A Promise to the Community

By Kevin Tankersley

Nancy Grayson shares her beloved recipes from Lula Jane’s in her new cookbook.

When Nancy Grayson made the difficult decision to close her bakery, Lula Jane’s, in November 2021, she made a promise to her many customers:

“A commitment I made to the community, the community of Lula Jane’s – and they were pretty devastated when we closed – I said, ‘Don’t worry. I’ll write you a cookbook.’”

And that she did. “Buttermilk Pie! Secrets from Lula Jane’s” is the fulfillment of Grayson’s promise to her community.

“It was arduous. It was a real adventure,” she said of the writing process. “I built an amazing team to help make sure the semicolons and the commas were there, and the language was appropriate and readable and doable. Betsy Vardaman, who’s retired from Baylor, and Sinai Wood, who’s at the library in research, it was really the three of us who did the majority of the work after I would write my verbiage. But it was fun.”

“Buttermilk Pie” contains dozens of recipes that Grayson served at Lula Jane’s in the nine years that it was open at 406 Elm Ave. Included are popular breakfast items like baked oatmeal, breakfast pie and a couple varieties of scones, as well as sweets like buttermilk pie – the all-time best-seller at Lula Jane’s – crustless fudge pie and the coconut cream pie, which was initially a challenge for Grayson to create.

“I’d never made a coconut cream pie,” she said. “I’m not a coconut fan. So I had to learn to make a recipe, and it’s my recipe, not out of a cookbook. I had to do that with tasting, and that was really hard for me. But I did learn to make a great coconut pie, and it’s no secret anymore because it’s in the book. You don’t use coconut flavoring, you use real coconut. Lots of real coconut. And it was huge at the bakery. Huge.”

“The secret to the top-selling buttermilk pie is its crust,” Grayson said. And the secret to the crust is vodka, which cuts back on the gluten and keeps the crust “fluffy and crumbly.”

Grayson’s husband, Bob, a retired OB/GYN physician, was often tasked with purchasing the vodka.

“We’d go through vodka by the case,” Grayson said. “My husband was the vodka fetcher, and the people at the liquor store always said, ‘Why do you buy so much vodka?’ And he said, ‘Well, my wife has a bakery,’ and they were like, ‘Sure.’”

Even though the cookbook is titled “Buttermilk Pie!,” the cover photo features biscuit and scones, and a scone recipe in the book is one of Grayson’s favorites to prepare.

“I love to make cranberry-orange scones. I love eating them, too,” she said. “It’s a recipe I developed. It took me about 10 years to develop that recipe and to make it heart-healthy. I got the original recipe, which doesn’t resemble it in any shape or form, from a Zen bakery, the Tassajara Bakery in Haight Ashbury. They had a fried scone that was cranberry and so I took that recipe and over 10 years, adapted it so it became a different scone.”

Not all of the recipes in “Buttermilk Pie!” are of sweets. Grayson also included quesadillas, which are adaptable to any number of ingredients, as well as tomato pie, pimento cheese, potato-corn chowder and a few other savory dishes.

Grayson opened Lula Jane’s in 2012, after a previous career of founding and working as the superintendent for 13 years – without salary – of Rapoport Academy, at 1020 Elm Ave.

“The school I developed because it was a pay back to the community and an anger over the lack of opportunity for students in East Waco to get what I felt like was equitable and above and beyond opportunity. And I think that’s what it takes for kids to succeed now, is to go above and beyond,” said Grayson, who has a Ph.D. in psychology.

She then began Lula Jane’s because she felt that East Waco was missing out on new business developments that was happening just across the Brazos River in downtown Waco. She knew that she would have to serve “really great food, better than they can get somewhere else,” to draw folks to her new place. She wanted a space with a sense of community, where customers could find “a space to get together comfortably, not feel rushed, not feel like someone needed your table, but instead to sit and get to know people.”

Even though diners raved about the baked oatmeal and buttermilk pie, those items didn’t pay all the bills and Grayson often worked 17-hour days at the bakery.

“What people didn’t realize is the bakery where they came and sat and enjoyed and invested wasn’t the majority of the business,” she said. “The majority of the business were special orders. That’s how you make your living and that’s how you pay your staff. I never took a salary from the bakery either, intentionally. Everything I did at the bakery was either pay for my crew or increasing the equipment that we needed or could use to be better or something in the neighborhood. It again was a pay back to Waco. We love Waco, and we love East Waco.

Grayson and her husband recently moved from their home in Castle Heights to a new house they built just behind Lula Jane’s. She still visits the building every day, to either bake for their weekly breakfast club or prepare some treats for friends or to take to a doctor’s office or to guests at a bed-and-breakfast she and Bob own.

“We had a book signing at our house, and we were just overwhelmed,” she said. “Everything was sold out before we were finished.”

The book is available on a print-on-demand basis from online booksellers. Grayson took part in a book signing at Fabled Bookshop & Cafe in January, and has a cooking demonstration planned for Feb. 18 at the East Waco Library at 901 Elm Ave.

Baked Oatmeal

  • 3 bananas
  • 2 cups blueberries, fresh or frozen
  • 4 cups old fashioned oats
  • 4 tablespoons brown sugar
  • 1 teaspoon salt
  • 2 teaspoons baking powder
  • 1 tablespoon Vietnamese cinnamon
  • 1 cup chopped pecans or walnuts
  • 2 eggs
  • 1 tablespoon vanilla
  • 1/4 cup unsalted butter, melted
  • 4 cups whole milk, warmed

Heat oven to 350. Spray a 9-by-13 baking dish with nonstick spray.

Slice bananas about 1/8-inch thick and spread evenly over the bottom of the dish. Sprinkle the blueberries over the bananas.

In a bowl, mix together the oats, brown sugar, salt, baking powder, cinnamon and nuts. Spread evenly over the fruit.

Warm the milk in the microwave for about 95 seconds, or until it’s warm to the touch. Lightly whisk together the eggs, vanilla and melted butter. Mix in the warmed milk. Pour the mixture over the oats. Bake for 30 minutes. To serve, top with brown sugar, melted butter or whipped cream, or fresh fruit on the side. Makes about 12 servings.