Ethel McGill, who makes wonderful food, is not afraid to say so. In general, she tells it like it is.
"This here is Texas sheet cake," she might say, and you should believe it, although she will later explain that "it's what you folks call a brownie."
When you have tried a spoonful of it (because, thick and rich and messy, it is best eaten with a spoon), she will look you straight in the eye and tell you that, in the whole heaping plate of frosting, nuts and fudge, there is not a single calorie. "None of it's got calories," she will say, meaning not only the sheet cake but the sweet potato pies, apple pies, pecan pies and sour cream pound cakes that surround her, stacked one atop the other in plastic boxes with see-through tops. This is not strictly true.
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McGill, who made her first Thanksgiving dinner when she was 7, has been telling people what's good for them for years. For 11 months, she has been selling it to them, too. People call her Ms. Ethel, so she calls her business Ms. Ethel's Seriously Sweet Confections.
Both the woman and her justly labeled desserts appear at farmers markets around town, although most regularly on Friday afternoons at the Borgata in Scottsdale. Here, at a table outside swank clothing stores, McGill gives thin, well-turned-out shoppers and tourists a taste of the good life.
"I love to cook," McGill says, drawing out the word "love" in a way that reflects her Texas heritage. Her family is from Texas, although she is Arizona born and bred. She has lived in Phoenix for 35 years. She was raised in Casa Grande, where her grandmother owned a restaurant, and McGill attended an all-black elementary school across the street.
McGill recalls that, at lunch time, students at her school paid a quarter to be bussed to a white school, where they would eat in a cafeteria. Eventually, school officials rethought the policy.
"They started giving my grandmother the quarters, and she would feed the kids," McGill says. "And let me tell you, it was good."
McGill learned to cook from her grandmother, and from her mother and her aunts. Some of her recipes come from her family, but they are not written recipes. They're just ways of doing things.
"You won't believe this, but I don't cook from recipes very well," McGill says. "If it don't look quite like I want it, I add something. . . . I have it more or less down. What you do is you taste it and see if it tastes right."
It usually does, as Debbie Simons, Borgata marketing director, can attest.
"She has customers who come every week," Simons says. "She was especially busy during the holidays. People had her do all of their holiday baking for them."
McGill throws up her hands at the memory, exclaiming, "I was busy!"
Believe it: She spends as long as 14 hours preparing for a single off-season afternoon of sales. Still, she says, she really does enjoy it, unless she is asked to make a red velvet cake. "That's the only cake that makes me curse," she says. She shakes her head, which is covered in rows of tight black braids, as though she cannot understand why the cake even exists.
If she does not sell out (and sometimes she doesn't), remainders don't go to waste. Her grown sons, both of whom live in the area, are happy to take them off her hands. Like her mother before her, McGill has passed on a love of good food to the next generation. When one of her boys was playing football at Arizona State, she routinely invited the team home for Thanksgiving dinner. Any player who wanted to come was welcome to, and many of them did.
"I just cooked and cooked and cooked," she says. "Turkeys, pies, everything. I made 100 pounds of chitlins, 35 bunches of greens . . . I have pots at home that are bigger than me."
McGill, who does all of her baking in a commercial kitchen, has not stopped using those pots. "I don't just bake," she says, "I cook." She likes ham, chicken and pork chops, and she does them up right. "I use a lot of no-no's in my cooking."
Still, she has made some concessions for those who are watching their weight. Most of her "treats," as she calls them, are baked in small aluminum shells like the ones frozen, single-serving pot pies come in. She sells these, and pint-size cakes and breads, for just a few dollars; people who do not believe her calorie-free claim can limit their indulgence without walking away empty-handed.
"People say they're watching their weight, and I let them," she sighs. "Although I've decided that it's just as hard to do the little one as the big one."
At the Borgata, McGill is assisted by Marie Saitta, who takes the money and reminds McGill that small pies and cakes are ideal for tourists, who can return with them to their hotel rooms. In the kitchen, McGill is sometimes helped by a friend, but does much of the work alone. She doesn't seem to mind.
Not long ago, she was crippled by back and knee problems. "I was in that bed for so many years," she says. Surgery alleviated her symptoms, and she has been back on her feet for a year and a half.
"God has blessed me," she says, "to where I'm able to do all of it."
Elan Head, a freelance writer, is partial to sweet potato pies but would be hard-pressed to turn down a slice of pecan.
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