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Mitchell woman shares love of baking with community through job, contest

Bonny Sperlich-Warnke, winner of this year’s Palace City Prize Pies contest, takes time to smile for a picture in between baking pies for the American Legion in Mitchell, where she is manager. (Candy DenOuden/The Republic)1 / 2
Bonny Sperlich-Warnke works on getting her freshly made pies ready to be served at the American Legion, where she is the manager. (Candy DenOuden/Republic) 2 / 2

Bonny Sperlich-Warnke got the call that she won the Palace City Prize Pies contest while she was visiting her mom, Joyce Ehlers, in the intensive care unit in Sioux Falls.

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“I told her I won,” Sperlich-Warnke said. “She squeezed my hand so hard; she knew exactly what was going on.”

Sperlich-Warnke said when her elderly mom went to the hospital in Sioux Falls with health problems during the last leg of the contest, she considered quitting the competition. A relative said her mom would be upset if Sperlich-Warnke quit, so she kept going — and won.

Now the manager of the American Legion on Mitchell’s Main Street, the White Lake native said cooking and baking have always been a connection for her and her mom, who now is slowly recovering. Sperlich-Warnke learned mostly from her mom and her grandma, and still remembers that Friday was her mom’s day to make breads and rolls for the week.

“We’d come home from school and there would always be fresh-baked goods,” Sperlich-Warnke said. “With that many in the family, there was a lot of stuff to bake.”

Her grandma, who lived just a couple of miles away, was famous for her glazed, raised doughnuts, Sperlich-Warnke said — and her grandkids always knew where to find them.

As one of 12 kids, Bonny Sperlich-Warnke said staying out of the kitchen wasn’t really an option.

“You grew up, you knew how to cook and bake,” she said.

And it wasn’t just baking. They raised their own vegetables and did their own canning. Sperlich-Warnke said she and all 11 of her siblings were in 4-H and participated in as many events as they could, from baking to showing livestock.

She considers pies her specialty, but added she used to make a lot of chocolate chip cookies.

Some of her contest-winning entries, like her pineapple cream pie, are her own creation. And actually, she rarely follows a recipe to the letter. More often, she’ll glance at a recipe as a guideline, then figure out what works best.

“It’s a pinch of this, and this, and this,” she said. “I ad-lib a little.”

Sixteen area bakers competed in the baking contest. Sperlich-Warnke, of Mitchell, advanced through the ranks, which pitted pie-versus-pie, until her pie was the last one standing.

She enjoys the process of trying different things and coming up with new creations.

“I think you have to enjoy doing it to be good at it,” she said.

“I didn’t really have any expectations,” Sperlich-Warnke said about entering the contest.

But her regular customers said they weren’t surprised at the outcome. It was a customer that nominated Sperlich-Warnke to join the contest in the first place.

“We were definitely cheering her on,” said Linda Heath, of Plankinton, sitting at a table across from Sperlich-Warnke in the American Legion recently. She added that all of Sperlich-Warnke’s baked goods are a treat, especially her pies and bread pudding.

Even weeks after the contest, customers still walk up to offer congratulations to Sperlich-Warnke as she takes a short break from cooking.

“It was fun in here,” she said with a smile. “They watch the paper close.”

As the first-place winner, Sperlich-Warnke received $400 cash, a $50 gift card from OverTime Steakhouse, a $50 gift card from Little Red Hen and a sixmonth subscription to The Daily Republic. Sixteen businesses sponsored the contest. The four major sponsors were Central Electric Cooperative, Tickled Pink, Mitchell Technical Institute and The Daily Republic.

Sperlich-Warnke said she’s worked at the Legion about four or five years, and makes all the pies that are sold. Having a job where she gets to bake for other people is perfect.

“I love to make pies, but I’m not one to eat them,” she said.

She chuckles that her job may have given her an unfair advantage, because she’d go in early on Thursdays — the day of the pie contest — and bake two or three pies. Whichever one she liked best would get sent to The Daily Republic; the others would get put in the showcase and sold.

Her favorite is strawberry rhubarb. That’s because, as she explained to The Daily Republic before the contest began, her grandma had strawberries and rhubarb and “that’s what we got hooked on.”

Ironically, she never entered her specialty.

“I did make it to enter, but it didn’t make it to the contest,” she said with a smile.

Sperlich-Warnke said she was making pies one Thursday morning, one of them a strawberry rhubarb that she intended to take to the pie contest. But then a customer came in and asked to buy it. So, Sperlich-Warnke sent a different pie to the competition, and sent her customer home happy.

How many pies she makes per week varies — it could be eight per week, or eight per day.

“I will say the pie sales have gone up,” she added.