Although Marjorie Johnson always wears red as her signature color, the hue most associated with her is blue.
Long known as Minnesota’s Blue Ribbon Baker, Johnson inhabits her own Blue Zone, the term gerontologists use to identify places where healthy older adults thrive.
“Can you believe it, a hundred years!” exclaimed Johnson, who didn’t blow out 100 candles on her Aug. 9 birthday, but no doubt has the lung power to manage it.
Hale and hearty, Johnson keeps house in the same Robbinsdale split level she and her husband bought in 1968. She not only cooks, cleans and does laundry for herself, but she also flies solo across the country, colors her own hair with a Nice ’N Easy auburn rinse and maintains her own Facebook page.
And bakes. She still bakes.
“I’ve always been a night owl,” she said. “Sometimes I’m still at it at 2 in the morning.”
Lately, she’s been busily preparing her entries for the 2019 Minnesota State Fair, the fifth decade she’s done so. And just last month, her baked goods won 46 ribbons at the Anoka County Fair.
Johnson came to competitive baking relatively late in life, as her children were leaving for college. She was 55 when she first carted her caramel rolls and butter horns to the Creative Activities Building on the State Fairgrounds. After winning first ribbons in 1974, she “got hooked.” And raking in awards became her obsession. She stopped counting the number of ribbons she’s collected over the years, but guesses the number tops 3,000.
With all those goodies, the petite Johnson developed discipline to keep her figure.
“I eat something sweet every day, but I never pig out,” she confided. “I usually wait till the evening. It’s more fun to anticipate it.”
With her signature chuckle, mile-a-minute chatter and over-the-top enthusiasm, Johnson’s personality made her a natural on the airwaves. After being featured on Twin Cities radio and television, national shows came calling and Johnson went bicoastal. She flew to New York, where she baked with Rosie O’Donnell and the hosts of “The View,” and to Los Angeles, where she became a regular noshing with Jay Leno. She’s appeared with Regis Philbin, Martha Stewart, Wayne Brady and on a host of syndicated daytime programs.
“I always bring gingersnaps for the hosts to take home and make another batch for the crew,” she confided. “They like that.”
On the road, Johnson got the star treatment — first-class air travel, limousine rides to the studios and elaborate spreads awaiting her in her dressing room. But it didn’t go to her head; she often appeared in her favorite red silk dress that she bought on sale at Dayton’s.
“Red pops on television. Rosie told me that the first time I was ever on with her,” she said.
Capable and competitive
Though she doesn’t regret much in her life, Johnson sometimes wishes she hadn’t published a cookbook.
With more than 100 of her prizewinning recipes, “The Road to Blue Ribbon Baking With Marjorie,” published in 2007, is sprinkled with her tips and hints, right down to the speed she sets her KitchenAid mixer at for best results.
“I told all my secrets,” said Johnson, who loves winning just a pinch more than she loves sharing.
While anyone could whip up her recipes, few scratch bakers could replicate what’s made Johnson a baking phenomenon: her standards, which are as high as the meringue on a pie.
For all her peppy gee-whiz and oh-my-gosh asides, Johnson approaches baking with the sober precision of a scientist and the competitive drive of an Olympic athlete.
She works with simple ingredients; nothing she makes requires a trip to a specialty store. When baking for blue ribbons Johnson stocks her pantry with fresh baking powder, soda and spices. A thrifty child of the Great Depression, Johnson is not loyal to brands, instead choosing the cheapest flour, sugar, butter and eggs. She splurges on flavorings, using pure vanilla, almond or maple extracts.
Before submitting her cakes, cookies and quick breads to a picky crew of judges, she’ll bake a recipe up to 10 times, tweaking it to achieve the ideal color, texture and shape. She loads the rejects into one of her three full-size freezers to share with family and friends, many of whom couldn’t discern the difference between a subpar treat and a prizewinning entry.
“Practice, practice, practice,” Johnson said with a triple shake of her finger. “That’s how you win. That’s how you learn. And I’m still learning.”
A centenarian’s choices
Marjorie Holtvey was born the year after World War I ended and the year before women won the right to vote. Woodrow Wilson was president. She was the fourth of six daughters raised in the Jordan neighborhood of Minneapolis,.
“I was different from my sisters,” she said. “They were quiet, reserved. I had all this energy.”
The life expectancy for a woman born in 1919 was 56. Johnson credits her choices rather than her genetics for her own longevity.
“My parents died young; they were only in their 70s,” she said. “What you inherit is only part of it. Your healthful living is the other. I don’t sit on the couch and I eat right. I live in a house with stairways, one up to the bedroom and one down to the basement. That keeps my legs strong.”
Johnson has outlived her sisters, her North High School Class of ’37 schoolmates and her beloved husband, Lee. She was holding his hand when he died in their home at age 95 six years ago.
“We had talked about which one of us would go first. He told me, ‘If I’m not here, keep doing everything you enjoy. Keep baking, keep going on TV. That makes you happy,’ ” she said. “If he’s looking down from heaven, I want him to see me busy.”
The two met at a restaurant when they were working their way through the University of Minnesota. He was an introverted 6-foot-tall dental school student, she was an extroverted 4-foot-9-inch home economics major.
“When I met Lee I thought, ‘Oh, boy, I can’t let anyone get this wonderful man.’ I didn’t say anything because I didn’t want to scare him off, but he told me later, ‘The minute I saw you, I only had eyes for you,’ ” she said.
Johnson deeply misses his company — and his ability to drive, something she never bothered to learn. A neighbor takes her to the YMCA three times a week, where she works with a trainer and walks on the treadmill or the “step machine,” pushing to clock 10,000 daily steps on her FitBit.
When she’s not exercising or sifting and stirring, she spends time with her three children — an aerospace engineer and two physicians — and four grandchildren, now young adults.
“I’d like to see a great-grandchild, but we’ll have to see about that. I’m so lucky. I marvel at how great my health is. I don’t have arthritis or any aches and pains,” she said. “I don’t know how many years I have left, but I’m going to make the most of all of them.”
Kevyn Burger is a Minneapolis based freelance broadcaster and writer.