Mike Wise stands at the center island of his North Chevy Chase kitchen on a sunny July morning, whipping cream for a lime tart with one arm and bouncing his 6-month-old daughter, Margo, to “Somebody’s Baby” by Jackson Browne, in the other. Pecan sticky buns are rising by the kitchen window.
Wise, 54, a longtime Washington, D.C., sportswriter, stands 6 feet 4 inches tall, with broad shoulders befitting a journalist willing to take strong stands on issues at the intersection of sports and politics. For years, he refused to call Washington’s NFL team by its official name because he views it as a slur to American Indians, and he criticized the team’s owners for refusing to change it.
Wise’s views as a sportswriter have been contentious at times, and readers’ reactions can be brutal. One thing that’s hard to debate, though, is that Wise can flat-out bake. With baking, unlike reporting on sports, “If you don’t screw it up, you pretty much make everybody happy,” he says.
Word has gotten out that Wise has a talent for baking, and the neighborhood is eating it up. When he’s toweling off after his 6 a.m. swim on summer mornings, fellow Masters swimmers are more likely to ask if he can deliver cupcakes to their upcoming gathering than to banter about the Nats’ playoff chances.
Wise is a former college basketball player who was a columnist at The Washington Post for 11 years, a sportswriter for The New York Times for 10, and spent three years at The Undefeated, ESPN’s sports and pop culture website. He’s currently writing a biography about American Indian activist Billy Mills, an underdog runner who won a gold medal at the 1964 Olympics.
Wise makes dinner nightly for his family of five, and practices pastry recipes that include coconut cream cake with banana, pineapple and mango filling and a toasted coconut topping. The dessert his family and friends request most often, the one he fantasizes will get him an investment from Mark Cuban on Shark Tank, is chocolate cupcakes dipped in chocolate ganache with milk chocolate frosting, a recipe he has tweaked to perfection.
Wise traces his love of baking to his tumultuous childhood in Napa, California, and Ewa Beach, Hawaii. His father was an alcoholic, his mother moved out, and the atmosphere at home was stressful. An aunt signed Wise up for a Betty Crocker-Bisquick recipe-of-the-month baking club. The first real accolades he got from his family weren’t for his athletic achievements, but for the cookies he stayed up late one night to bake. He was hooked on the feeling of creating something that everyone loved and craved.
Throughout his career, Wise used baking to get centered in his free time, and fantasized about it as an escape hatch when things weren’t going well, like when he couldn’t find a job for months after The Sacramento Union newspaper closed and his mom and dog both died while he was unemployed. “As sanctuaries go, the kitchen was a lot safer than a bar or pigging out on fast food. I self-medicated with baking,” he says.
Wise has been known to flip the channels back and forth between a Spurs-Grizzlies game and Cake Wars. He sports a custom XXL apron with paw prints and cupcakes, sneaks away whenever he can to Little Bitts baking shop in Wheaton, and daydreams about owning a bakery, or at least baking for guests at a bed-and-breakfast he’d own with his wife, Christina Lohs, in North Carolina or Montana (where he’d also be the fishing guide). He already has the bakery’s name picked out: Talula’s Treats, named after his beloved golden Lab, who died of cancer earlier this year.
Wise plans to make sports writing his vocation, and stick to baking as his avocation, at least for now. “Writing is my fruits and vegetables, my sustenance,” he says. “It gives me the best satisfaction, especially if I captured the person I’m writing about, and got the story right. Baking feels like dessert.”