Bill Scantlebury — master baker, master Tai Chi practitioner — died March 9 in Boston. He was 65 years old.
Six mornings a week, at 5 a.m., he walked downstairs from the third floor of the family’s East Boston house and started to mix doughnut batter in the family’s bakery on the first floor. Bill had been to China and England, but he never left the Betty Ann Food Shop for long.
It was a neighborhood fixture, run by the Scantleburys since 1931. The oven was a hundred years old and coal-fired, the equipment over half a century, and there were no measuring cups, because recipes were known by heart and measured by feel.
The Betty Ann Food Shop sold doughnuts, cookies, danishes, bread at times — and, on Saturdays, baked beans. Billy had an Ichabod Crane frame, and never gained weight on any of them. Given a choice, he preferred Wheat-a-bix or scones for snacking; his baking family came from Cornwall.
The doughnuts were particularly famous. Mayor Menino stood in line for bags of them, fresh from frying, with warm oil stains. But whether the customer was famous or not, Billy never forgot their details. A person could walk through the front door (or, if they were privileged, through the kitchen door), and Billy greeted them with a nickname, a ribbing, and a reconstruction of some conversation from 20 years ago. It wasn’t only recipes he knew by heart.
Between mixing, kneading, twisting, frying, and baking, he taught the counter girls Tai Chi moves. Tai Chi was his second life, a salvation discovered in 1984, after an auto-immune joint disease drove him into Chinatown in search of treatment.
He took his classes after baking ended for the day, went to dinner with other students, then returned home to light the oven late at night. Bakers need speed and physical flexibility, and Billy became a passionate student and performer — admired especially for parrying, thrusting, and twirling with a spear. His friends said it was as if he had trained to be a pirate.
Through Tai Chi, he learned about impermanence. Yet the flexible master insisted on sameness in his bakery, whether that meant equipment, ingredients, or technique. In his final illness, he had to close the Betty Ann Food Shop down. But he continued to pay its utility bills, even from the rehabilitation hospital, because he believed some things shouldn’t end. He had every intention of opening it again.
Did you know Bill Scantlebury? Share your memories in the comments section.