WARSAW — U.S. Navy veteran James Bottoms, 85, loves nothing better than baking; he’s been doing it all his life, but what he really enjoys is giving those baked goods to others.
The award-winning baker and his wife Mary have a small bakery in their rural Warsaw home, J&M Goodies. They recently took an assortment of baked goods to the Missouri Veterans Home in Warrensburg for Thanksgiving.
“I’ll tell you something, that was the most wonderful feeling I’ve had in my life when we took that stuff in,” he said Tuesday.
“It was exciting,” Mary added.
“It was like something exploded,” he said smiling. “I don’t know how to explain it.”
He added that he had told Mary he’d belonged to many veteran organizations over the years, but he wanted to do something different.
“I got to thinking about it,” he noted. “There’s the Veterans Home in Warrensburg and I told Mary ‘I’m going to call up there and see what they would think of it.’”
He called the home and reached Director of Volunteer Services Latisha Koetting.
“She just screamed when I told her what I was going to do,” James added.
“They have 200 people who live there, and 250 employees,” Mary said.
James and Mary delivered 23 pumpkin pies, fruit breads, brownies, German chocolate cakes, dinner rolls and a decorated Thanksgiving cake to the residents and staff members last week.
He added since his days as a healthy young baker, life had taken a turn and now he saw helping others in a different light. After retiring, he was soon faced with many serious health issues and surgeries. This coupled with losing a spouse, earlier in his life, changed his perspective.
James’s baking roots trace back 75 years or more. His father, Sam Bottoms, owned a bakery in Tallassee, Alabama, and while he was a youngster, he helped his oldest brother Mathis Bottoms, a baker who ran the business.
“By the time I was 9- or 10-years-old, I was in and out washing pots and pans for him,” James said. “I told him I was going to be a better baker than he was and he said ‘you can’t never do it.’ But, I did though. My oldest brother, he was the one I always looked up to.”
James said he probably gets some of his baking expertise from his mother, Vinnie Mae Bottoms.
“My mom baked cakes over a wood stove,” he added. “My mother couldn’t even read or write her name, but she could remember those recipes.”
James enlisted in the U.S. Navy when he was 17 serving on the battleship USS Missouri for 22 months. He served as a cook and baker in the commissary during the Korean War.
After serving in the Navy, James eventually went to live in Wichita, Kansas, working at Dillions grocery store. For 15 years, from the late ’50s to early ’70s, he also owned a bakery in Warrensburg called Nora’s, named after his first wife. He lost Nora due to a brain tumor while in Warrensburg.
While speaking with the Democrat on Tuesday, James bowed his head and gave a prayer of Thanksgiving.
“When I was younger, living in Warrensburg, I knew there was God, but I didn’t think I needed him,” he said afterward.
Through the loss of his wife and his many health issues James said he found that “God was there.”
He was eventually introduced to his second wife, Mary, also a baker. The couple has been married for 34 years and has combined their baking talents to create homemade cakes, dinner rolls, sourdough French bread and cookies.
Together they have baked and managed bakeries for Hy-Vee, Thriftway and Price Chopper in the Kansas City area. While at Hy-Vee in Raytown, James received a first place award for his bakery.
“Out of 250 stores he was No. 1,” Mary said.
James said he learned how to tell if customers liked his baked goods.
“Do you know how you can tell when you are doing a good job?” he asked. “When you put it out there, and it’s gone the next day.”
The couple said at one place they managed, they would make and sell 100 dozen chocolate chip cookies every day.
In his kitchen Tuesday, James was mixing up and baking a batch of large chocolate chip cookies. He said the best way to make a good cookie is to beat the flour, shortening and eggs until it’s “fluffy” and then when adding the chocolate chips not to mix the dough too much.
Another secret is to use honey in the recipe and to use cake flour instead of all-purpose. This keeps the cookie soft and chewy.
“What makes my chocolate chip cookies so special is that I stole the formula from a guy I was working with in Wichita, Kansas,” he added smiling. “He was American, but his folks came from Germany. Me and him were real good friends and he’d make this chocolate chip cookie. I wanted the recipe for it, but he wouldn’t give it to me.”
James added that his friend was the foreman over the sweet baked goods while he was foreman over yeast breads.
“So, I’d watch him, and I’d write down the sugar, and I’d write down the shortening, and I got it,” he said. “I told him ‘hey Nick I got your cookie formula’ … He got aggravated at me, but they are real good, I think.”
James’s baking skills have been passed down to his granddaughter Mellissa Hartigan, of Grain Valley, who is also an award-winning baker.
“She is so wonderful,” he said. “We raised her. She’s a baker and manager for Cosentino’s (Price Chopper) in Liberty, Missouri.”
Although he is well past retirement age, James shows no signs of slowing down. He and his wife are already making plans to take baked goods to the Missouri Veterans Home for Christmas.
For those interested in Christmas bakery items, James and Mary Bottoms are taking orders. They can be reached by calling 438-3220.
Faith Bemiss can be reached at 530-0289 or @flbemiss.