No Oprah, No Problem

Thomasina Petrus has a button nose, dimples, jet-black curls, and the ability to make your skin go to goose bumps when she sings.

Photo by Fabulous Photo

Thomasina Petrus has a button nose, dimples, jet-black curls, and the ability to make your skin go to goose bumps when she sings. I know because she broke into song when we met for Vietnamese pho one afternoon. No one in the crowded restaurant turned to see who had the uncanny Billie Holiday voice.

It seemed odd to me, but not to Petrus. She’s used to having to go to great lengths to get her talents noticed. “Oprah had a talent show, so I sent in an entry,” she says. “It was the sort of thing where Oprah would knock on someone’s door each day for a week. And here I was, every day, all week, up at 5 am with a full face of make-up, planning on looking very surprised. But that last day—no knock.

“The next thing I knew, I was weeping, crying. If you had been in the room you would have thought I had a psychotic break. Later that day I realized, sometimes you have to stop waiting. You have to go stand in the middle of the street and say, ‘My light is shining.’”

That’s how Petrus convinced the world—or at least the artistic director of Penumbra Theatre—she could be a star. “I kept bugging Lou Bellamy to produce me in a play about Billie Holiday,” she says. “He must have said no a thousand times.” Petrus forged ahead anyway. She secured a theater on her own. Bellamy volunteered to direct. In the Star Tribune, Rohan Preston called it a command performance. Then Petrus devised another showcase for her own shining light: a holiday series in which soul meets Christmas classics. She called it Hot Chocolate.

These days Petrus is working on another kind of confection: cashew brittle. It’s a recipe based on the nut brittle she learned how to make in high school. She had a job at Roberts Shoes on the corner of Lake and Chicago, and a co-worker’s wife taught her how to make her specialty brittle. Petrus tinkered with the recipe and developed her own cashew version. It’s a distinctly tender brittle, not much harder than crisp toast. She made a sample plate and sent out order forms for a fundraiser for Minneapolis Lake Country School. People were so wowed that she decided to start a business with the help of her sister-in-law, Leslie Wilson, a process engineer who figured out how to scale up production while maintaining consistency.

The brittle got rejected by the Bibelot Shops. “We didn’t have a barcode. They told us we were not ready for stores. I was crushed.” But she didn’t give up. “The next day I said, ‘Screw it.’ And called Kowalski’s. We got orders that day to supply four of the Kowalski’s. It was the opposite of waiting for Oprah.”

Today the brittle she makes in her church basement is sold in all Kowalski’s stores. Petrus sings hymns to her brittle as she makes it. She delivers it herself, in her car. “If I see someone who looks like they need a lift, I give them a box. I call this ‘a random act of brittle.’” The brittle is also for sale at the State Fair, at a stand in the Creative Activities annex. “We sell at least a literal ton, if not two tons, of brittle at the Fair,” Wilson says.

Petrus has learned not to worry about rejection. “In life you have to be ready for a ‘no’ when you expect a ‘yes,’ and you have to be ready for a ‘yes’ when you expect a ‘no,’” Petrus says. “People say crazy things to you. They’ll say, ‘This isn’t brittle—it’s praline.’ They’ll say, ‘This is great, but I’m not going to buy any.’ Then you see them filling up their pockets with the samples.”

These days, when Petrus performs, she sets out her cashew brittle next to her CDs. Oftentimes, she makes more money from her brittle than she does from the stage show. “I used to say, timidly, ‘Can I bring my merch?’ Now people say, ‘Don’t come if you’re not bringing your brittle!’”

Petrus is writing a new show for herself, a stage bio of Etta James, a woman with whom Petrus, who is tall and strong, feels a certain kinship. “I always have had a problem getting cast,” she says. “I’m too black for white roles and too white for black roles. I’m too big to stand next to a tiny man. And I have my own way of thinking. So I have to make my own way.”

This way of thinking has led Petrus down all sorts of paths. Like the time she wondered what it would have been like if Billie Holiday had recorded popular songs released after her death. The resulting CD, called Billie Unsung, contains, of all things, Petrus’s version of Holiday singing Dave Brubeck’s “Take Five.” An Edina-raised singer named Paris Bennett used that arrangement to audition for American Idol. “Simon Cowell said he couldn’t believe it—who would have thought of this? He was blown away,” Petrus says. “So I always feel a little like I’ve succeeded on American Idol.”

As for Oprah: “I do sometimes commit a random act of brittle on her. Other people I’ve talked to say everything they send gets mailed back. But Thomasina’s Cashew Brittle never returns. So either someone is keeping it or Oprah is. But either way, my light is shining. I’m not waiting anymore.”