Columbiana Co. woman bakes for survival


Photo by Kacy Standohar | The News Outlet

Published Sunday, December 18, 2011, in The Vindicator(Link)





Karen Tohm used to love baking pies and cakes for her family. Now that baking is her only means of survival, she can barely stand it.

“It used to be fun and enjoyable, but now it’s a pain that I have to do it,” she said. “It’s work now … and I don’t like it.”

Every Friday, the 46 year-old drives 17 miles from her home in Lisbon to the flea market at Rogers Community Auction where she sells pies, cakes and other baked goods.

“I tried selling junk, but junk don’t sell,” Tohm said.

She leaves home at 6 a.m. and arrives by 8 a.m. to set up her booth outside B Building. By 5 p.m., she will have sold everything she brought. Anything leftover, she will donate or sell at a community auction. She will have made $100.

She will stop for gas and fast food before heading for home, a basement apartment provided by her aunt and uncle, the Revs. Raymond and Phyllis Tohm, both of whom are pastors at Threshing Floor Ministries outside of Lisbon.

“I usually make about $400 to $500 dollars a month. It’s been less lately due to gas prices.”

Those high gas prices also mean that her regular customers from Pittsburgh won’t travel to Rogers for her pies and that she can’t visit her daughter in Niles.

She spends about $200 a month for baking supplies at Aldi’s or Marc’s, $60 for van insurance and $50 for rent.

“That usually leaves me with $190 dollars for my dog’s food, shampoo and my cell phone bill.”
She can’t afford health insurance and receives government assistance in order to purchase groceries. She doesn’t have cable, but gets movies from vendors at Rogers.

“The guy there sells movies two for $5,” Tohm said. “They’re old, but who cares? I haven’t seen them.”

Tohm used to be married and has three children: two sons, 29 and 22, and a daughter, 28.

After a battle with crack cocaine and a back injury, Tohm hit rock bottom. Her injury, due to a fall, worsened after incorrectly lifting while doing yard work.

“I had a MRI that shows three bulging discs – one in my neck, one between shoulder blades and one in the middle of my back. The doctor said they were not bad enough to operate on, but they were bad enough to give me injections to take down swelling and inflammation.”

The relief was temporary.

“I went into a depression and dabbled in drugs when my husband left me for another woma. My children disowned me after that. I wanted to kill myself, but didn’t have the guts to pull the trigger.”

Tohm previously worked at Astro Shapes in Struthers where she ran the saw, moved metal and performed other tasks. Later, she worked as a paint line inspector at Black Hawk Automotive Plastics in Salem, but found the required productivity difficult after her injury.

“They needed me to stand for eight hours, and I can’t do that. Here (at the flea market) I can sit, stand and go in my car to get warm.”

Tohm’s situation used to be worse.

“If it wasn’t for my aunt and uncle, taking me under their wing and letting me live with them, I would be in worse shape,” Tohm said. “I lived in my car for six months and before that I lived in a tent at a campground for three months.”

Tohm’s uncle, 75, said she was appearing before a judge in Warren regarding her drug use when he and his wife arrived at the courthouse.

“Her father wasn’t able to care for her, and the judge allowed us to become her guardians,” he said. “We were able to keep her out of jail and give her a basement apartment in our home.”

Her aunt said Karen’s drug problem had escalated and she was in and out of shelters in Mahoning County.

“She looked like an 80-pound weakling,” she said. “ I almost didn’t recognize her when I saw her.”
Now, Tohm spends her Wednesdays and Thursdays baking and packaging her items. They are sealed with a label reading, “Karen’s Kitchen. She is careful to follow all the rules in the Cottage Food Law, even listing ingredients in descending order by weight.

Tohm bakes an assortment of items, including pound cakes, banana nut bread, cinnamon rolls, lemon bars, nut roll, blonde brownies, gingerbread, pumpkin and peanut butter cookies. Her pies include apple, strawberry raspberry, blackberry, pecan and peach.

“I taught myself (how to bake) and watched my mother cook all the time,” she said. “I can still picture her in the kitchen.”

Unlike most bakers, Tohm doesn’t use a stationary or hand mixer.

“I have no mixer. I do everything the old-fashioned way, the way my mother and grandmother taught me how to do in the beginning. I mix everything by hand.”
Her small pies cost $3 and her larger pies, $6.50.

“Some people take the labels off and say they made it themselves. I don’t care as long as the money’s in my pocket,” she said.

Frank Gutierez, a frequent shopper at Roger’s Flea Market said he enjoys her homemade approach.

“It tastes better,” Gutierez said. “It’s not commercial like at the grocery stores where everything is mass produced.”

Gutierez buys everything from snack foods to tools and tires at the flea market.

“Just about anything that strikes my fancy,” he said

Gutierez often teases Tohm, but knows she works hard.

“I like to torment her but most of the people here are using their sales as a second income … this is her life.”

Tohm usually sets up outside because vendor spots inside the building cost $35 to $40. After Christmas, she’ll move inside when the spots drop to $20.

Tohm’s struggle with money has left her unable to afford surgery or medical attention to repair her back.

“I’ve tried clinics but forget about it. There’s a long waiting list,” she said.

Although each day is a fight for Tohm, she carries a lighthearted attitude with a comical approach. She’ll be four years sober this February.

“I got off the drugs by the grace of God. I tried myself and couldn’t do it,” said Tohm. “He gets all the credit.” is a collaboration among the Youngstown State University journalism program, Kent State University, University of Akron and professional media outlets including WYSU-FM Radio, The Vindicator, The Beacon Journal and Rubber City Radio (Akron).