by Roberta T. Vowell
photography by Keith Lanpher
Lunch rush is in full swing at Chocollage, a sweet little café and bakery in Norfolk’s Freemason neighborhood, when co-owner LeeAnne Horan walks in with a baby.
Lelynd is 7 months old, a squirmy bundle of chubby legs and arms. He is Horan’s first grandchild, and she is in charge of him just until his mommy arrives.
Horan parades the baby into the kitchen, where her own mother, Pat Marshall, is rolling out her billionth pie crust of the day. “Hello, Lelynd,’’ Marshall coos. She leans over to nuzzle the baby’s forehead, her hands on autopilot as they crimp the edge of the pie crust.
Louise Marshall – Horan’s sister-in-law – strides into the kitchen with two hands full of dirty dishes. She brushes her face against the baby’s soft skin, barely missing a beat as she heads for the sink. Even the pastry chef, Suzie Dorris, looks up from decorating her third red velvet cake of the day and smiles.
Horan and Lelynd whisk back into the front of the shop, where a regular customer, Kathleen Gross, is frowning, undecided, into the display case.
“Now, on the middle row, you have the Hello Dollys,’’ Horan starts her spiel. “They’ve got pecans and chocolate chips and condensed milk. Next to them are the breakfast muffins. They’re called Morning Glory muffins, and they have apples and carrots and what-all healthy in them. Next to that are the Rocky Road bars, and up top you have orange cake with pineapple cream cheese icing.’’
Another customer interrupts his coffee and macaroon break. “Wait,’’ he says, making his way between the wrought-iron tables and chairs. “I’ve got to come over and see this.’’
Lelynd’s huge dark eyes are fastened on the rows of treats. In fact, all the customers are tuned in. “That’s the Black Bottom cupcakes,’’ Horan says, introducing the final tray of treats. “Chocolate with chocolate chips, cream cheese mixed in. Heat ‘em up and they get good and gooey.’’
Marshall points out the window at College Place. Even in the early morning, people are striding along the brick sidewalk, some dragging briefcases, others
being dragged by dogs.
“The people who had this before us, I think they were just a little ahead of their time,” Marshall says. “There weren’t so many people living downtown then.’’
The previous owners did one great turn for Horan and Marshall. They left a pastry chef who had a spectacular recipe – the Chocolate Peanut Butter Bombe, a baseball-sized orb of chocolate mousse and peanut butter mousse resting on a circle of semi-sweet brownie, all of which is frozen, then covered with rich chocolate ganache.
It is the shop’s biggest seller and has garnered public acclaim, including a “Best Chocolate Dessert’’ award from a local publication. The cooks greet all this with an “Aw, shucks, it was nothing’’ attitude.
“We’ve gotten a lot of attention about the bombe,’’ Marshall says. “We just don’t want people thinking we’re getting jumped up, like we think we’re something.’’
“Mom and I are good ol’ down-home Southern cooks,” Horan says.
We’ll let the bombe’s followers sing its praises:
“Have one of those chocolate bombes,’’ a man says to his co-worker as they stand before Chocollage’s display case.
“Is it a lot?’’ she asks. “I mean, like heavy?’’
“You have to be prepared to be,’’ he pauses, considering his words, then exhales, “naughty.’’
All this sweetness was born of sorrow.
In 2002, Harry Marshall died of a heart attack. He was Pat Marshall’s husband, LeeAnne Horan’s father.
A year later, the Marshalls’ oldest son, Jeffrey, died, also of a heart attack. He was LeeAnne’s brother, Louise Marshall’s husband.
“I lost my husband and my son,” Pat Marshall says. “It was a tough year.’’
Out of that came a café, although the beginnings are disputed by the co-owners.
“My father always said we should open a small bakery shop,” Horan says. “We decided that would be part of the healing process, and a way to honor him.”
“I don’t remember that,’’ Marshall says, looking puzzled. “Harry used to tell me we ought to have a pizza place, but it was more a way of telling me mine was so good.’’
