New Manna Cafe & Bakery cookbook is a cathartic mix of recipes, memoir, history and closure

The new book is due out Oct. 21 from Little Creek Press.
The former Manna care & bakery sign on the left and a copy of the new manna cookbook on the right
Courtesy of Barb Pratzel.
Although it closed in June 2020, Manna Cafe & Bakery lives on through a new cookbook memoir written by its former owner.

When Manna Cafe & Bakery unexpectedly closed in June 2020, the feeling of loss over the role it had played in the community for 15 years was hard to put into words. But that’s exactly what former owner Barb Pratzel has attempted to do with her new book, “Manna Cafe & Bakery Cookbook: A memoir of two businesses, a Community, and the Food That Connected Them.” The 384-page book turned into a labor of love not unlike the businesses it documents, though it ultimately proved energizing for Pratzel; even cathartic. The book is available for pre-order now from Little Creek Press and Book Design and will also be sold in local bookstores after its Oct. 21 release date.

“The community that developed around Manna because of how we ran our business and the food that we served made it an unusual and special place,” Pratzel says. “And I want people to see what was behind why Manna is what it is and what it became, and to have a little more connection to the recipes.”

Pratzel still rides her bicycle over to the old Manna Cafe on N. Sherman Avenue, which is now an Ancora Cafe & Bakery. As a long-time neighborhood resident, she’s rooting for the new shop — but visiting will probably always feel a bit bittersweet. Inevitably, whenever she stops in, she runs into friends and old regulars who say hello. It was this community that urged her to write a cookbook — something Pratzel, despite being a trained writer, had never really wanted or planned to do. “Until Manna closed, and everybody came up to me saying, ‘You have to do a cookbook, you have to do a cookbook,’” she says.

Before the 35 combined years she and her husband, Mike Pratzel, spent between the Collins House Bed and Breakfast (1985-2005) and Manna Cafe (2005-2020), Pratzel had gone to journalism school and worked as a science writer. She’s always been drawn to essay and nonfiction writing, even brushing up on her skills with a writing class at Madison Writers’ Studio in recent years. When it became painfully clear that Manna would close and regulars began clamoring for a cookbook, the timing suddenly felt right.

“Knowing that I was going to be retired and wanting to get back to writing and feeling like I needed to return something to the community that was missing this thing, I decided to combine my idea of a memoir with my idea of a cookbook and smoosh them all together,” she says.

That “smooshing” has resulted in a book that is far more than the sum of its parts , just as Manna itself was within the community. The book was an enormous undertaking for Pratzel, who hired chef and culinary writer Terese Allen at the outset to serve as a consultant. Pratzel began compiling recipes, which turned out to be a lengthy, complex process. Each recipe needed not only to be translated in many cases from post-it notes and muscle memory, but its measurements had to be converted to feed a family of four when Pratzel was used to cooking and baking for the masses. Then, each recipe needed to be tested. For this, Pratzel enlisted a team of 16 to 18 testers with all levels of cooking backgrounds, sending out about 30 recipes each month and then incorporating their notes and photos to make any necessary adjustments.

At the same time, she was writing the memoir portion, a daunting task in and of itself for which she hired Madison Writer’s Studio’s Michelle Wildgen to guide and edit. Pratzel knew she wanted to tell her and her husband’s respective family origin stories: She was raised in a gourmet cooking family in New York; he was raised in a family-owned Kosher Jewish bakery in Missouri. They met at the University of Wisconsin–Madison their freshman year in 1974 and fell in love — both with each other and the city — then discovered the relatively new concept of bed-and-breakfast lodging, leading them to open the Collins House Bed and Breakfast on Lake Mendota in 1985.

Tasty breakfast at north-side Manna Cafe & Bakery

Mike and Barb Pratzel at Manna Cafe & Bakery. Photo by Nicole Peaslee.

Mike and Barb Pratzel at Manna Cafe & Bakery. Photo by Nicole Peaslee.

“We didn’t know anything about owning our own business, we just really learned as we went and made a lot of mistakes. But learning from mistakes is part of the fun and part of why I think we are a little more homegrown-y,” Pratzel says, adding that the same was true when they opened Manna in 2005. At both places, they cooked everything from scratch no matter how much more it cost or how much longer it took. They followed their instincts to hire people whose personalities meshed and values aligned. Turnover among the 35- to 45-member staff was extremely low throughout Manna’s 15-year run, and employees were encouraged to engage with the customers  as genuinely as possible, which helped create that unique neighborhood community vibe.

“We had a certain way of just being with our employees that was very kind and gentle and encouraging and we didn’t stand for people yelling at people,” Pratzel says. “A lot of people who come out of the restaurant world I think are scarred by their experiences in kitchens, and we’d never run a restaurant before so we just did what felt right to us.”

These and other influences were critical in explaining Pratzel’s relationship with food and community, a story she wanted to tell with her memoir — but she also knew that it was the 150 recipes her readers would be after most (especially those famous oatmeal pancakes). In the end, she limited the memoir portion to about 75 pages.

“I really want people to read that story, I hope they will, because what Manna became to people was so unique, and I say that in an ‘even if I do say so myself’ kind of way,” Pratzel says.

Pratzel’s path to publishing was unique as well; she explored traditional publishers, but ultimately found exactly what she was looking for in Little Creek Press and Book Design, an award-winning, independent publishing company in Mineral Point founded by Kristin Mitchell, who was enthusiastic about the project from the start. “Right from the get-go, my first phone conversation with her, she was so kind and outgoing and supportive,” Pratzel says. “So there was no looking back after my first phone call with her.”

Although it wasn’t Pratzel’s intention when she took on the book project, writing it became part of her grieving process over closing Manna. The Pratzels had been nearing retirement age in 2020 and hoped to sell the cafe to a staff or community member that would help the business live on. Then the pandemic changed everything. Even as the shutdown restrictions began to lift to 25% capacity that summer, people were still afraid to work in close quarters, the future of restaurants was becoming even more unpredictable, and the Manna lease was up. In many ways, “The decision feels like it was made for us,” Pratzel says, growing emotional. “I’m still sad. I still miss it.”

Inside the book is a photograph of patrons in a long line outside the door, waiting to pick up their final orders on Manna’s last open day. The Pratzels tried to make it a celebratory affair, dining with family members at an outdoor cafe table, reminiscing with customers as they waited for their food. They’d designed a farewell menu that showcased everyone’s favorite foods over the years, like eggs Benedict and tenderloin sandwiches, “goodbye dishes” for the customers, Pratzel says.

“It was a very feel-good way of going out,” Pratzel says. “We just met them and talked and cried and told stories.”

If you want to hear those stories for yourself, you’re in luck — many are in the book, which is available for purchase here. 

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