The trouble with success Westminster's Muffin Lady made it big: People magazine, 'Good Morning America' and now her own cookbook. But the recipe for fame, Linda Fisher found out, was full of unexpected ingredients.

THE BALTIMORE SUN

WESTMINSTER -- It's 4 a.m., and darkness fills the engine bays and bingo hall at the Westminster Volunteer Fire Department. The only sign of life is in the kitchen, where Linda Fisher is starting her workday.

While the ovens heat and butter melts in a pan on the stove, Fisher chops apples and peaches. An oldies radio station plays in the background as she moves deftly between her workstations, from mixer to stove to cutting board.

Fisher expertly wields a rolling pin to flatten the dough for cinnamon buns. She's a petite woman, but her arms are strong and muscular from 20 years of rolling dough and hoisting pots and pans.

This is the time when Linda Fisher feels most confident and content: in her kitchen before dawn, occupied with the work of scratch baking. During the next three hours, 12 dozen muffins and cinnamon buns will be baked, then delivered warm and bursting with fruit to office workers in town.

Over the years, baking has seen Fisher through some tough times. Once, she sold carrot cakes to buy Christmas presents for her children, paying for her cooking supplies with food stamps. After her mother's death in 1994, she turned to baking to deal with her grief.

Within the past year, however, Fisher's baking has become more than a way to make a living or a therapeutic diversion. Now, her entire identity is wrapped up in it.

She has become the Muffin Lady. The transformation has taken her on a dizzying odyssey through the strange landscape of modern-day celebrity. The Muffin Lady has written a cookbook. The Muffin Lady may franchise her business. The story of the Muffin Lady may be made into a television movie.

But sometimes the Muffin Lady just wants to go back to being Linda Fisher -- a 48-year-old divorced mother baking muffins in the cramped kitchen of her rent-subsidized townhouse and selling them from a red Radio Flyer wagon that she pulled through the streets of this town of 15,000.

"Anything I do with this baking thing has been out of passion and to earn a living. Very simple, very basic."

But there's no turning back. Not since that cold morning last January when the Carroll County Health Department intercepted Fisher on her early-morning delivery rounds and ordered her to stop selling her homemade goods because she didn't have the proper license. Not since outraged citizens rallied to her defense so she could continue to peddle her oversized, underpriced muffins to support herself and her teen-age son. Not since Fisher's story nabbed the attention of People magazine, "Good Morning America" and a New York publishing company.

For almost a year, the Muffin Lady has consumed Fisher's identity, and the way she sees it, she's arrived at the center of something beyond her control. Life is complicated now: She has business obligations, and can no longer take refuge in the comfort of anonymity. It's still her story, but now somebody else decides who she can tell it to -- and where, and when.

If this is success, it isn't what Linda Fisher ever imagined.

Fisher wasn't supposed to be a baker.

Lenzie and Catherine Barnes had something else in mind for their eldest daughter. College was a given, and they hoped she might even become a doctor or a lawyer.

Growing up in Washington with her two younger sisters, Fisher was a good student and obedient daughter. At the urging of her mother, she attended a more academically challenging high school in an affluent neighborhood outside of her district. She was among only a handful of black students in the class of 1967 at Woodrow Wilson High School, which was populated by the sons and daughters of politicians and high-ranking officials in the administration of President Lyndon Johnson.

Fisher's college-educated parents had jobs with the federal government. Her mother worked for the Defense Department, and her father rose through the ranks of the U.S. Postal Service. Now 82 and living in North Carolina, he still runs a general contracting business.

"I'm their biggest disappointment because I didn't finish college, plus I didn't work for the federal government," Fisher says. "Back then, it represented stability and security."

After graduating from high school, she married her teen-age sweetheart. By the time she was 22, she was the mother of three children. She had hoped to become a commercial artist, and while attending George Washington University she took art classes at the Corcoran Gallery. But the demands of being a parent forced her to leave school.

After the birth of her third child, Fisher's marriage began to deteriorate, and she left her husband in 1973. Around this time, she was diagnosed with clinical depression. Because of her condition, Fisher's husband was given primary custody of their children, and she had them on weekends and holidays.

Today, she has a close relationship with her three grown children, but she says they see her as a sister rather than a parent. She lives with the regret that the choices she made affected her ability to raise her children.

