Attention, readers: While the start of this column might suggest that you're about to be informed of the demise of a great American institution — because that's how it seemed to your columnist when he first started looking into the matter — be consoled that the story has an ending brighter than one might expect.
Mrs. Pinky Howard — that's what I said, Pinky Howard — took time out from her preparations for this weekend's annual carnival at St. Pius X Roman Catholic Church to explain about the end of the Bake Room.
They've always had the Bake Room in the St. Pius School during the carnival, filled with goodies made by parishioners and offered to carnival-goers who prefer to buy someone else's pineapple upside-down cake than to make it themselves.
"We made about $1,200 on the Bake Room," Mrs. Howard said Wednesday from her office at the church on York Road, a mile or so north of the city line in Baltimore County.
But not this year.
Won't be much of a Bake Room this year.
"Baltimore County no longer allows the use of home-baked goods, as the families' kitchens have not been inspected by the county," the St. Pius bulletin announced a few Sundays ago.
A St. Pius parishioner called me about this, shocked that his parish would no longer be allowed to have a bake sale. Bake sales, he said, "have been around since Moby Dick was a guppy."
They've certainly been a staple of fundraising for churches, schools and athletic leagues. All the items are donated; all the sales are profit. There have been millions of bake sales held across the country for decades, and they've contributed mightily to the nation's girth, as well as to its ability to keep computers in classrooms and football teams in uniform.
Somewhere along the line, the bake sale became symbolic of America's upside-down spending priorities: "It will be a great day when our schools get all the money they need and the Air Force has to hold a bake sale to buy a bomber."
And while one can document a trend against bake sales — some public school systems have banned them in the fight against childhood obesity — one still expects to find them here and there, at fairs and flea markets, tournaments and high school homecomings. A friend of mine this week said he always looked forward to the Bake Room at the St. Pius carnival.
But last year, a Baltimore County food safety inspector warned Mrs. Pinky Howard that the Bake Room had to go — only cookies and cakes baked in inspected kitchens, or sold in stores, could be offered for sale to carnival-goers.
So, rather than put up a squawk, Mrs. Howard, the czarina of the carnival, decided to make other plans. There will be plenty of food for sale, including the carnival classic, Italian sausage with peppers and onions; crab cakes, fried dough and — new this year — lemon peppermint sticks. The offerings in the Bake Room will be limited to fudge prepared by volunteers in the parish kitchen.
It was at this point in my conversation with Mrs. Pinky Howard that we both started to get a little melancholy: What happened to trust? What happened to fun? Why is there so much fear? How many lawyers does it take to regulate bake sales out of existence? Do we really need cupcake police in Baltimore County?
Well … it's not as bad as all that.
Don Mohler, spokesman for the Baltimore County executive; Jonas Jacobson, director of the Department of Environmental Protection and Resource Management; and Yvonne DeLoatch, the county's manager of food protection and environmental health, gathered around a speaker phone in Towson and reported the following:
•Baltimore County does not have cupcake police, but it does have a regulation on bake sales that is more stringent than the state's. "It has never been a popular rule," Mr. Jacobson said.
•The regulation was the subject of much discussion among health officials during the winter.
•Baltimore County intends to make its regulation less stringent in a way that would allow "non-potentially-hazardous baked goods" to be sold to the public at fundraisers. "Non-potentially-hazardous baked goods," Ms. DeLoatch said, means any confection that does not have a liquid filling. "In other words," said Mr. Mohler, "they can have a bake sale, but they can't sell Boston cream pie."
No cannolis, either.
"That's right," Mr. Mohler said, "no cannolis. You'll have to go to Vaccaro's for that."
But cookies and cakes, minus a gooey middle, will be allowed.
So, on with the St. Pius carnival this weekend, and have a lemon stick.
I have a feeling the Bake Room will be back, in full, next year. The bake sale lives. Life is good.
Dan Rodricks' column appears Thursdays and Sundays in print and online, and Tuesdays online-only. He is host of the Midday talk show on WYPR-FM. His e-mail is email@example.com.