By Cindy Sutter | DailyCamera.com
If you have a sweet tooth, you could only hope to wangle yourself an invitation to an Eckels family reunion.
Yet no matter how much you think you like sweet things, you’d likely find yourself outmatched.
“There was no bad food there,” says Donna Walter, 77, “but we’d all go to the dessert table to make sure we’d get certain things.”
For Walter’s grandson, Boulder pastry chef Nate Miller, that meant pumpkin pie.
“I’d have a whole pie,” he says, looking only the slightest bit sheepish.
Spend a little time with this Pennsylvania-based clan and you’ll find that the sweetness extends way beyond the tooth.
On a recent morning, as industrial mixers creamed butter and sugar in a commercial kitchen on Wilderness Place, Donna Walter and her husband, Red, sampled peanut butter and chocolate bars that Miller had made based on his grandmother’s interpretation of Oh Henry! bars.
“I’m just so proud of him,” Walter says of her grandson, formerly pastry chef at The Kitchen, and now working with Shannon Aten on The Tasterie Truck, a food truck ferrying some of those Eckels family treasures from office park to office park in Boulder.
For Miller, the idea of putting baked goods on wheels is both old and new: His great-great grandfather, Jonathan Houston Eckels, served up bread and sweets from a bakery wagon in Chambersburg, Pa., in the late 1800s.
Also old and new are Miller’s sticky buns, based on Donna Walter’s recipe. She baked them once a week when Miller was growing up, and Miller soon found that the buns laced with gooey, buttery cinnamon and brown sugar had the power to get him out of some, er, sticky situations.
In high school, for example, he discovered that a plate of sticky buns delivered sweetly to school staff somehow prevented tardy marks from making their way to his record.
“He used to bribe the front office,” says Nate Miller’s mom, Deb, who also was visiting along with his dad, Rick.
The reason for the visit was bitter as well as sweet.
Donna Walter has cancer.
“Forty years ago in November, I was diagnosed with breast cancer,” she says. “I did very well for 36 years. Then it metastasized into my bones four years ago. When I had to opportunity to come, I didn’t want to pass it up. I didn’t want to let it go any longer without coming out.”
As she says this, everyone is quiet, blinking to keep tears back.
Then, the topic of family reunions comes up, which leads to pies.
“She always has pie crusts in her freezer,” Nate Miller says of his grandmother.
“She never made a cake from a boxed mix,” Deb Miller says of her mom. “Everything was always from scratch.”
As Nate Miller finished up work in the kitchen, the group headed out to meet the Tasterie Truck for a taste of the family legacy.
In a mini-family reunion, joining them were Nate Miller’s uncle, Doug Walter, who lives in Colorado, along with his two young sons, Luke, 5, and Owen, 7, who were full of sugar bliss after sampling sticky buns and whoopee pies.
Donna Walter had a mudslide cupcake made with Bailey’s, with coffee frosting and chocolate ganache inside, as well as tasting other items.
“They’re all fun, all a little different (from mine) with a couple of things added,” she says proudly of her grandson’s baked goods. “The snickerdoodles are the original. That’s what these guys come to Chambersburg for,” she says looking at Owen and Luke.