New York City, by the measure of any of its boroughs, is a city of wanderers and transplants. People from elsewhere. Despite the foreign shock of rural prairie to urban bustle, Alison Walla saw parallels to her native Kansas around every corner.
“Building relationships with your neighbors seems like a revolutionary concept in the city, but in the Midwest, it’s just what we do.
Walking my dog every day, the flower shop owner started saying hello. Then the guy from the hardware store who helped me with my lock—I’d see him out and around and we’d chat. There was a gourmet shop across the street and I got to know the baristas. I realized that it doesn’t matter where you are—everyone wants to feel connected. It’s kind of universal.”
Walla landed in the Big Apple with the classic Big Apple dream: to take Broadway by storm. A singer and actress fond of musical theatre, this prairie girl managed to pay the bills with several shows, TV gigs and regional theatre across the country—hence, her half-full storage units dotted around the country. She had tired of being a gypsy, but simply staying in one place isn’t what makes you feel rooted. Roots, as she says, come from the people around you.
“When I first moved to NYC, I didn’t know anybody. I remember being on the N train to Queens, gazing around the way you do on public transit, and it dawned on me that no one else on the train looked like me. Everyone was different. That was one of those New York moments for me. It was the first time I realized that people in the city can be just as isolated as someone miles down a dirt road in Kansas—if that’s what you choose. You can’t let the sheer scale and the superficial differences overwhelm you. You can just start at the corner coffee shop.”
It was the first of many New York moments for Walla: random encounters and unexpected friendships that ended up pointing her one way or another—eventually, from the stage to the kitchen.
“I moved out on my own at 19—I still can’t believe how young I was!—and I had to quickly learn how to do everything by myself. Baking was such a comfort—it made every borrowed, big city couch feel like home. I couldn’t afford fancy cookbooks back then, so I’d camp out at Barnes & Noble and write down recipes from books I couldn’t afford to buy. Then back through the streets to my oven, and that’s how I found my neighborhood. I fed it.”
From wide-eyed prairie girl to theatre gypsy to Brooklyn newcomer, Walla adopted her neighborhood with butter and sugar. She’d bring cookies to the wine store, the flower shop, and the hardware store as thank-yous, and pass them out on the street, country-style. What she wasn’t expecting, beyond friendships, was for butter and sugar to turn into opportunity.
“It was the local business owners who said, ‘Hey, your stuff is really good, we’d love to sell it.’ It took a few months for them to convince me, but finally I settled on a menu, rented a kitchen, finalized the design and packaging, and baked my first batch.”
Almost immediately, the feedback was the ultimate in New York compliments: “Oh, this tastes like home!” For Walla, the evocativeness of Just like my grandma’s was confirmation she was on the right track. Walla’s instincts are, perhaps, what makes Butter + Love such a runaway hit on and off Broadway. From a salted rosemary butter cookie with marionberry jam to grapefruit tarragon plum or goat cheese with pistachios, her inspirations are a constant audition.
“Baking, especially when it’s experimental, is like perfecting a new performance in solitude, and then delivering it,” she says. “One of the reasons I love the stage so much is because I’m very shy, but when I’m on stage, I become someone else. I don’t really notice the audience. Performance is a gift. The result is shared, but the process is not. Acting, like baking, is all about instincts.”
Baker’s intuition, she says, is at the root of it all—knowing when things are just right.
“A tray of cookies or a cake will tell you when it’s ready by how it springs back, pulls away from edges or feels spongy. It’s the same as how you settle into the place you call home—when I go home to Kansas, it’s so comforting to see the open plains dotted with cows and that giant, never-ending blue sky. But if I climb up to the rooftop in Brooklyn, the skyline and the city below, there’s something about it that’s just as much my home. You just have to pay attention to when things are ‘just-so’. That’s as true of baking as it is of neighborhoods.”
From the beginning, this prairie girl wanted to leave little surprises all over Brooklyn. And she did, and Brooklyn gave her surprises in return. Alison Walla: baking little packages of love in the big, big city.