My Favorite Bakery

Mel outside the Spalding Bakery in Lexington, Kentucky
My mother never bought a bakery cake. It was a matter of thrift and pride in her apple pie’s reputation and whatever her oven produced, sweet or savory.
Truly, I didn’t know what a bakery was until my mother led me into Sanders at Gratiot and Seven Mile. I never dreamed candy and cakes could be so beautiful. We sat on stools at the soda fountain. She ordered two hot fudge sundaes.
We preferred the flavor of Sanders hot fudge to Kresge’s. Thus began my life-long loyalty to Fred Sanders, the sweetness he brought to Detroit, our new home.
When my family moved to Warren, I yearned for Sanders hot fudge sundae. However, I was content with a scoop of ice cream with Mom’s two-layered chocolate cake with buttercream frosting. As my sisters and I grew, our birthday cakes transformed into bosomed dolls with fluffy buttercream dresses decorated with cascading red roses. 
Mom didn’t buy pastries, either. She filled the skirt of our Aunt Jemima cookie jar with homemade oatmeal, raisin, walnut cookies.
She baked date bars. They didn’t last long. Later, she found a recipe with a large yield of peanut butter bars coated with melted Nestle chocolate chips blended with peanut butter.
My mother never made donuts. “The hot oil is too dangerous. You girls might get burned,” she said.
Who needed plain ole donuts when Mom placed hot pecan pies and peach cobblers on the counter to cool? Hers was my favorite bakery in the world, for she taught by example how to prepare and appreciate wholesome, delicious, and lovely desserts. She savored hers with hot tea or coffee.
I remembered this upon my first encounter with Butternut Bakery in Warren. During my brief employment with the Bank of Commerce, fellow employees chose me as the designated donut runner for lunch break.
Doubting my donut qualifications, I made the rounds taking orders and collecting exact change.
“I’d like a buttercream donut,” one teller said.
A buttercream donut?
Well, it wasn’t round with a hole, but a long pastry with buttercream bulging from its middle. I licked my lips, laid down prejudice with 50 cents, and savored my first donut with hot tea.
On Fridays, customers lined up early for Butternut’s famous banana cake. That happens when a particular food carries the essence of a place for generations.
There’s Lexington, Kentucky’s “original” glazed donut, for instance.  
On our recent drive through downtown Lexington to Mom’s gravesite, Mel and I passed a red brick building with a long line outside the door.
“Looks like a bakery,” I said. “Let’s stop after we visit the cemetery.”
Mel nodded with visions of donuts in his head.
An hour later we stepped into Spalding’s Bakery advised by a fellow customer that everything is delicious.
“But I always buy the plain glazed donut,” she said.
Mel devoured his custard-filled and chocolate-glazed donut.
Considering calories, I savored a molasses with raisin cookie.
Dear Reader, Mom wouldn’t approve, but I’m thinking about Spalding’s plain ole glazed donut—the essence of Lexington since 1929.

