She spread music, joy and pickles: Hawley’s Mary Kay Hoffman demonstrated that it’s possible to make life into a work of art

By TINKY WEISBLAT

For the Recorder

Published: 08-15-2023 11:40 AM

This past weekend family and friends of the late Mary Kay Hoffman gathered at the Hawley home of Mary Kay and her husband, Earl Pope, to remember her. Mary Kay died in February at the age of 78.

As many readers probably know, Mary Kay was a mover and shaker in the arts here in Franklin County. She was particularly passionate about arts education; she was instrumental (pun intended) in the creation of Artspace and the Pioneer Valley Youth Orchestra.

I first met Mary Kay when we were both on the executive committee of Mohawk Trail Concerts in the 1990s. I served as secretary, and Mary Kay was treasurer. The late Helen Spencer of Conway was our president, and Pat Leuchtman (longtime gardening columnist here at the Recorder) was vice president.

We were a lively bunch of remarkable women. All of us had strong opinions and stronger wills. All of us cared about the arts. All of us had a core of common sense mixed with humor. Mary Kay’s husband Earl was wont to say that if we could just agree on everything, we would be able to rule the world.

Maybe it’s just as well we couldn’t agree on absolutely everything. I’m not sure the world was ready for us.

To cap off our talents, we were all fabulous cooks, each in her own way. Mary Kay spent a lot of time in the kitchen processing the yield of the enormous garden she and Earl maintained on their property.

In July of 2009, they were featured on the Artisans and Garden Tour organized by the Sons & Daughters of Hawley. Mary Kay and Earl let me stop by in advance of the tour to preview their garden.

Mary Kay was famous for gardening naked, although when I visited she wore clothes (I wasn’t sure whether I should be flattered or insulted). I learned on my visit that she handled the floral end of the yard and Earl took charge of the vegetables. I recall that he had planted a lot of tomatoes that year.

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When the pair weren’t weeding, they were planning how to deal with their produce. They did a lot of freezing and a lot of canning. Mary Kay was known for her prized pickles. Her friend Ellen called her “the pickle queen.”

Mary Kay took time from her pre-tour weeding marathon (she told me she was sore in what she swore were new muscles!) to show me around. I was and am hopeless at identifying flowers, but I knew that hers were beautiful and that it relaxed me to spend time walking among them.

To show off the season’s bounty, Mary Kay served me tea sandwiches using cucumbers, tomatoes and herbs from the garden. I made them again last week in her honor.

Of course, my sandwiches were less beautiful than Mary Kay’s. For one thing, I’m not great at presentation. For another, I couldn’t find fresh dill anywhere. Mine died a month ago, and so did that of every neighbor I talked to! So the dill I used was dried and less attractive. Even so, these dainty treats tasted great.

Luckily for me, my friend Peter (who is great at presentation and frequents many grocery stores) found dill at a supermarket. He re-made the sandwiches, using homemade sourdough bread and waxing generous with the vegetables. His sandwiches were gorgeous.

Even my less fancy version of the sandwiches reminded me why I love cooking and being a food writer.

My day in Mary Kay’s garden is now a distant memory, although I was heartened to find at the party that some of her flowers remain.

Mary Kay herself is also a memory. By making a recipe she shared with me, however, I can bring her back to life, at least in my mind, in a tangible way.

She made the sandwiches and their preparation look simple. She also made the sandwiches — and cooking in general — into works of art.

Her tea sandwiches reflect a larger talent Mary Kay possessed. By spreading music, joy and pickles, she demonstrated that it’s possible to make life into a work of art.

Mary Kay’s Garden Party Tea Sandwiches

The amounts in this recipe depend on a number of factors — the bread you use, the size of the vegetables you use, how generous you are with the butter, and so forth. So please forgive me for being vague.

The sandwiches are worth the effort. The butter gives them a richness that will wow your garden-party guests. As Mary Kay used to say, “You can’t just eat one!”

You’ll note that I didn’t add any salt; I was following Mary Kay’s instructions.

The herbs do impart a lot of flavor. If you must add a little salt, I would suggest starting with salted butter rather than salting the sandwiches.

Ingredients:

1 loaf white bread (MK used Arnold Brick-Oven White. I couldn’t find it at my store so I used a Pepperidge Farm Thinly Sliced; Peter used thinly sliced sourdough bread.)

softened butter

fresh herbs (dill for cucumber sandwiches, basil for tomato)

thinly sliced cucumbers and/or tomatoes as needed

Instructions:

First, cut the bread. Use a round cookie cutter to cut rounds of bread out of the slices of your loaf. According to Mary Kay, the rounds should be about the same size as your vegetables so you obviously want larger rounds for the tomatoes than for the cucumbers.

I have only a limited number of cookie cutters so my rounds weren’t quite the right size; in fact, they were a little big for the cukes and a little small for the tomatoes (which I consequently cut up). I could only get 2 cucumber-sized rounds and 1 tomato-sized round out of each slice of bread.

I seem to recall that Mary Kay got more volume (and probably had bigger slices of bread). I wasted some bread. What wasn’t wasted was divine, however.

As you cut the rounds, place them in a plastic bag so they don’t dry out as you cut their brothers and sisters.

Blend your butter with most of the herbs in a food processor. You may also chop the herbs and blend them with the butter manually. A half pound of butter and 1/2 cup herbs should make enough herb butter for a whole loaf, but I’d have extra butter and herbs on hand anyway. You may want to be extra generous.

If you like, you may freeze the buttered rounds until you are getting ready for your garden party. (Cutting and buttering them are a bit labor intensive and therefore handy to do in advance.)

To freeze the rounds, place them in a sealed plastic container with waxed paper between layers. When you’re ready to thaw them put them directly on your serving plate; they won’t take long to come to room temperature.

Thinly slice the cucumbers and/or tomatoes and put them on the appropriate buttered rounds. Garnish with additional herbs. These are open-faced sandwiches so you only need one round per sandwich.

Serves a crowd.

Tinky Weisblat is an award-winning author and singer. Her most recent book is “Pot Luck: Random Acts of Cooking.” Visit her website, TinkyCooks.com.

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