The Baker of Baker City

She played pro basketball, but now her pastries are the winning dunk in Eastern Oregon.
EJD Visuals, Videographer,  Photographer
May 7, 2024
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Jenny Mowe is busy today, just as she’s been most days in the years since she found out she could make a really great cheesecake. I’m inside her shop, Sweet Wife Baking, in the heart of downtown Baker City in Eastern Oregon. It’s a blustery midweek morning here. Outside, the icy knuckles of the mighty Blue Mountains hold firm to the east and provide a gorgeous backdrop to the historic, Old West-style storefronts along Main Street. Inside the shop, the atmosphere is warm and crackling with a sweet, caffeinated energy. 

For hours it seems, legions of sweet-toothed customers have been lining up among the shimmering glass cases that display Mowe’s latest offerings like so many prize trophies. There are blueberry babkas set in lemon glazes and puffy maple twists oozing rich, brown veins of sticky filling. She has cookies, scones and savory quiche. I’m parked behind a menu deciding between biscuits and gravy or a turkey, bacon and pesto sandwich laid out on homemade rustic bread. Customers chat over the hiss of an espresso machine next to an exposed 19th-century brick wall.

“What are you going to get?” a customer asks his partner by the door.

“All of it,” she replies.

Standing mostly out of view in the kitchen in the back is the star herself. Mowe towers over her employees at well over 6 feet. She works quickly but gently at a floured table, pressing a batch of enriched dough into a large square that she slathers in a sugary layer for sticky buns. Everything’s going fast today — the scones, the biscuits, the buns — but Mowe, a former pro-basketball player now in her 40s, is just hitting her stride.

From Making Shots to Baking Lots

I first happened upon Sweet Wife Baking in 2023 when a road trip along the Blue Mountain Scenic Byway took me to Baker City, where I got a room for a night at the Geiser Grand Hotel just a few doors down. The city turns 150 years old in 2024 with celebrations over the summer, but on that trip, I camped among steelhead streams in the Wallowa-Whitman National Forest and hiked on some of the best-preserved stretches of the Oregon Trail near the newly remodeled National Historic Oregon Trail Interpretive Center. I drove along the fiery chasms of the Hells Canyon Scenic Byway and watched wild turkeys race through fields awash in a low-angle light. But even against highlights like those, Mowe and her bakery stood out. 

Mowe wasn’t always a baker, but baking has always been part of her life, thanks to a mother who claimed to bake from scratch, although that wasn’t true. “She was cheeky that way,” Mowe says. “Everything was actually from a box, but she’d say, ‘Well, I scratched the box.’” 

When Mowe was young, the middle daughter between two sons, her family moved to Powers, a small community near Coos Bay, where they bought a ranch 5 miles out of town. In elementary school she started playing basketball. “I just kept growing,” she recalls. Eventually she hit 6-foot-5. “People said, ‘Wow, you’re really good at this.’” So good that she landed a scholarship to play for the University of Oregon and later became the first woman from that school to be drafted into the WNBA. For years she played professionally for the Portland Fire. 

Mowe ended up in Baker City after she retired from playing and had fallen in love and married her sweetheart, Loran, who was also a basketball player. In figuring out where to raise a family, the couple settled on Baker City, where Loran grew up, and a place that Mowe had always loved visiting in high school for the state tournaments, which are still held in town today. “The people in Baker were always so welcoming,” she says. 

Eventually she started following cooking blogs and dabbling with baked goods and desserts as a hobby. She made a “poke cake” for her father-in-law, with holes in the sponge plugged with raspberry Jell-O — he wasn’t too impressed — and then followed that up with a five-layer chocolate torte — he ate the entire thing. Local businesses caught wind and started buying her vanilla-bean cheesecakes, which were so good they sold faster than she could make them. She opened up a stand at the Baker City Farmers Market, where people would actually get into skirmishes lining up before the market even opened, just to be the first to buy her limited lemon scones. 

“There were a lot of failures but also a lot of successes,” she says. “Baking is a lot like basketball in that the more repetitive you are, the better you get.”

A Downtown of Makers

The morning rush has died down and Mowe can relax a bit. She visits with me at my table just as I’m finishing a late breakfast (biscuits and gravy). She is bubbly and witty and has me chuckling when she launches into a story about how Loran wants to turn Sweet Wife into the Bitter Husband, a cocktail bar that would open in the evenings when the baking is done. “He thinks it’s hysterical I call this place ‘Sweet Wife,’” she says, adding: “I’m so not that.”

The sprawling late-1800s brick building that houses Sweet Wife was once a bar that had Chinese food and video poker. Mowe and her family bought the building in 2019 and renovated it. She takes me upstairs to show me how the whole building used to be a hotel, with rooms that will soon be apartments and offices. Downstairs, below the bakery, she shows me the vestiges of an underground city, much like Pendleton’s, where people could move booze between buildings through tunnels. Not much of that remains, just some bricked-up entryways. 

Over the years, Mowe has become something of an unofficial ambassador for Baker City’s downtown, and she agrees to take a walk with me to introduce me to some of her friends. We swing by Bella, a kitchen shop with shelves packed with locally made jams and sauces. At The Cheese Fairy, a creamery, workers are infusing an English cheddar with a dessert port wine from Copper Belt Wines, a local operation that has a tasting room in the same space. We go to Peterson’s Chocolates for chai truffles and Glacier 45 Distillery, where I buy a bottle of brandy distilled in-house. 

Community art is everywhere: life-size sculptures of alligators and giant tortoises, the oddly beautiful remains of a salt lick shaped by the tongue of a cow. Crossroads Carnegie Art Center is a hub for the creative, with exhibitions like the works of Gary Ernest Smith — a local artist of national renown — in 2024. 

As we head back, Mowe tells me what she loves about downtown, beyond the fact that it is one of the best-preserved Old West downtowns in the country with scores of historical buildings: It’s the businesses that now occupy them. 

“A lot of people here have been able to find their passion and open a business that relates to that,” she says. Her bakery is a prime example. “I love that feeling of community, of giving back, and of having a place that everybody can come in and just say hi and hang out for a little bit.”

About The
Author

Tim Neville
Tim Neville is a writer based in Bend where he writes about the outdoors, travel and the business of both. His work has been included in Best American Travel Writing, Best American Sports Writing and Best Food Writing, and earned various awards from the Society of American Travel Writers and the Society of Professional Journalists. Tim has reported from all seven continents and spends his free time skiing, running and spending time with his family.

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