When everyone turned to baking to manage the stress of the pandemic, Marjorie Johnson did just the opposite.
“I took a vacation. I didn’t bake a thing except my own birthday cake in August. It was nice to have a year without that pressure,” she confided.
For the diminutive Johnson, who could have lighted 101 candles this year, creating cookies, breads and cakes is not a hobby. It’s been an occupation, a vocation, a passion. Minnesota’s famed “Blue Ribbon Baker,” who became a sought-after television celebrity by virtue of her thousands of State Fair and county fair awards, never baked for fun.
She baked to win.
“My husband told me I worked too hard,” she said. “Once I was walking up the steps at 5 a.m. after baking up a storm as he was walking down the steps for breakfast. I said good night to him as he said good morning to me.”
This year instead of sifting and stirring, Johnson has mowed down a stack of books (recent favorite: “Super Brain”). She chats on the phone, updates her Facebook status and takes her daily constitutional.
“I don’t go to the Y now; too many germs. I walk outside. I’ve always lived in a two-story house and going up and down keeps my legs strong,” she said.
She is cautious, though, strolling her Robbinsdale neighborhood with her daughter or a neighbor.
“I don’t want to fall because there goes my beautiful life,” she said. “I never have aches and pains. I see this stuff advertised that people take, but I have no health problems so I don’t need to spend my money on drugs to cure anything.”
Her more subdued life is quite a departure from last year’s centennial, when she was feted at her local YMCA, joined her children for a cruise on the Queen Mary and gloried as the guest of honor at a birthday party for 200 of her closest friends.
There will be time for another fuss in the future. After all, the oldest known living person, Kane Tanaka, is 117.
“Maybe I could make it to that, too,” Johnson said. “Or at least 115.”
Technically, this is not Johnson’s first pandemic. In 1919, the year of her birth, Minnesota was hit by the second wave of the Spanish flu, which took some 2,500 lives. Johnson knows of no one in her family who was claimed by the illness.
She hopes her lucky streak continues with the coronavirus. The widow of a dentist and the mother of two physicians and an aerospace engineer, Johnson “listens to doctors” and dutifully stays home, washes her hands and wears her mask.
“I use common sense. I don’t understand people who don’t. How can they be so dumb?” she said. “Once when we were walking, a lady came running over and said, ‘I can’t believe it’s you, Marjorie. Can I have my picture with you?’ She didn’t have a mask. Now we cross the street when we see other walkers.”
She giggled. “It’s fun being a tiny celebrity.”
Johnson plans to expand her accomplishments by earning new ribbons next summer. She’s contemplating a recipe that combines bananas, whole wheat flour and honey, a dandy new version of banana bread to put before the judges.
“After a year of vacation, I’ll be ready to wear myself out again,” she said. “I’ll be there with bells on.”
Kevyn Burger is a Minneapolis-based freelance broadcaster and writer.