Oregonian’s MIX Magazine, July 2013
“The perfect pie crust is all about the butter,” Cathy Pennington says as she pulls a golden-hued spinach, mushroom and Swiss cheese pie from one of two humming Vulcan convection ovens. It’s sundress weather in southern Oregon and the bakery kitchen rises to balmy digits despite two screen doors open to a mountain breeze.
A chorus of frogs chime a summer melody from a pond just a sprint away as Cathy and her 26-year-old daughter Jackie prep for a Saturday night dinner party on the family’s berry farm, Pennington Farms. About 10 meandering miles from Grants Pass in the Applegate Valley, the 90-acre farm and country bakery is a top destination for anyone who lovers berries and old-school baked goods.
The bakery, set in a renovated rustic barn, is decorated with vintage Americana pie signs, chalkboard menus with quirky quotes and daily turnover specials. Numerous surfer paintings seem purely whimsical, until you discover that the family historically road-trips to the Oregon coast to surf (head farmer Sam Pennington was raised on the North Shore of Oahu catching waves).
Sam and Cathy met at the University of Denver, and after pursuing management careers in Hawaii, they returned to Colorado to begin farming specialty flowers in 1987. A longer growing season wooed the Pennington family to southern Oregon in 1995. “We thought it was a beautiful place to raise a family,” says Cathy. After first planting seven acres of tayberries and loganberries (both a cross between a blackberry and raspberry), the farm flourished into a sea of berry fields.
“At first we wondered what we were going to do with all these berries,” says Cathy. “So the kids began selling jam at a roadside stand. Then we decided to open a bakery.” The Penningtons now grow 10 varieties of berries, sell over 1,000 handmade turnovers a week from the bakery and at local farmers markets, and make jam five days a week on a pink vintage Monarch stove.
Cathy credits her Italian grandmother as her baking muse. “She would arise with an apron on and it didn’t come off until bedtime,” she says. Her daughter Jackie also caught the baking bug and worked for two years at Bar Tartine in San Francisco. When asked why she left, she smiles and replies: “There’s no place like Oregon.”
As the cocktail hour nears, Cathy assigns Sam to make berry margaritas. “We taste-tested last night and we all voted on the loganberry,” she says. Family friend DeWayne Lumpkin darts in and out of the kitchen arranging artful bouquets and setting a farm-chic dinner table.
“DeWayne was a pal from day one,” says Cathy. “He’s our go-to guy for anything in design.” Lumpkin is the owner of Home Economics, a vintage home goods store in Grants Pass. He decorated the Pennington guesthouse and bakery with the ethos of “what’s old is new again,” transforming rustic wood window frames into avant-garde art and turning cement trowels into door handles and drawer pulls.
While topping off margarita glasses, he explains that tonight’s dinner table is actually a repurposed workbench salvaged from a barn in Cave Junction. “It seats 14 comfortably,” he adds, before he dashes back into the kitchen to bring out the appetizers — a spread of local cheese, grilled asparagus and chicken sausages.
Like any dinner party, when the guests arrive, they hover in the kitchen, admire the food and distract the cook. “I forgot I was baking,” Cathy exclaims mid-conversation. She leaps toward the oven and pulls out a perfect berry cobbler. “Don’t worry if it’s a little too crisp,” Lumpkin quips. “That’s what the ice cream is for.”
As if on cue, friends Perry Cook and Stacie Brink walk through the door with a wooden bucket of custard-based homemade vanilla ice cream. The 1964 ice cream maker is a family heirloom and a reoccurring star at summer dinner parties. Cook beams when he sees the savory pies perched on the kitchen table next to rustic rounds of cobbler. “We’ve had days that have been nothing but Pennington pastry,” he says. “And we love that,” Cathy replies.
“An East Coast transplant to southern Oregon, Cook explains how he and his wife often swing by the bakery to say hi, and leave with flour prints on their clothes. “If you stop by between 7 a.m. and 3 p.m., be prepared to roll up your sleeves,” he says.
The crowd moseys from the kitchen into the bakery and gathers around the table. “Saturday night is our crescendo,” says Sam, leaning his tall frame back in his chair to survey the scene. “After a week of working in the fields and with the family at markets, we all look forward to this night, when we can enjoy some downtime with friends.”
Stories are swapped, memories shared and the loganberry cobbler is topped with scoops of delicious ice cream. Tidbits of conversation float from the patio — the word “paradise” hangs in the air. As the evening unwinds, guests step out the screen door into a symphony of frogs and a starlit sky. Pie for dinner, on a balmy summer eve? Paradise, indeed.