by Ellen C. Warren. Photo by Peter diAntoni
Although Martha Davis Kipcak has lived in Wisconsin for over fifteen years, her sweet voice still betrays a touch of Texas. She likes it that way. “If it starts to slip, if people tell me they can’t hear an accent, then I know it’s time to go home and polish up a little bit.”
Boasting several generations of Texan, Martha’s family has lived in the south since the Revolutionary War. And she is the first, ever, to venture north. Not that that was part of any plan. For that matter, when the Kentuckian who would become her second husband told her he really wanted to live in Wisconsin, even with her experience as a cartographer, she had to go look at a map to find Milwaukee. “It’s north of Chicago! Do people really live up there?” she recalls wondering.
Raised in Tyler, in east Texas, Martha went to Baylor for her first degree in Recreation. Later she earned a BFA. in Studio Art from UT. Austin was her home for about ten years. The group she “hung out with” included the guy who was the founder of South by Southwest.
From Austin she and her husband moved to Fredericksburg, “a little jewel of a town, really a star of the hill country.” Her three children were born there. She loved it so much that she vowed never to leave it.
“Never say never!” says Martha. “It’s not a good thing to say.”
When her marriage ended, leaving her a single provider, it was tough finding work to support her family in a town of 8,000. “As anyone with an art degree, with art leanings, knows, you cobble together a life,” she relates. “Let’s see. I’ve been a cartographer, a typographer, I worked in a small, weekly newspaper, doing everything from paste-up to layout to photography to writin’ stories, anything. I catered a little. Worked in a restaurant, a honky-tonk, outside of town. It was fabulous. I made their desserts. The Hilltop Cafe.”
Near the end of the nineties Martha was introduced by mail to the man from Kentucky. They fell in love through letters, married in Texas, and moved the family, now seven in number, to Wisconsin. After a short time in the Oconomowoc area they landed in Shorewood. Life changed dramatically for Martha when, less than two years later, he walked out.
Against the wishes of her family and friends in Texas, she chose to stay here. She loved the incredible diversity of the population that surrounded her, something she couldn’t imagine finding in Texas. She loved the “walkability” of the neighborhood. She loved her children’s friends.
The year was 2002, a year that Martha recalls as a period so affected by the aftermath of 9/11 that nothing was moving. No one was hiring. She couldn’t find a job. “So,” she says, “that’s when I decided to take a chance and start cooking for people. I started catering, illegally, out of my home. Underground catering.”
Her well-meaning, local friends tried to dissuade her. “This is not going to work,” they told her, “because you don’t cook like you’re from around here. You cook like a Texan. Big flavor, lots of spice.”
Martha went ahead with her plan, cooking her “fusion food.” It had to work since she had no backup plan. “We made it. I never, ever advertised… strictly word of mouth. And I supported a family of four.” (My Secret Chef), as it was called, lasted for four years.
“It was through my catering that I began to look for better ingredients. And that’s what took me to agriculture,” explains Martha. “One thing led to another. In the food world, once you pull back that curtain and learn about where your food is from and how it’s produced, you can’t unknow (it), and it’s transforming. So I became an accidental activist, really.”
Through her catering she also met a local philanthropist who later offered her a job. “So I went to work for her with the job description, basically, ‘What can we do in our community to be helpful around food issues?’”
“This was before the whole local food movement really got off the ground. I was just a lucky girl. I was at the right place at the right time. So, I went to work for [the BRICO Fund] and became a community organizer.”
“I started the Milwaukee Food Council. Food policy councils were emerging all over America at that point as an organizing tool to influence system change.”
The impact of food on society “is so big, so unwieldy, that I talk about it as mindfulness,” says Martha, “My goal as an activist is to increase mindfulness around food. So, if we do nothing else, just pay more attention to how we nourish ourselves, then that’s a win to me. Because food is a very, very complicated phenomenon, and made more complicated in that it’s ordinary…we eat every day… we kind of miss it like a forest for the trees type of thing. And we don’t have any formal attention-giving to it. We don’t have a department of food.”
After a time her work moved her to the Center for Resilient Cities while still convening the Food Council. “And then it began to gnaw around the edges…’How do I know that this local, sustainable, equitable, nutritious food system that we are advocating for… is really possible?’” Martha recognized that, although authentic and well-meaning, most of the people involved were “talking heads” without a real hands-on involvement.
When she realized that as a cook her way in was through the kitchen, she decided to test the system by bringing a product to the marketplace. With the creation of her company, Mighty Fine Food LLC, Martha set out to “see if it’s really possible to source good quality ingredients, to hold steady to environmental sustainability in my packaging, to hold the line on social justice, to give people a job with fair wages, and then be economically profitable.” If it worked she would have proven it possible. If she came up against endless barriers and found that success was not possible, then she needed to “shut up and find some other way to be helpful.”
For the initial product of her company Martha opted to fill what she saw as a need in the northern market. The staple “pate of the South,” pimento cheese was simply not available here, and she missed it. Martha’s Pimento Cheese uses Cedar Grove Aged Cheddar from Plain, Wisconsin. The jalapenos added to the spicier version are grown at Milwaukee’s urban Alice’s Garden or by farmers of the Fondy Food Center.
In 2013 it won first and second place for cheese spreads in the prestigious American Cheese Society Awards. “I won the best award I could possibly win,” says Martha, “and it’s still really hard to sell.” She is learning that an unknown product takes a while to catch on.
Several local retailers sell Martha’s Pimento Cheese (including the Riverwest Co-op – go buy some!) and this summer she has made it into the Chicago market, keeping herself in a full time and two assistants in part time jobs. She is coming up against the advantages of size inherent to the existing system, as in when she found she could only buy compostable packaging by the truckload. “To be the David against the Goliath is really tough,” Martha reports.
She has been living with her fiance in a Riverwest home they purchased together. A few days before this interview took place in mid-August, Martha married Charles Brummit in a ceremony at Alice’s Garden. All of us at Riverwest Currents wish Bud and Martha a beautiful life together!
Find out more: marthaspimentocheese.com