slate says. “I felt intimidated by the attention.”
She has about 20 copies left. She thought: What if I auction them to raise money for Tom, her original business partner, and his foundation?
The flurry of interest prompted her to ask: Why not do a revised edition?
She reached out to Jane Pulaski, her first employee, and they started formulating a plan. They are hosting an online auction (date not yet set) to sell the remaining 20 or so copies to raise money for Neuhaus’ nonprofit, Project Hope and Fairness, which assists African cocoa farmers in the Côte d'Ivoire to help them have more equity in the world cocoa trade.
“Tom is doing exactly what a lot of us want to do, making the world a better place,” Bauer-Slate says. “He’s devoted his life to it. It’s been very inspiring.”
Even more exciting for Sweetish Hill fans is the news that Bauer-Slate and Pulaski are working together to create a second cookbook.
The follow-up book, Bauer-Slate says, will be ready later this year, and her goal is to break even or raise more money for Neuhaus’ cause.
Turning this thread of Next Door comments into a fundraiser is “so Patricia,” Pulaski says. “I cannot tell you the extent of her humanitarianism. It is how she moves in this world. It’s just who she is.”
For the new book, the former coworkers are reworking some of the recipes and adding new ones. Bauer-Slate says she wants to “write a little more about the history while I have my memory, and if people are interested."
After all, there are 13 additional years that she was at the bakery before selling her stake to Murphy, who eventually sold the Sweetish Hill assets to the McGuire-Moorman restaurant group.
“I bump into people all the time who say, ‘Give me this recipe,'” she says. “I’m old and tired and still trying to run a business.”
But lately, she’s realized that there’s perhaps more to Sweetish Hill than even she realized. “I met a 17-year-old friend of my granddaughter’s,” she says. Once he found out she started Sweetish Hill, “he started treating me like a rock star. He loved it. It hasn’t been all that long. There are lots of people who love what we did.”
Meet Sweetish Hill's first employee
Pulaski only worked at Sweetish Hill Bakery for a few years, but she's still milking it.
“My professional claim to fame is I was Sweetish Hill’s first employee. When I tell people that, it’s like the waters part. I have an amazing amount of street cred because of those three years," she says.
Pulaski was a recent UT graduate who was enough of a hippie to want to stay in Austin even though “there were no jobs except government.” She was friends with Jane Koock, a member of the family that owned Green Pastures, who knew Bauer-Slate.
“I called her up and we had a two-hour love conversation," Pulaski says. "We were, like, in love after two hours. That’s how it started.”
Pulaski, who didn't know anything about baking when she started working with Neuhaus and Bauer-Slate in the house on Swede Hill, remembers those early days in the bakery as being more fun than anything.
Pulaski remembers them hiring their second employee, Chas Rowland, one morning at 5 a.m. when he walked up to the back door of the kitchen, which they kept open because the ovens made the space so hot. “He said, ‘You looking for a baker?’ I asked Tom, ‘Are we looking for a baker?’ He was hired on the spot.”
(Rowland later became known for his ability to carve faces into bread “with a verisimilitude to his subject that would make you jump when you met the model,” Bauer-Slate wrote in the original cookbook.)
She worked with the bakery until just after it moved to the longtime home on West Sixth Street in 1977. Pulaski decided to pursue a career at the state, where she worked as a clerk and then eventually as a staffer for Jim Hightower and later Ann Richards. The second half of her career, she worked remotely for an environmental nonprofit based on the East Coast.
Pulaski and Bauer-Slate remained friends, and they were even neighbors for a few years at some apartments near downtown. “I lived downstairs and she lived right above me. We just needed a door in the ceiling,” she says. “She’s the epitome of mentors. We go back to 1974 and we still cook together and talk about food and life.”
Now they are working closely again, trading recipes several times a day and testing recipes for the new cookbook.The upcoming cookbook auction event in late May or early June will bring together Sweetish Hill fans for light bites and a chance to toast the many people who made the bakery so special over the years. They haven't set the date yet, but check facebook.com/sweetishhillcookbook for updates.
Pulaski, who still continues to bake in her free time, says that what was so special about Sweetish Hill wasn’t just the cookies, cakes and tarts.
“It was so easy to be there,” Pulaski says. “You met there for coffee or parties or you had their food catered. It was endemic to Austin for many many years. Gastronomic memories are hard to extinguish.”
Stories worth preserving
What made Sweetish Hill special? As Pulaski puts it: “There were other bakeries, but Sweetish Hill was the beginning and, to some extent, the end. People still remember. It was extraordinary.”
To help put why in context, let me turn to the late Virginia B. Wood, who recapped Bauer-Slate's book in the Austin Chronicle in 2011: “Bauer-Slate reminisces about having to educate the clientele on the need for dipping the very sturdy biscotti in some kind of liquid (1995), introduces Tom Neuhaus with the mocha buttercream for his eponymous Prinz Tom Torte (1975), and describes the evolution of the Heart in the Deep of Texas cookies (1976). She includes recipes from the bakery's short-lived expansion into the restaurant business (kartoffelpuffer, 1977) and the opening of a now-defunct deli (broccoli sfinciuni, 1983). The gingerbread cookie recipe (1987) comes complete with a hilarious tale about the Valentine's Day Sweetish Hill sold burnt cookies decorated with angry messages, and Bauer-Slate recalls the outraged-customer uprising when the Whopper cookie (1991) was taken off the menu for a short time.”
What we haven't gotten to read about yet is Bauer-Slate becoming an empty nester or getting older with Joe, who died in 2014. Or how Sept. 11 affected her business and what it was like watching Austin become a foodie city.
Neuhaus, for his part, calls Bauer-Slate one of his three great mentors. "We went through hell together, starting Sweetish Hill," he says. "Small business is hell, but she and Joe had the best parties in Austin. They were the best hosts in Austin, and we had so much fun together."
He says that leaving Sweetish Hill allowed him to get a PhD in food science, which led to starting the non-profit to help West African cocoa farmers, who grow 80 percent of the world’s cocoa beans.
Because of this fundraiser and second cookbook, his journey after Sweetish Hill is part of the Sweetish Hill story, too.
I have loved small-run community cookbooks for so many years, and this one is a gem that I'm glad is getting some attention. Bauer-Slate included so much narrative with each recipe that I can learn about historical events I hadn’t thought about, like Miss Ima Hogg’s funeral that brought throngs of mourners to the state cemetery, not far from the original Sweetish Hill location.
A mishap with a pig-shaped cookie during that event eventually led Sweetish Hill to make a Texas-shaped cookie with a red heart in the middle, which was the recipe of the year in 1976. It’s a story that links Austin’s past with the present, when every bakery sells a Texas-shaped cookie with a heart in the middle. (Joe gets the credit for that one, Bauer-Slate writes.)
My late friend Virginia B. Wood, or VBW as we called her, was right: These kinds of recipes and stories will sweeten your life. I can’t wait to read the next edition and to hear from fans at the auction party that Bauer-Slate and Pulaski have planned.
Correction: This story has been updated with the correct age for Patricia Bauer-Slate. She is 75 years old.