By Kathleen Downey
Sarah Pike is the South End’s Mac `n cheese Lady. As the founder and sole proprietor of Good Tastes Kitchen, a local food company that specializes in gourmet versions of this creamy pasta comfort food, Pike is intent on captivating palates nationwide—of even the most discriminating macaroni and cheese aficionados.
“I always knew that I’d work with food,” the fourth-generation townie says (her mother once owned Manson’s Ship Yard, where Pike’s great-grandfather built Clipper ships). Pike jokes that she still has the recipe book from a cooking class she took at the YWCA when she was five-years-old. Having moved with her family from their South End home when Pike was a third-grader, she spent the remainder of her childhood living on her parents’ organic farm near Belfast, Maine. “I have an image of my mother bent over in the garden in the evening picking vegetables, by headlight, so she could bring her fruits and vegetables to the farmers’ market the next day.” Pike also remembers waking up to her mother’s home-made muffins each morning. These formative years helped Pike to establish her connection with the earth, the fresh produce it yielded, and ultimately helped to instill Pike’s culinary calling.
After graduating from St. Lawrence University, where she studied psychology and met her future husband, Pike and her husband lived in San Francisco and then in Park City, Utah, before heading back to the East Coast. Settling into a house they rented on High Street in 2004, Pike began dreaming of the epicurean business that she would create. She also dreamed of her childhood home and the memories of her girlhood.
Pike can still remember pressing her body flat against the planks of the wooden bridge that once arched over the old rail bed in her South End neighborhood. With her school friends lying on either side of her, engaged in the same clandestine activity, she would peer between the slats at the teenagers gathered below—who were engaged in their own clandestine evening activity. Pike laughs and says, “Moving back to Newburyport, I reunited with my two best friends from the third grade.” Although she had lost touch with them for 20 years, Pike says that the townie roots that they all share made reconnecting easy. But she still yearned to feel the memories held inside the house that was her home until she was eight-years-old. So she wrote a letter to the homeowner, who happened to be the same woman who purchased the house from her parents in 1986.
“I explained that I had lived in the house with my family as a little girl and spoke of my fond memories,” Pike wrote. To her delight, the homeowner invited Pike to drop by for a visit. The convivial afternoon visit extended to an invitation to stay for dinner. Pike developed a cordial friendship with the homeowner, who was by then the sole occupant of the house with her children grown and having moved away. The one day, Pike says, the homeowner said to her, “This house deserves a family to live in it again.” She sold the house to Pike and her husband in 2006, fulfilling Pike’s dream of living in her childhood home. Now the mother of two boys, ages 4-1/2 and 1, Pike says, “I hope to be a 95-year-old lady living in this house.”
Happily resettled in her family home, Pike turned her attention to founding her foodie business. What she originally started as a local catering service that offered her exquisitely prepared entrees, Pike’s three-year-old company has found its niche in mac `n cheese. The popularity of her business’s monthly macaroni and cheese club helped Pike in her decision to focus solely on the nostalgic, cultish, and rich entrée. She has since transformed Good Tastes Kitchen into a gourmet food wholesaler, providing her premium macaroni and cheese entrees to Whole Foods, N. Atlantic stores. Pike’s local sellers include Fowle’s Market, Tendercrop Farms, and Leary’s, and Cider Hill Farm in Amesbury.
“Good Tastes’ mission is to change the perception of frozen food,” Pike says. (She aspires to a palate revolution akin to what Ben and Jerry’s did for the perception of ice cream.) Originally, Pike created each macaroni and cheese dish herself. “I had been ‘borrowing’ the kitchen at Masonic Hall on Green Street,” Pike shares. But when orders for her entrees began approaching several hundred, Pike contracted with a distributor in the Merrimack Valley to create her premium mac `n cheese recipes. Selections include Brie and fig (a favorite of Pikes’ husband), wild mushroom, bacon and shallot, and four-cheese. Acutely aware that her entrée’s premier ingredient must be of the best quality, Pike procures her cheese from Pineland Farms of New Gloucester, Maine. “Pineland’s cheese is delicious,” Pike attests. The farm’s ethic for crafting pure cheese without the use of growth hormones and antibiotics and its support of local agriculture are in synch with Pike’s Good Tastes’ philosophy. And, she adds, “It’s a fun trip to go up and meet the girls”—referring to the farm’s Holstein cows, without whom there would be no cheese in Good Tastes’ mac `n cheese.
For a November 2009 appearance on the Home Shopping Network, Pike made 3000 mac `n cheeses in three weeks. This past April, she appeared at a food show for Whole Foods. “I love working with food and building memories,” she says—attuned to the comforting, nostalgic associations that people can have for certain foods.
As for her own nostalgia, Pike’s life has come full circle. “I know a lot of people say that Newburyport has changed—and it has. But when I moved back here, I was amazed by how much some things stayed the same.” She says that some of her neighbors in the South End are the same neighbors who lived there when she was a little girl. Her cousins who live in town are countless (prompting Pike’s husband to jokingly refer to her as “Daisy Duke”). And she describes Plum Island as her “most favorite place on earth.” “I feel such a close connection here,” Pike says, “and I feel very full and very grateful.” Her introspective and humbling observation could also describe Pike’s delectable, rich and cheesy culinary creations.
Kathleen Downey is the Features Editor for Newburyport Today. She can be reached at Kathleen@Newburyport-Today.com.