"In some instances," she says, "I've sacrificed my integrity, the acceptance of my family, a comfortable lifestyle, which I could have had, even my own kids, just so I could do as I damn well pleased."

Therapy has helped her deal with her depression, but it still plays a part in her life. "Depression is something I battle with every day," Fisher says. "I call it the real abyss."

In the years since her diagnosis, Fisher has married twice and had a fourth child. She has drifted in and out of office jobs, but baking has remained a constant. As a young girl, she learned the basics from her mother and practiced the family favorites: cornbread, pancakes and biscuits. Later, she baked for family and friends, experimenting with different recipes and techniques. She acquired more advanced baking skills at various food service jobs and through trial and error.

Baking connected her to her mother and served as an outlet for her creative energy. At times, Fisher vowed to give it up -- too much work for too little money. But it was essential to her existence. She catered dinners, sold desserts to restaurants and baked in a grocery store and at a college.

"She's hopeful that this may finally be the end of a long struggle for her to make her mark in this profession," says Fisher's sister, Olga Nelson, 44. "She's been waiting to seize this for so long and hasn't had the support from all the people she should have. She's had to jump many hurdles."

Fisher's youngest daughter, Tamar Crawford, 25, says she is happy for her mother and her recent success. "Anything that takes her to another level, I'm all for it."

In 1993, Fisher ended up in this growing suburb 40 mile northwest of Baltimore when her third husband became the food service production manager at Western Maryland College. Her metamorphosis into the Muffin Lady began three years later -- out of desperation.

It was January 1996. She had been laid off from a baking job at a Westminster retirement community and was separated from her husband. So she dug out her mother's old pancake recipe, modified it for muffins and made a batch using the peaches and strawberries stored in her freezer since summer.

Fisher filled a basket with her still-warm muffins and trudged through the snow to a local radio station. The muffins went over big: Fisher had her first standing order.

She picked up more regular customers downtown -- the dry cleaner's, the florist, the sheriff's office. At Western Maryland College, the admissions director offered Fisher -- who doesn't drive -- the use of a Radio Flyer wagon that had been sitting in her basement.

Within six months, Fisher was making just enough to buy basic necessities for herself and her 14-year-old son, Olivier Giron. She added cinnamon buns to her goods for sale and settled into a sleep-deprived work schedule. Up at 3 a.m. to start baking, out the door at 7 a.m. to walk the seven miles into town. After finishing her deliveries about 11 a.m., she'd stop by the Carriage House liquor store on Main Street and buy a half-pint of brandy to sip while cleaning up the kitchen from the night's baking. She'd catch a nap before Olivier came home from school.

It was a tough life, and it was about to get tougher.

In the fall of 1996, Fisher was evicted from her comfortable suburban home for overdue rent. She qualified for a one-time emergency rental assistance payment from a local social services agency, and moved to a townhouse in a subsidized housing development.

She continued to pull her bakery on wheels, making muffins and cinnamon buns in the kitchen of her new home. On Westminster's Main Street -- which has retained a rural, small-town feel despite the proliferation of nearby housing developments -- people became accustomed to the sight of the small, wiry woman dragging a child's wagon piled high with baked goods.

On Jan. 8, 1997, Fisher had made her first stop at Avenue Tailors when three investigators from the Carroll County Health Department interrupted her delivery route. They informed Fisher she was in violation of health department regulations because her kitchen was not a licensed commercial facility. Her options: stop selling her home-baked goods or risk a fine of $1,000 a day and/or 90 days in jail.

Her misfortune couldn't have been better timed.

"I was a person trying to avoid welfare," says Fisher. "I found a means by which I thought I could avoid welfare, but it became an issue because the way I chose didn't jibe with the other laws that are out there."

The public responded to Fisher as underdog -- the victim of overzealous bureaucrats, the individual fighting the system. As welfare reform played out across the country and politicians called for a return to personal responsibility, many people saw Fisher as the embodiment of the old-fashioned work ethic.

"I think she symbolized a lot for a lot of people, not just people on the verge of slipping into the dark hole of poverty, but for other people trying to start a new business," says Kenneth C. Montague Jr., a Baltimore lawyer and member of the Maryland House of Delegates who offered Fisher free legal help.

"It's a question of trying to make something out of your life based on your own talents, and many people identified with that," Montague said. "When you see someone struggle in such adverse conditions, you want to see them make it."