She shrugs and continues, “You just gotta roll with the punches.’’
Mother and daughter agree, though, that cooking is their talent. Horan had worked at restaurants for most of her life. Marshall had been a caterer and worked in the kitchen of a retirement home for two years. They excelled in sweets, cookies and cakes and pies that filled the tables of potlucks and church suppers in Portsmouth.
Harry and Pat Marshall raised their six children in Portsmouth’s Park View, where ingredients were found in the family’s vegetable garden and adjacent river. “I baked bread,’’ Marshall says. “When you have six children you need bread, a lot of bread. I’d usually make six to eight loaves at a time,
twice a week.’’
Marshall was “queen bee of baking,’’ her daughter says, at Park View Baptist Church in Portsmouth.
“There were always lots of kids around,’’ Horan says.
“We made Halloween cookies, Christmas cookies, every kind of treat. I always wanted to go out with my girlfriends on Friday nights, but they knew it was homemade pizza night at my house, and they all wanted to come over.
“We crabbed and fished and canned. It was a very good childhood and it all centered around food.’’
In the kitchen, Dorris, the pastry chef, is piping “Happy Birthday’’ icing onto a carrot cake. Louise Marshall peers in, and tells her the cake is for one of their regulars.
“They’re going to the Aberdeen Barn for dinner,’’ Louise Marshall says, “he and his mama.’’
Pat Marshall looks up from the eggs she is whisking. “Seems like he just had a birthday,’’ she says.
“Maybe he’s having two birthdays a year now,’’ Louise Marshall answers.
Out front, Horan is once again reeling off the names in the display case for a customer.
“I’m a fool for sweets,’’ the woman murmurs.
“Come for lunch,’’ Horan says. “We have chicken and dumplings every Wednesday.’’
“I’m from Carolina,’’ the woman says, “and you know that’s what I want.’’
Horan laughs about that bit of salesmanship. “Any time someone says ‘My grandmother bakes …,’’ I know where they’re going.’’
Horan and Marshall and crew know their customers, mostly by first name. There’s Esther, from the retiree apartments across the street, who comes for lunch every day and takes sweets back to her less-mobile friends. Pat Marshall usually takes a break to sit with her. There’s Henry, who came today for a breakfast muffin and coffee, and returned for lunch.
There’s Frank, whose arrival was just announced by the tinkle of bells on the Chocollage door. “Hey Frank,’’ Louise calls through the kitchen pass-through, then fills a red-pebbled plastic tumbler with ice, water and a lemon wedge.
“Frank hardly drinks any of his water,’’ she frets.
“The regulars who come in for lunch every day,’’ Dorris says, “they’ve gotten to where they share tables, and they know each other. And everyone knows Pat. A lot of people see Pat as part of the neighborhood.”
At the front counter, Horan fills a to-go box with cookies for an elderly couple, then hoists the plastic bag in her own hands.
“Now, I’m going to take the bag, and you take her,” she says to the man, gesturing to his wife. “And hold onto her. And we’ll get there together.’’
It’s nearly closing time, 6 p.m., at Chocollage.
Pat Marshall has been here since 5 a.m., which is when she starts the breakfast baking. In between, she’s made a half-dozen quiches, maybe six or eight trays of cookies, mixed batter for cakes, wrestled pans in and out of the convection oven, and scoured countless bowls, scrapers and mixing spoons.
She looks around at the kitchen, where eight round cake layers need to be wrapped and refrigerated, and
“Did LeeAnne leave that plastic wrap out front again?’’ she asks, mostly to herself.
She sighs again, and slowly walks out of the kitchen.
“Everybody gets short once in a while,’’ Marshall says a few moments later, as she wraps the cake layers. “You just have to get over it.’’
Marshall backs away from the kitchen island, just as Horan steps away from the sink. They bump, lightly.
“We do that all day, every day,’’ Marshall says.
Horan smiles, shaking water from her hands.
“Up close and personal,’’ she says.