'CODDIE LADY' KEEPS COOKING Little fish cakes spread her fame


In Southwest Baltimore, people know Mary Bontempo for her community work with the elderly and for her fight against the noisy auto scrap yard in her Mill Hill neighborhood.

And people all over the city know her for something else: codfish cakes.

Ms. Bontempo is known as the "Coddie Lady," and for more than 10 years she has run a thriving business selling codfish cakes, a treat she has found oddly popular in a city known for crab cakes.

When the vivacious and outspoken Ms. Bontempo is not helping senior citizens get medical care or finding summer work for neighborhood teen-agers, she's frying coddies to sell to corner bars, corner grocery stores, bingo halls and churches from Pigtown to Highlandtown.

Her fascination with the little fish cake even took her to Iceland, where three summers ago she visited codfish fishermen.

"I like to know where everything comes from that I cook with," she said as she plunged a few dozen coddies into the deep-fat fryer.

"I wanted to know who the fishermen were because I deliver their fish to people in Baltimore and felt a connection to them," she said.

Ms. Bontempo started her business after her son, Christian, was born in 1979. She was looking for work that would allow her to keep him with her.

A friend suggested codfish cakes. She was dubious, but like any good cook, she was willing to try anything new. Ms. Bontempo called her business Baltimore's Best Coddies, and its instant popularity was a surprise to her. Her coddies are filled with a smooth blend of equal amounts of potatoes and fresh codfish coated with cracker crumbs, then deep-fried in peanut oil and well drained of excess oil.

Ms. Bontempo says coddies are an inexpensive, healthy snack. She sells them for $6 a tray -- with 16 coddies to a tray. Bars and grocery stores sell them to customers for 65 cents each.

A couple of days before Halloween, Ms. Bontempo donned a silver Statue of Liberty costume before loading the coddies into her 1984 Ford Escort.

She sells her coddies in some of the city's toughest neighborhoods. And it is not unusual for her to have to walk past drug dealers to get to a corner grocery store to make a delivery.

Her first stop was Shepperds Place, a bar at the corner of South Pulaski and Eagle streets. The bar had been robbed by a gunman the night before.

Ray Chaffman, the bartender, showed Ms. Bontempo the hole in the ceiling where the gunman fired before taking everybody's money.

He was, nevertheless, glad to see the coddie delivery.

"Some days they go like hot cakes," he said.

Ms. Bontempo headed back to her old Ford Escort, bringing stares from neighbors. It's not every day they see a 6-foot-2-inch woman, dressed as the Statue of Liberty, delivering fish cakes.

Later, as she made a delivery in another bar on a rundown street corner at West Ostend and Cleveland streets in Washington Village, a bum exclaimed in a less than sober state: "The Statue of Liberty delivering fish?"

As she drove through the city, the sun warmed her car, which took on the wonderful smell of fresh fish cakes.

In between stops, she shouted hello to people she knows from the COIL Southwest Senior Center, where she is a part-time outreach worker with the elderly.

She seemed to know every senior citizen in Southwest Baltimore, calling them by name as she rolled down her car window.

Near the the corner of Stricker and Ramsey streets, she shouted to an elderly woman she knew from the senior center, stopping to hear the woman's sad story of her daughter dying of cancer and her son-in-law about to be laid off. They need help paying bills.

Ms. Bontempo listened patiently and told the woman where to call for help.

She stopped to make another delivery at the senior center at Calhoun and Lombard streets, where everybody knows her.

"Happy Halloween," she shouted, as she pranced into the luncheon hall, modeling her costume. The senior citizens admired her statuesque pose, and her boss, Betty Townsend, director of the center, came out to greet her.

Ms. Bontempo's coddie business, said Ms. Townsend, is simply "part of what she is. It's part of her identity".

Despite her success as the Coddie Lady, Ms. Bontempo would like to cut back her business and concentrate on her work at the senior center and as president of the St. Benedicts Housing Council in Mill Hill. The organization is helping residents fight an auto scrap yard that they say has explosions that spew bits of automobile upholstery into nearby yards.

But the little fish cake's popularity won't quit.

"Whenever I think I'm going to stop this business, I go into a grocery store, and a school kid will throw down a candy bar and eat a coddie for breakfast, and I say, 'Oh, I can't stop doing this.' "

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