Within a week, the Westminster Volunteer Fire Department offered Fisher the use of its health department-approved kitchen for a year -- rent-free. On Jan. 31, less than a month after officials had ordered Fisher to pack up her home-grown business, she rolled her wagon back onto the streets of Westminster. Business boomed.

Fisher was a local hero. An anonymous supporter paid the $60 for her health department kitchen license. Someone even offered to give her a car. Carroll County Commissioner Donald I. Dell slipped her a Valentine's Day card with $50 inside. "We appreciate what you do," it said. "Get something pretty for yourself."

Fisher thought she had gotten her happy ending.

As Fisher's story traveled far and wide, she received letter cheering her on. Some contained money -- $1, $5, a check for $1,000 from a fan in Illinois. A man in prison wrote her with some words of encouragement: "I'm glad to see sisters out there like you."

As the media descended, Fisher proved to be a reporter's dream. She projects warmth, guts and good humor. She's articulate and appears relaxed in front of television cameras. She soon became a veteran of the standard two-minute television piece: "The Muffin Lady: An Up From the Bootstraps American Success Story."

The television crews usually arrived at the firehouse between 5 a.m. and 6 a.m. to film Fisher mixing batter and filling baskets with muffins. By this point increased business had allowed Fisher to hire three employees to help with the baking, and the muffins were delivered by car. But Fisher never disappointed the cameras: She would haul out her Radio Flyer for a short, staged walk down Main Street.

In March, after Fisher's story ran in People magazine, the New York publishing industry took notice. Time Warner and ReganBooks approached her about writing a cookbook. She hired an agent to work out the details of the book negotiations with her friend, Jim Marcionette, who quit his job as a building engineer at a local motel to handle the financial side of Fisher's business.

In the spring, she signed a contract with ReganBooks to write a "chatty cookbook" featuring 100 recipes interspersed with her life story.

"I just loved her spirit and thought, I have got to get this woman to do a cookbook," says Judith Regan, president of ReganBooks, an imprint of HarperCollins, which has published best-selling books by Rush Limbaugh and Howard Stern. "I thought it would be great to have her wisdom and her recipes all rolled up in one. It's all part of the maternal thing of cooking and feeding and nurturing -- the things that are absent from our lives these days."

So, Fisher spent much of her summer telling her life story to the writer collaborating on her cookbook and sorting through old family recipes for the project.

And at night, she made muffins.

"My body can only do but so much," Fisher said in a moment of frustration. "The meals do not cook themselves, the house does not clean itself. I try to keep the bathrooms clean, food on the table and a modicum of order in my kitchen. In addition to trying to run this business, I have to play Hazel."

At times, she has chafed at the constraints of her book contract. In June, Fisher was elated when TV talk-show host Leeza Gibbons offered to fly her to Los Angeles for an appearance. She also was involved in discussions with a self-described producer who was aggressively courting her with plans to turn her life story into a television movie. HarperCollins nixed the television show, saying it was too early to start publicity for the cookbook. And her agent advised her to hold off on the movie deal.

"I'm so used to making my own decisions, and now I've got this major corporation saying, 'Don't go here, Don't go there,' " Fisher says. "I feel like I sold my body and soul."

To make matters worse, the sacrifice has promoted the Muffin Lady, and not the professional baker who created wedding cakes and elaborate gingerbread houses long before muffins made her famous. When she lived in Rochester, N.Y., she had sold her desserts to upscale restaurants.

"It's entry-level type work," Fisher says dismissively of her muffins and cinnamon buns. "It was just something you do to survive, base stuff."

One recent afternoon, as she fussed over a baking order for a birthday cake, the Muffin Lady image receded from view as the serious baker took over.

The cake was a four-layer confection with raspberry filling. Gently squeezing her pastry bag, Fisher created a bouquet of delicate pink roses out of buttercream icing.

"I tell you, this is more exciting than muffins any day of the week," she says. "That cake makes its own statement.

"I want people to buy from me, not because I'm just the poor little Muffin Lady. I want to hear, 'You're a great baker!' "

Nine months have passed since folks in Westminster last sa Fisher pulling her muffin-filled wagon around town. Her old customers miss her.

