SOUTH HAVEN — Even though Ray Bartels shed his cleric attire years ago, the 97-year-old is still taking care of his flock – only this time he’s wearing an apron and wielding a mixing bowl.
Bartels is the subject of a new cookbook, “The Pastor’s Pies,” which is filled with his favorite recipes for the hundreds of pies, cookies and breads he gives to family, friends and strangers.
“At Christmastime, I make 60 loaves of fruitcake, load them in my car, and go down the street door-to-door giving them away,” he said.
Bartels is best known for his pies. He’s a common sight at senior lunches, church events, funerals and even farmers markets as he carries in his baked goods, giving them away to young and old alike.
“After my wife, Fern, died, my son, Randy, suggested I go to the senior lunches at Peace Lutheran,” he said. “I took a pecan pie the first time. A lady there asked me how I knew how to make pies. I told her. She told me, ‘Next time bring a lemon meringue.’ I did.”
From there, his pie-making hobby mushroomed, he said.
Now pastor emeritus, Bartels served at Peace Lutheran Church in South Haven for 27 years before his retirement in 1988.
Born Sept. 6, 1921, in Homer, Neb., he was one of eight boys. He preached in churches in Nebraska and Colorado before coming to Michigan.
While attending Western Theological Seminary in Fremont, Neb., the 18-year-old worked his way through college by cooking three meals a day, five days a week for eight boys in a nearby seminary.
“When I told my mom what I was going to do, and I needed to cook something good,” he said, “she told me to get here in the kitchen, because we were going to make lemon meringue pie. I still remember her words, ‘When you put the pie in the oven, get it out in five minutes or it will burn.’”
That advice has stayed with Bartels, who has honed his pie-making skills and collected more than 30 pie recipes. And just about every recipe has a story to go with it.
Take his vinegar pie, for example. Printed in the Kalamazoo Gazette, Bartels saved the recipe and made two for a senior luncheon. A couple at the lunch tried it for the first time.
The wife remembered her grandmother making the pie, so her husband asked Bartels for the recipe, which he happened to have with him.
The book is filled copies of recipes he typed on his Olympia manual typewriter and kept in a three-ring binder. Along with ones like Zucchini and Gooseberry Pie, there are recipes for dishes like Green Tomato Dill Pickles and Turkey Burgers.
The recipes contain notes, telling how he came across the recipes, and where they came from. Some came out of magazines, but many came from friends and family.
It’s not unusual for him to get unexpected donations to keep the work going.
“My doorbell rang while I was eating breakfast one day,” he said. “A neighbor was there with a sack of zucchini.”
Jan Jessup, a long-time member at Peace, was instrumental in getting Bartels’ recipes in book form. She told him he really needed to get them in print.
“When you’re at a funeral or a potluck, there’s his pies,” she said. “He just bakes away.”
So does he have a favorite pie?
“Pecan Deluxe,” he said quickly. “I add 4 ounces of baking chocolate.”
Proceeds from book sales are donated to senior activities at Peace Lutheran Church.
The cookbook, which is in its third printing, is available at the church office.