Nellie and the Cross in the Woods

Cross in the Woods Shrine, Indian River, MI

Nellie grew up in Indian River. I grew up in Warren. She never stepped foot south of Flint. My furthest trip north was to Prudenville with my high school cheerleading squad. 
Nellie and I couldn’t have been more different that January day we moved into our dorm room.
She smoked. I loathed the stench of cigarettes. She ratted her red shoulder-length hair. I wore my mousy brown cut short. She drank her tea black. I drank mine with milk.
Her cigarette poised between two fingers, Nellie declared, “What? Are you crazy? Nobody drinks tea with milk!”
Had I one British neighbor or been better traveled, I could’ve countered: “Tell that to the English.”
            No. Nellie’s menthol Salem carried authority, her firm grasp on the world. A teenager of Appalachian roots, what did I know? My granny drank her tea iced and sweet, for Heaven’s sake. She wouldn’t approve of Nellie’s thick makeup and profanity.             
           Yes, my first roommate intimidated me at times. A comedian, she joked about life in Indian River, the northern hamlet famous for the giant crucifix.
I’d never heard of Indian River or its crucifix.  “How big is it?”
Nellie laughed. “How should I know? I’ve never seen it.”
She must be kidding. I determined to see for myself the largest Jesus on the largest cross in the world.
One night I heard Nellie crying in her sleep—a broken-hearted whimper. A sound sleeper from a household of seven family members, I’d never heard anyone cry in bed.
Poor Nellie. She wept with her back to me and didn’t move a muscle. Should I ask what was wrong, if there was anything I could do to help?
Not a good idea. That would embarrass Nellie. So I prayed for my roommate and never revealed I’d heard her cry.
Later, in a rare, tender moment, Nellie confided her boyfriend had jilted her.
“Mine did too.”
Afterward, she invited me to visit with her and her older, married sister. We drank tea together. Black.
Years later, Nellie welcomed me into her home in Mt. Pleasant. I turned the pages of her wedding album. She married a local Tuma of The Embers family. I had waitressed for the fine restaurant as a student and was glad to see Nellie settled and content.
“Iris, I always felt sh#!&y when I stole your snacks with the other girls,” Nellie confessed.
I had forgotten.
Several years later, Nellie died in a car crash.
These intimate memories lay mute until last Friday. In earnest, I sat before the Cross in the Woods in Indian River.
There, with the blue sky and white clouds a backdrop to Jesus’ suffering, I saw Nellie at her desk in our dorm room. She laughed with a lit cigarette. I heard her cry in the night.
Dear Reader, I now see we were more alike than we knew to admit. Lonely, broken, and seeking true love, neither of us had a grasp on the world.
That’s why the Cross.

Brief and Indelible History

Inside the Provencal-Weir Home in Grosse Pointe Farms
Having savored lavender lemon ice cream since Independence Day, I packed the last half-gallon in a cooler. Mel drove us through thick rush hour traffic to Grosse Pointe Farms for a special event.
Oh, almost forgot to mention the Ghirardelli triple chocolate brownies to serve with the ice cream—the most praised culinary pair conceived in my kitchen. I’ve witnessed reserved folk swoon at the flavor of lavender lemon ice cream and a Ghirardelli brownie.
Mel and I arrived at 381 Kercheval for a tour of the historic Provencal-Weir House. Fellow docents of the Detroit Public Library—foragers of history, culture, and art—gathered inside the house’s parlor.
The Grosse Pointe Historical Society invested research and funds to relocate the building and resurrect its period wallpaper and furnishings, Mike Skinner, the Society’s tour guide explained. Then came my favorite part—the Euphemia and Pierre Provencal love story.
Imagine “the shores of the lake and Detroit River…lined with the picturesque windmills of the French ‘habitants’ and the air full of their legends and superstitions.” In that setting the Rev. Gabriel Richard united Pierre Provencal and Euphemia St. Aubin in holy matrimony February 1, 1831.
In this wilderness known as a ribbon farm, Pierre and Euphemia commenced their charitable work to build an orphan’s home. In the sequence of time, they rescued and educated Detroit children who had lost their parents from the Cholera Plagues of 1832, ’34, and ’49.
          A total of twenty-four orphans reached adulthood under Pierre and Euphemia’s care. They left the Provencal farm with “enough of Pierre’s worldly goods to make a start in life.”
          When crops failed, Pierre distributed provisions from the farm’s “spacious granaries” to their neighbors. He installed a confessional box and altar in the east parlor where we stood.
          “There was no church or chapel in the area, so people came from miles around to worship,” Steve said.
Our minds chuck full of local history, DPL docent Tudi Harwood led our group to the Grosse Pointe Farms Pier Park on Lakeshore Drive for a potluck. Mel and I were awestruck by the sun upon Lake St. Claire—the scent of fresh water.
No wonder the French settled here, I pondered. The contrast between the Provencal’s provincial farm and the mansions along Lakeshore Drive defied reality. 
But there we were in the park’s parking lot with our ice cream cooler and container of brownies, walking in history on a former ribbon farm. We passed a sign inscribed with “Farewell to Summer. Bring your own Smores fixings for a campfire.”
“Sounds like a good idea to me,” I replied.                                        
“What?” Mel asked.
“To wrap up summer with a bonfire and Smores.”
You see dear Reader, as brownies and ice cream, Smores are a part of my food DNA. I’m a former Brownie Scout, a brief and indelible season in my history.
Not as charitable as Euphemia Provencal’s. Yet, those who wrapped up the last bit of lavender lemon ice cream in the clubhouse’s activities room didn’t seem to notice.