"She probably doesn't have the time to come in here and kibbitz anymore," says Donald W. Schumaker, associate director of public information at Western Maryland College, one of Fisher's first accounts. "But I can't blame her for wanting to make money."

In the movie version of Fisher's story, this would be the happy jTC ending: the hard-working welfare mother becomes a millionaire. But this is real life. And the Muffin Lady is not rolling in dough.

Despite the changes that have turned her life upside down, Fisher continues to struggle. She still rises in the middle of the night to bake muffins, she still lives in subsidized housing and clears about $400 a month. She still buys her ingredients at the grocery store, because she can't afford to buy in bulk.

"I feel as though I'm tapped out, to be honest," she says. "Each day is so overwhelming."

Fisher saw a good chunk of her $30,000 book advance go toward agent fees and hiring a co-writer and photographer. She used some of the money to pay her employees and keep her business going.

Ultimately, though, Fisher could not afford to keep her three employees, and in August they quit. She and Marcionette are running the baking business by themselves.

"The muffins have brought me fame," she says, "but they have not brought me riches."

She acknowledges that she has little interest in the day-to-day financial concerns of running a business. She doesn't want to know about cost of goods, profit margins or portion control.

"When I walk out of this kitchen, I'm done, but Jim always wants to talk business," Fisher said.

Marcionette has replaced some of Fisher's smaller accounts with larger orders. He makes the deliveries now, by car, and says there's no time to get to all the customers on Fisher's original walking route.

"I feel badly about the people that I do know who don't see me anymore," Fisher said. "But I don't have time to get myself caught up in that."

Montague, her lawyer in Baltimore, is trying to encourage Fisher to focus more on the business side of her baking. He has even discussed the possibility of franchising her baking business, but Fisher insists on maintaining a hands-on role in the kitchen.

"This peeling and chopping business is time-consuming," she says. "But I'm very concerned about what comes out of that oven."

With her cookbook scheduled for release Nov. 25, Fisher is gearing up for a book tour with stops in Baltimore, Washington and New York. Publicists at HarperCollins have planned book signings and radio, television and newspaper interviews.

Regan is hoping for a spot on Oprah Winfrey's talk show. "That's the key to success in book publishing these days, to get Oprah interested in your book."

Of her own expectations for the book, Fisher says, "I want people to realize that anything is possible if you are willing to persevere and sacrifice."

Not that she doesn't see the price she has paid for her modest success. She has given up her privacy and, in a way, her hard-won independence. So far, all she has gotten in return is a scrapbook filled with magazine and newspaper clippings.

She dreams of buying a home on an acre of ground and cutting back on her exhausting baking schedule. But for now, there are customers to please.

On a recent morning after baking muffins, Fisher made a rare appearance on Main Street. Because of the sudden departure of her employees, some customers hadn't been getting their deliveries, and Fisher needed to do some damage control.

Carrying a large basket of muffins, she enters the Westminster Bank and Trust building. Tellers wave. Fisher yells, "Love your dress!"

She meets with Debbie Shanks, a customer service representative who orders the muffins. Fisher explains the recent changes in her business, and promises that the muffins will be delivered on a regular schedule.

"I get calls all the time, 'The Muffin Lady's not here yet?' " Shanks tells Fisher.

Fisher relies on her innate marketing skills and effusive personality to re-establish goodwill with her customers. They seem to need to connect her with the muffins. She's part of the package. Fisher listens, gossips and gets personal.

"I had to get away, so my girlfriend flew me up to Rochester," she tells the women at the bank. "I was on the verge of a nervous breakdown. Everybody was pulling on me from this direction, that direction. I was trying to be everything to everybody and not taking care of Linda."

By the time Fisher leaves the bank, the account is saved.

"They're homemade, they're large, you can share them with your friends," says bank employee Joyce Wilder, explaining the appeal of the Muffin Lady's muffins.

"I think it's wonderful what she's doing," she adds. "I hope she doesn't burn out."

Linda Fisher will appear at Locust Books in Westminster from 1 p.m. to 3 p.m. Nov. 30 to sign her cookbook, "The Muffin Lady: Muffins, Cupcakes and Quick Breads for the Happy Soul." For information, call 410-876-1620.

She will also be at the Bibelot bookstore in Pikesville from 2 p.m. to 3: 30 p.m. Dec. 6. For information, call 410-653-6933.

Pub Date: 11/09/97

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