Margaret Whittle lifts a cookie sheet of blue-ribbon perfect apple dumplings from a battered iron stove, and a plume of steam escapes from their toasted, golden centers.
The unmistakable scent of November -- cinnamon, sugar and Stayman Winesaps -- fills a church basement, where an upright piano stacked high with hymnals sits alongside a lithograph of Jesus preaching to children.
Whittle, an 82-year-old blessed with perfect crust-making fingers, has gathered with her volunteer friends for a seasonal ritual. They are baking their first batch of the tasty apple dumplings that make St. Matthew's United Methodist Church famous along this end of Bouldin Street in East Baltimore.
The dumplings sell for $1.25 each. The profits go to a church-run residence for women in downtown Baltimore.
"Margaret is one terrific baker," said Catherine McLaughlin. "There is nobody like her."
"Who would want a doughy, gummy apple dumpling?" pitched in Ann Magsamen, who had just finished a two-hour shift armed with a hand-held apple corer and cotton apron.
This early November session is but one on their ambitious calendar.
Today it's apple dumplings, which they will make once again for a Christmas bazaar Nov. 16. In the winter, they also make cinnamon cakes, raisin bread and cookies. Come Shrove Tuesday, the day before Ash Wednesday, they'll make their famous doughnuts. The summer brings peach cakes and jars of pepper relish.
Caroline Pfannkuchen and Forestine Locke do not talk much while they peel and core a bushel of apples. But they smile a lot and say they enjoy the company of the other women. "If I talked much I'd never get any work done," Locke said.
Before long, two retired husbands appear, as does the pastor and another church member. These eight represent 8 percent of the 100-member congregation who worship in a small nave served by but nine rows of pews.
"We're little but we're loud," Whittle said.
"God has certainly not forsaken this place," said Doug Hoffman, the 34-year-old pastor of St. Matthew's, whose little office sits just above the church kitchen.
"Because of its optimism, openness and warmth, the place is catching on. This congregation believes in the neighborhood and its assets," he said.
The neighborhood has seen a lot of change since the 1920s when the orange-brick rowhouses went up along along Bouldin Street. The Madison-Monument corridor was then busy with brick kilns, open-hearth steel furnaces and foundries.
"We are not Highlandtown," said Magsamen. She says the name of their community association is Elwood Park, a rowhouse matrix of tidy little streets due south of Monument Street. The best known landmark here is the old Luby Chevrolet dealership.
Luby's closing was one of a long list of Eastside employers, small and large, that have disappeared. The women note the passing of Western Electric, Esskay meatpackers, and the Rustless Iron and Steel plant as hurting the economy in their neighborhood, which still has a number of thriving industrial businesses around its edges.
The church itself, once filled with German-descent families who belonged to the Evangelical United Brethren denomination, is now a United Methodist congregation.
The formerly all-white membership has adapted to new African American families with a gracious and open-minded spirit, the pastor said.
"We have a strong adult new-members class, and we are not standing still. We have challenges and we struggle. But the spirit of giving and openness keeps us going," Hoffman said.
By the end of the morning, Whittle and her staff have turned out nearly 100 apple dumplings. Most will be sold to church members who have placed orders.
Whittle credits the influences of her mother and grandmother, whose family came from Darmstadt in Germany. There was also her Kent Island childhood on the Eastern Shore of Maryland.
"They taught us cooking and sewing because in those days, nine out of 10 girls stayed on Kent Island and married watermen or farmers," she said.
As a young woman Whittle boarded a Love Point steamer and sailed across the Bay to Baltimore. She enrolled in the old Strayer Business School at Baltimore and Fayette streets and lived with a married sister in the same neighborhood where she lives today.
"We were lucky in this church. We never built it too big, too much to take care of," said Whittle, who walked up the church's center aisle as a bride some 59 years ago.
The apple dumplings, as well as homemade cinnamon cake, will make a return appearance Nov. 16 at a bazaar at St. Matthew's Church, Bouldin and Monument streets. The green flier passed out in the neighborhood says the event begins at 10 a.m., but deliberately lists no closing time.
"It ends when we sell out," Whittle said.
Pub Date: 11/06/96