VINCENNES, Ind. (AP) — At nearly 84 years old, Milly Pea’s hands are still as steady as they were some 60 years ago.
“Twist and turn,” Pea said, bending over a piece of parchment paper while demonstrating how to make sugar drop flowers. “Wait ’til it gets full of bloom … then pull up, like this.
“That’s how you do it,” she said, eyeing her tiny blue creation and moving on to make another.
Pea is a local cake-decorating legend who has been more or less retired for more than a decade. But on Monday she dusted off her icing bags and their various decorative tips to show some students in Vincennes University’s culinary arts program how the old pros used to do it.
“This is a lost art,” said Bill Stenger, a VU professor of culinary arts and Pea’s son-in-law. “Nobody does it like Milly does it anymore. Everything is pre-made, pre-manufactured. You can order it right off the Internet.
“But I learned it this way from her 20 years ago, and I want my students to learn it, too,” he told the Vincennes Sun-Commercial.
This is the first time Stenger has invited Milly into his classroom, and while it’s been years since she’s actually decorated a cake, she jumped at the chance to get back in the kitchen.
She spent about two hours showing a handful of students flower-making techniques that few today practice.
But there’s nothing like a nice personal touch to ensure satisfied customers, Stenger said.
“This is another tool for their bag,” Stenger said. “That’s what I always tell them. I want to put tools in their tools bags.
“Now when they go out to find a job, maybe it’s something like this that will make them stand out amongst the 10,000 other chefs graduating this year.”
Becky Pea-Stenger, the owner of Pea-Fections, 323 Main St., and Milly’s youngest daughter — she had 10 children in all — said she teased her mother on their way to VU Monday morning.
“I said, ‘It’s been awhile since you’ve decorated a cake, huh mom?’” Pea-Stenger said. “But she looked at me and said, ‘It’s just like riding a bike.’
“And clearly it is,” Pea-Stenger added. “She put those icing bags in her hand and it just flowed. It’s obviously ingrained in her.”
Milly started making and decorating cakes as a young 20-something mother. While sitting at home one afternoon with her first-born, she kept busy during a feeding session by watching a popular cooking show.
“I think it was ‘Food with Flair,’” Pea said, trying to remember the name of the show. “Anyway, he was decorating a cake and I decided I wanted to try it.”
She made her first cake for her sister’s wedding just a few weeks later, and word quickly spread about her fine work.
She and her husband, Bill, eventually opened their own cake shop, Milly and Bill’s, on Eberwine Avenue in the 1970s, and it remained open until 2000, when Pea-Stenger opened her own shop on Main Street in downtown Vincennes.
“We were in competition for a whole two months,” Pea-Stenger teased her mom.
Pea said these days she can hardly go anywhere without someone somewhere remembering a wedding cake or birthday cake she did for them years ago.
“When I go out to the hospital, all the girls out there, the nurses, they always say, ‘Hey, you made my wedding cake,’” Pea said with a bright smile. “The girls in the rehab unit, they’re a bit younger, but they’ll always say, ‘Hey, I used to come to your shop with my mom.’
“It’s fun hearing those things.”
Pea loved the idea of passing on her “old-school” techniques on to the next cake-decorating generation.
“It’s a joy,” she said, “especially when you’ve got a class that is interested in it. It’s out of style now, to do your own sugar work, but I just love doing it.”
Culinary arts student Jennifer Hodson, however, didn’t think Pea’s techniques either old or out of style.
“I think it’s awesome,” she said. “I can’t wait to go home and show my friends and family what I learned today. I’m really anxious to buy what I need and try it for myself. I think if you have the patience and the skill, it’s beautiful.”
“This is going back to our cake-decorating roots,” Pea-Stenger said as she proudly watched her mother interact with the VU students, her apron once again covered in multi-colored icing. “This is the way people made cakes years ago.
“And maybe when these students go out on their own, they’ll remember the way Milly did it.”