The Recipe Box

A young woman learns more about herself upon returning to her northern Michigan roots following an embarrassment in New York City. // Illustrations by Gary W. Odmark

Sam neared the coastline and looked at the endless blue water. Sam opened the car window, inhaled, the smell of water filling her lungs, then stuck her head out of the window like her grandparents’ happy Lab, Doris, used to do and said, “Hello, Michigan!”

She turned onto M-22 and headed north toward home, Suttons Bay.

M-22 was the name of the old highway that looped along Lake Michigan and through many of its prettiest resort towns. The road, which ran directly alongside the water, offered breathtaking views of the lake and was now a popular Michigan trademark and was featured on bumper stickers, T-shirts, sweatshirts, and ball caps.  For many Michiganders and tourists, though, the symbol represented something even deeper, something nearly spiritual: that this was as close to heaven as they might actually come every year, in terms of both northerly direction and beauty. The resort towns that dotted M-22, like Northport, the summer home of chef Mario Batali, and Leland, known as Fishtown, were throwbacks, as quaint as Mayberry and as pretty as a vintage postcard.

Sam continued to drive in slow-moving traffic, her jaw dropping as billboard after billboard screamed the area to be one of the nation’s most beautiful and popular tourist areas.

Top 10 Must-See! – New York Times

You Haven’t Seen Summer Until You’ve Seen Michigan! – USA Today

Heaven On Earth! – Good Morning America

The world is now screaming our praises, Sam thought, chuckling, before realizing her choice of pronoun. Our?  Do I have the right to say our any longer after leaving?

Sam turned on the radio to distract her mind, and an oldies song blared through the speakers. She looked down to see that the radio was tuned to Oldies 101.

No, Sam thought. It’s a sign.

She gripped the wheel.

Or a warning.

Oldies 101 was the station that filled the pie pantry every day of Sam’s life. The music — Elvis, Rosemary Clooney, Dean Martin, Frank Sinatra — was the soundtrack to her childhood. Her grandma used to sing nearly every old tune out loud — and out of tune, Sam thought — as she made pies, swaying her hips and dancing as she crimped crusts.

Sam held her hand over the radio dial, nearly changing the station, but she turned it up instead when the song changed to “Tutti Frutti” by Little Richard.

How appropriate, she thought. Do you sense I’m in the area, Grandma?

Drivers began to pull off the highway to take photos or get gas, and the traffic slowly thinned. Sam picked up the pace, the wind sending her hair flying, and, before she knew it, she was singing along, suddenly feeling like a tourist.

The sights were familiar to Sam, but they seemed new to her, brighter, prettier, quainter. As she neared Suttons Bay, she slowed her car and, like other tourists, pulled off the side of the road to enjoy the view.

The water in the bays that sat inland from Lake Michigan was the color of the Caribbean: emerald green fading to aqua near the shoreline, which darkened to navy as the water deepened. Sunlight illuminated the flat, sandy bottom of the bay, and docks jutted straight out past the shallows — hundreds of yards into the water — and held boats, big and small, moored in the deeper water, alongside Jet-Skis and kayaks. Some homeowners had built little bars in the water, where they could sit and watch the sunset, while others had blown up giant rafts big enough to hold 10 people.

The water in the bays that sat inland from Lake Michigan was the color of the Caribbean: emerald green fading to aqua near the shoreline, which darkened to navy as the water deepened.

As if pulled by a magnet, Sam suddenly got out of the car and went running toward the water. She kicked off her flip-flops and walked into the bay, forgetting how cold the water was even in summer, letting out a surprised yelp. Though this water was chilly, the bay was still warmer than Lake Michigan and significantly warmer than Lake Superior, where reaching 70 degrees was considered spa-like. The bay water got a chance to warm, especially in the shallows. Sam dipped her hand into the water and watched it run through her hands, little diamonds sifting through her fingers. Minnows, no bigger than a comma, nibbled at Sam’s toes. Sam looked out over the bay and her heart leapt.

It’s so beautiful, she thought. So pretty it almost looks fake.

Sam stepped out of the water, let her feet dry on the sand, picked up her shoes, and headed back to the car, driving north until she finally turned away from the water and onto Bayview Point. The little, two-lane road disappeared at the top of a winding hill, which was deceptively tall. Her tiny rental slowed, chugged, and groaned as it drove up, up, up until the view opened up at a 360-degree panorama: the little town of Sutton’s Bay sat in the near distance at the bottom of the hill, while farmland and vineyards stretched out around it like a patchwork quilt. The blue-green bay sat in the foreground, with the tip of Sutton’s Bay pointing into the water as if were hitchhiking. Glacially-formed Old Mission Peninsula separated Traverse Bay into east and west bays, and the tourist haven, which was filled with topnotch wineries, sat in the distance. Sam smiled.

On the other side, Lake Michigan shimmered in all its glory, sparkling in the summer sun, stretching to infinity.

Sam slowed her car, and dust swirled as if Pig-Pen had come to greet her. The pavement suddenly ended at the top of the hill and became a dirt road.

I’m home, Sam thought, looking at the sign directly in front of her car. Nothing’s changed.

Welcome to fruit heaven!

Very cherry orchards — first right

Mullins pie pantry and u-pick — straight ahead

Bayview Point was filled with orchards; the glacier-formed ridge was the ideal spot — in terms of temperature, moisture, and location — in which to grow the very best fruit.

God took His time to carve out the perfect place, Sam remembered her grandmother always saying.

The above excerpt from “The Recipe Box – a Novel” is reproduced here with permission of the author.

Published by St. Martin’s Press this spring, the novel is the story of a woman who felt trapped growing up on her family’s farm and pie shop in northern Michigan. She moved away to New York and worked as a sous chef for a reality show baker who embarrasses her one day, and she quits and returns home to northern Michigan to her family’s orchard and pie-making business. She starts baking with the women in her family, using the old family recipes kept in a recipe box the family has had for a long time, and she discovers much about her family, history, roots and herself.

Viola Shipman is a pen name for Wade Rouse, a popular, award-winning memoirist from Michigan. The Recipe Box – a Novel is his ninth book.

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