By Brian Hart Hoffman
To all of you, she was “Mama BFS”—a name she gave herself—but to me and my twin brother, Eric, she was Mom. But more than Mom, she was also my hero, mentor, boss, and best friend. Phyllis Norton (Hoffman) DePiano’s time with us came to an end on July 10, 2023, and my heart was forever changed. I move forward with a huge hole that can’t be filled—but it’s a reminder to celebrate her legacy and passions every day.
She wrote on her blog, The Ribbon in My Journal, that she didn’t want to be remembered for her résumé and professional achievements. “It’s not about accomplishments or wealth; it’s about loving unconditionally, encouraging others, reaching out a hand to those in need, praying for and with friends who are hurting, and being an example of living our lives in such a way that our family and friends know we are always there for them.”
But I want you to know some about her professional life so you can better understand the woman I am honoring. After becoming a certified public accountant in the 1970s and marrying my dad later that decade, she left the professional world to fulfill her biggest dream in life: becoming a mom. She prayed for twins, and in 1981, Eric and I got the best mom in the world. During this season of her life away from working, she learned how to cross-stitch from her neighbor and best friend, Barbara Cockerham. This added one more talent to her list that already included sewing and playing the piano and organ. Creative prowess led Mom, along with her sister, Janice, Barbara, and another friend, to start a magazine (with zero experience doing such) called Just CrossStitch in 1983. That magazine went on to be the largest needlework magazine in the world, and lots of accolades came with that impact. I will never forget our dad taking Eric and me to an industry trade show in Charlotte, North Carolina, to surprise Mom after she received a lifetime achievement award. I remember thinking, “Wow, our mom really is something special to so many. I’m so glad she is mine.”
Over time, the business went through change and growth and was sold to a larger craft company in 1993 that took the brand—and Mom—to a bigger level. Under the company’s ownership, she started McCall’s Quilting and other brands that aligned with her talents and passions. In 1998, the company was ready for other moves and wanted to relocate the Birmingham, Alabama, operation to Golden, Colorado. But as I told you, being a mom was her dream in life, so she wasn’t about to take professional advancement and move my brother and me across the country to a new school for our senior year of high school. She and my dad took a second mortgage out on their home so she could purchase the magazine brands she’d sold. That purchase reincorporated the business as Hoffman Media, and we stayed in Birmingham. I wish 17-year-old me knew the sacrifice and dedication that required, but that is the woman she was. She never looked back with regret.
In the years that followed, Mom expanded the company’s offerings to include Southern lifestyle brands, with Southern Lady, Taste of the South, Southern Home, and Cooking with Paula Deen, as well as others dedicated to her passions, like TeaTime, Classic Sewing, and blogging at The Ribbon in My Journal.
I am a “mama’s boy.” I always have been, often asking her if I was her favorite. The answer was always, “No. I love both of my boys equally. You’re both so different, so there is so much to love!” My reply was always something centered around telling her that she was my favorite mom . . . my only one but still so deserving of the praise. Sixteen years ago, and six months apart, in 2007, Eric and I left our careers—him on Wall Street and me as a flight attendant—to join our mom in business. After going five years without a paycheck and working a second job to keep the company afloat and make sure her employees still received paychecks, the company experienced great growth. She needed help. Her first thought was to ask if we had interest in the company being generational or if she needed to look for other plans to grow and prepare the company to be sold at her retirement. Eric and I both took leaps of faith (here we go, following her example!) and gave up careers we loved only to discover careers we loved even more. And we got to do it alongside our mom.
For my first seven years at the company, I learned and worked in event management and brand management and eventually became the chief creative officer. Then my “Phyllis instinct” kicked in. I was a passionate home baker (you already knew that), and I thought, “Why isn’t there a culinary magazine all about baking?” I couldn’t wait to tell Mom about my idea and the well-thought-out plan that Brooke Bell and I scribbled in a notepad, only to hear that she wasn’t so sure this was going to work. But being Mom and an entrepreneur, she agreed to test an issue of this new magazine. In the autumn of 2015, the first issue of Bake from Scratch hit the newsstands. That issue sold so well that our newsstand team instantly asked if a second issue was on the way. Mom was so proud.
The following year at the MIN (Magazine Industry News) Awards for the Hottest 30 Launches of the previous year, she was honored as the Publisher of the Year for the launch of Classic Sewing; Eric accepted an award for another new launch, Southern Cast Iron, that fires his passion for savory cooking; and Bake from Scratch won Hottest Launch of the Year. Talk about a full circle flashback moment for me when I joined Mom and my brother on stage to receive an award for our career achievements. Her lifetime achievement award from years back was way too soon because, in her lifetime, the achievements never stopped.
As our global baking community continued to grow, she coined herself “Mama BFS” in our office, Facebook group, and weekly Baking School with Williams Sonoma classes. She never claimed to be the baker, just a supportive and encouraging mom. I had the pleasure of taking recipes that she loved and revamping them into from-scratch recipes that graced the pages of the magazine, including her beer rolls (we call them Beer-Cheddar Muffins), her mom’s (my Mimi) Black Bottom Pie, and most recently, the Lost and Found redo of the Pizitz Bakery Cherry-Pecan Cake that graced the table for her birthday each year as a child. She joined me in the kitchen for Baking School this year as we made that cake for our Mother’s Day class, and I am so grateful it happened. Surprises and gift-giving were one of her love languages, and during the class, she presented me with an apron that she worked to design alongside Tracy Wood-Franklin, one of our amazing art directors at Hoffman Media, to commemorate one of my favorite teaching slogans for learning the folding technique, “12 o’clock, 6 o’clock, give a quarter turn.”
Mom was also Gigi, proud grandmother to Eric’s children, Hays and Amelia, and summer was a special time of the year. For Amelia, summer meant Camp Gigi, a week at Gigi’s house, crafted just for her and her best friend, Olivia. Activities included sewing, art, setting the table, doing Gigi’s hair and makeup, and, of course, baking with Uncle Buzz (me!). While not interested in learning to bake, Hays was a proud recipient of Gigi’s Caramel Brownies any time he asked for them.
During the last few years, and especially during COVID-19 times, I made weekly baking drop-offs to Mom of the recipes I baked, some in testing, some from Baking School, and others just because they were her favorites. She loved fall flavors, and her face always lit up at the mention of anything apple or pear.
Baking also found its way into Mom’s home with her husband Neal, the love of her life. In the last year, she enjoyed her favorite pound cake, Jo’s Whipping Cream Pound Cake, with regularity as Neal mastered baking it to ensure she was always surrounded by her favorite things. He also made biscuits, and I plan to bake banana bread with him soon, too! In her memory, we will bake these favorites together and know she is with us as we do.
My mom’s successes weren’t her goal, and they didn’t define her. They allowed her to be a benevolent gift-giver to so many. Since her passing, we have learned of things she did (sometimes anonymously) to make other’s lives better. That is how I want to live my life, too, ensuring that others succeed, feel love, and make it through tough times. Even if you don’t have financial resources, it doesn’t mean you can’t make a difference. Baking is love, and presenting someone with something you made can change their day. May we all continue to honor her life and legacy by encouraging others, sharing in our successes, and being a beacon of love. She always told me that I could do tough things, and writing this remembrance has been one of them, but it’s an honor to share a sliver of what made Phyllis, my mom, such a spectacular person.
I can, in fact, do tough things. I love you, Mom, and I always will.