Source: Livingston Daily
Author: Frank Konkel
The Argentine Township woman loves the way chaotic mountains of ingredients meld together to form a singular creation. In the sugary-sweet science of baking desserts, she is a master, wielding her two chief weapons, chocolate and peanut butter, like a wizard waves a wand.
At family functions, people fight over whichever dish she brings to pass. Her nephew, committed to play college football this year for the University of Indiana, isn’t worried about taking hits from 300-pound linemen. He’s worried about how his aunt is going to ship him care packages full of cupcakes across state lines.
Dave Johnson, her husband of six years, recalls thinking, “Oh, my God, can she ever cook,” after the couple’s first dinner date back in 2002. He’s fought a losing battle with his waistline ever since.
“I’ve been told by many people that they’re the best thing they’ve ever eaten,” Tami Johnson said, without a hint of boasting in her voice.
Thing is, she can’t taste the delectable desserts she makes. At least not her cupcakes.
Last July, the 43-year-old had her tongue removed by doctors in an effort to rid her of the oral cancer she was diagnosed with June 19, 2009. For the following three months, she underwent two rounds of chemotherapy and 35 rounds of radiation treatment. Doctors were forced to remove 112 lymph nodes from her head and neck, two of which tested positive for cancer.
The oral cancer and subsequent treatments taxed her body to its limits, forcing her to leave her job as manager of Borders Express inside the Great Lakes Crossing mall in Auburn Hills. Her 3-year-old son, Michael, went to stay with her brother-in-law for six weeks following the surgery. Johnson and her husband battled the cancer as best they could during what became the most tumultuous time of her life.
“It was just frickin’ awful,” Dave Johnson said. “She went through so much pain. It was a bad situation.”
A bad situation got worse when Tami Johnson developed an abscess on her backside shortly after being released from the hospital. A second surgery was required to remove it, after which doctors failed to prescribe pain medication, causing her shocked body more excruciating pain.
“It was not good,” Tami Johnson said. “It was just not pleasant at all.”
By February, she said she started feeling better, though nowhere near her normal self. With the help of her friends, family and “extremely supportive” parishioners at St. John Catholic Church in Fenton, which the family attends services, she had at least temporarily beaten the cancer.
But she had little direction in her life outside being a mother. Doctors had not — and still haven’t — given her medical clearance to return to work.
Even if she gets the green light from doctors to return to 70-hour workweeks, she said there’s no way she could handle the same job again. Without her tongue, she still speaks clearly enough for people to understand, but cancer changed her.
“It was a decision in my head. I know how I used to be, and I am not that same person anymore,” she said. “I could not go back to the stress level and those hours, knowing what my job was. After cancer, I need to be around my son and family. Things get put in perspective. I had to do something different.”
She opened Tami’s Sweet Treats out of her home in June, one year after being diagnosed with oral cancer. She’s sold her baked desserts and goodies at the Hartland Township and Fenton farm markets each week since. Someday, she’d like to expand the business to include wedding cakes, but for now, cupcakes, cookies, ice-cream sandwiches and other treats do the trick.
“This was something I always wanted to do, but I could never find the time to do it,” Tami Johnson said. “When I got to feeling a little better, to where I could actually do something again, I started thinking about giving (the business) a go.”
It hasn’t taken long for word to spread about her baking prowess. People can’t get enough of her chocolate peanut butter cupcakes, which feature a peanut-butter cup baked inside a chocolate cupcake, layered in a chocolate peanut butter ganache on top with chopped up peanut-butter cups.
“Mmmm,” said Kathie Horning, who runs the Hartland Farmers Market. “They’re rich. And they are delicious.”
On Saturday, the Hartland Farmers Market will host a cupcake-eating contest featuring Tami Johnson’s creations. She will donate the cupcakes that will be devoured by hungry competitors from three age categories: 6-12, 12-18 and 18 and older. The competitor from each division who eats the most chocolate peanut-butter cupcakes in two minutes wins.
Tami Johnson will be selling cupcakes and other desserts throughout the day, with 10 percent of sales going toward the Oral Cancer Foundation. The cupcake-eating contest, she said, will be a fun way to bring some money and, more importantly, awareness to oral cancer.
Tami Johnson said she didn’t smoke, never drank alcohol and wasn’t exposed to any environmental hazards, yet still acquired oral cancer at a relatively young age. Sadly, she said, there’s been an increase in the diagnosis of oral cancer in middle-aged women who haven’t engaged in activities known to cause oral cancer.
“More and more women my age are getting this with no background (in smoking),” she said. “There’s big research going on with it right now. People should know about it.”
Though Tami Johnson can no longer taste all her delectable creations, she still bakes.
She’ll bake this weekend to help raise money to combat the disease that nearly crippled her.
She’ll bake after that to bring extra income to her family.
But mostly, she will continue to bake because she loves it.
Just as baking turns a chaotic amalgamation of ingredients into a singular entree, so to it has turned her many recent challenges into a strong sense of self.
Baking has given Tami Johnson one sweet life.
Contact Daily Press & Argus reporter Frank Konkel at (517) 552-2835 or at email@example.com.