Imagine if RuPaul, Rose Nylund, and Julia Child had a baby. You'd get Bertha Mason, a Midwestern, pie-baking drag queen who now calls LA home.
She’s tall and broad-shouldered, and favors bright lipsticks, industrial-strength girdles, and vintage pie recipes. (Her sour cream and raisin pie is semi-famous.) She lives by the motto, "Feel bitter? Add butter. Feel better!"
Bertha, a widow with one adult daughter and a butterball of a grandson, is the comedic creation of Chicago transplant Michael Bowen. But Bertha’s preferred performance venue isn’t a bar or nightclub — it’s the kitchen. When Bowen performs as his alter-ego, he hosts private events in churches or homes, for small groups of approximately eight people. The Baking with Bertha experience is equal parts cooking class and comedy set.
"What I love about the character, and I love being the character, is that it really is about being welcoming,” says Bowen. “People want to hug Bertha. People want to be close to Bertha."
Like so much great art, the concept was born from a mix of creativity and pain.
Bowen grew up in upstate New York, in a small town of roughly 5,000 people. Raised by a single mom, he and his sister were surrounded by lots of aunts and a stern grandmother who made great pies and mean potato salad.
"I was the favorite grandchild, and everyone doted on me," he says. "But as I grew older, and I kind of became aware of my sexuality, about not really wanting to live in a small town, the relationship between my aunts and my grandmother really became strained. We couldn't talk about anything, really, and I was a bit of an outsider. I really missed that connection to family and home and place."
The character of Bertha was born in 1997, in a theater company in upstate New York, where Bowen was working as a prop master. At an end-of-the -season party, he lip synced to Patsy Cline's "Honky Tonk Merry Go Round," and a star was born.
"It just came fully formed," Bowen says. When he was ready to hold a full-fledged show, he rented a Lutheran church and put on Bertha Mason's Rhubarb Poetry Jam. He doled out butterscotch blondies, read old newspaper clippings, and answered questions from the audience. He has been developing the Bertha character ever since.
Around 2000, Bowen began writing letters to his grandmother and aunts, hoping to tap their culinary expertise. They sent him plenty of pie recipes — and whatever they sent, he baked. Eventually, Bowen got serious about baking and went to culinary school.
"I've always been interested in food, and I've always cooked and loved food. One day, as I was walking across the Federal Plaza in Chicago, I thought, 'What do I want to do?' And I thought, 'I'm happiest when I'm baking pies.' So I literally quit my job and enrolled in Kendall College," Bowen says.
He earned a degree in pastry and ended up working at Hoosier Mama Pie Company.
"The owner, Paula Haney, worked at Alinea. She really loved pie. She taught me about how to make good pie using locally sourced ingredients and also the importance of being precise," Bowen says.
Bowen draws inspiration from a variety of sources, some of which you might not expect.
"In fourth grade, I took a date to see '101 Dalmatians.' My date brought a date, and I didn't know what to do. I was so traumatized and struggling with how to be cool. But it didn't matter when Cruella de Vil came on the screen,” he recalls. “She was so larger than life. And she was smoking. And she didn't like dogs. She was just everything that I didn't know I needed growing up in this small, conservative town in upstate New York. I loved that she was so quick and used big words, and was just over-the-top evil. So I became obsessed with Cruella de Vil.
"I'd wear an Afghan and pretend to smoke with a pretzel rod. Everyone thought I loved '101 Dalmations.' I couldn't say, in 1986 or '87, 'Hey, I'm a young gay man and I want to be this person because she's so fantastic.’ So people just gave me ‘Dalmatians.’"
Baking was a big part of Bertha's shtick, almost from the start. As Bertha, Bowen often handed out butterscotch blondies, a family favorite, because it's a simple recipe and the bars travel well. "This was in the late 1990s and early 2000s, when drag was still very much a nighttime thing and seen as something 'other,'" he explains.
The pie baking class began on a whim. For one of Bertha's events, Bowen had friends put together "a real Midwestern tuna noodle casserole turkey dinner." He brought in Queer As Polka, a queer polka band, and Bertha threw a thoroughly Midwestern shindig.
"It was wonderful because there were hipsters, and bears, and lesbians, and old people, and a busload of Lutherans came in from the suburbs. And I thought, this is really what I want drag and community to be, where it's something 'other' but it comes together into a familiar sense of togetherness," Bowen says.
For her classes, Bertha relies on a handful of trusted recipes — lemon pie, chocolate pie, Toll House pie, seasonal fruit pie, and, of course, the aforementioned sour cream and raisin pie. Bowen chose them because of the fundamental skills they impart.
"The participants, who may have never picked up a rolling pin or a spatula in their life, will learn all these different methods — the biscuit method, the creaming method — so when they go back, I don't know if they'll ever make a pie again, but they'll look at a recipe like, 'Oh, I've done that. I know what it is,'" he says.
Participants walk away with their sweet tooth satisfied and more baking knowledge under their belts. But most crucially, Bowen hopes he has added a little bit of love to the world.
"I think that it's a way to create an idea of home for those who can't go home because of distance, because of family problems,” he says. “Bertha is this kind of nurturing, sarcastic, just a little out of step figure who wants to communicate love through food."
If you want to meet Bertha (and/or Michael), at least one of them will be a judge at Good Food's PieFest and Contest on April 30 at UCLA. It's not too late to enter a pie in one of our nine categories. You can also attend as a spectator, where you'll have the opportunity to taste the contestants' pies.
Want to book Bertha to host a baking comedy performance for you and your friends? KCRW members can donate and you'll be entered to win a Baking with Bertha class for you and five of your friends. Members who pledge on Saturday, March 25 or Sunday, March 26 will automatically be entered into our Baking with Bertha sweepstakes.
Bertha's Sour Cream and Raisin Pie Recipe
Raisins get a bad rap but I think everyone should engage in a sour cream and raisin pie. It's such an old timey recipe. It's so Midwestern. I want to create that feeling of nostalgia in a recipe, that taste of home, because nothing tastes as good as memory.
- 1 pie shell, 9-inch partially baked
- 1 cup raisins
- 1/2 cup of orange juice
- 1/4 cup of rum (if you don’t want to use rum, just use all juice)
- 2 tbsp flour
- 1/2 cup sugar
- zest of one orange (optional)
- 2 eggs
- 1 cup of sour cream
- 1 tsp of orange juice or rum (use any soaking liquid, if left)
- pinch of salt
- Mix the raisins, orange juice and rum in a pot. Bring the mixture to a boil. Allow the raisins to plump and absorb most of the juice. (If you are in a hurry or lazy, microwave the raisins and juice for 1 minute, cover with plastic wrap and let sit for 1 hour.)
- Preheat oven to 400 degrees Fahrenheit.
- Mix sugar and flour together.
- Add zest if you are using it.
- Beat in eggs and mix until it achieves a smooth, shiny and nice yellow color.
- Add sour cream and rum. Mix until smooth. Add salt.
- Drain raisins.
- Layer raisins in the bottom of the par-baked pie shell.
- Place the pie shell on a baking tray in case you slop all over. Pour the sour cream mixture over the raisins, filling the shell. Give the shell a little shimmy.
- Bake for 10 minutes at 400 degrees.
- Drop the temperature to 350 degrees. Bake 25-30 more minutes.
- Test the pie by inserting a knife 1 inch from the edge. The knife should come out clean. If it doesn't, put the pie back in the oven and bake it until it's done.
- Cool the pie on a rack for 2 hours before putting it in the fridge.
- Serve chilled and top with whipped cream. Enjoy!