Tuesday, October 16, 2007

Door County, I love you.

While most Northern Illinoisans are familiar with Door County, Wisconsin, it hasn't always been quite so popular with the expensive Illinois-based tourist.

When I was a little pfffht-of-a-nothing, we went to Door County quite often (at least that's how my childhood mind remembers it). It's winding two-lane highways running north and south up and down the east and west coasts of the Peninsula. I remember fall colors and crystal blue lake, with crisp air and the scent of dusty leaves filling my nostrils.
My Father had a friend who'd moved there. A kind of modern-world expat. Escaping from the big city, he'd moved up to a little town in The Door called Ellison Bay, foregoing the hustle and bustle of 1970's Chicago. He was a Potter, meaning he makes Pottery and his shop is still there today. Now though, he's got a big sign along the side of that highway that snakes its way north through the many little boroughs on your way to Washington Island. We would often go and visit John of Ellison Bay Pottery and spend a little time. I remember his kindness and his calm. Most of all however, I remember his Laborador Retrievers. One yellow. One black.
There are beaches made up of big rocks along Lake Michigan up in that area. Rocks the size of softballs or very large baseballs at the least. Rocks like those that line the beaches of Southern France for you world travellers. On the shore they were dry, and dusty, and grey; like the limestone cliffs that ran the edges of the peninsula. With my little hands, I could take one of those big grey rocks, toss it in the water and tell his big doofy labs to go get it. Splash, splash, splash they would go. Wading out into the crystal clear, shallow and icy water. The water isn't very deep near the shore and my kid arms couldn't throw very far so I could always see the rock that I'd tossed laying on the sandy bottom. Truth is, I probably didn't throw it at all, but rather dropped it near-by so I could watch the proceedings closely. Invariably, one of the aptly named Retrievers would spot my rock and promptly stick his head full-on, into the water. Gaping and mawing at the rock trying to pick it up and bring it back to me on the shore.

Whenever they'd find one, up came a big square head, with a big grey rock in his teeth, dripping wet, tail wagging and smiling that smile that only a happy dog can give around a hard won prize. I'd laugh and squeal and get the rock back only to drop it right back into the water. Rotten kid.

I loved our trips to Door County. There was a little General Store that sold the basic canned foods that were a staple in most 1970's kitchens, as well as the most enchanting display of Penny Candy any child could ever wish for. My favorite was a two-toned lollipop that seemed to be made of two different flavors of Sweet Tart. Half on top and half on the bottom. I always got pink and yellow.
30 years later, I recently made that same trip with my Darling Husband and Door County is drastically different, yet somehow, exactly the same. Ellison Bay Pottery is still there and a pair of John's quirky coffee mugs now sit sentinel in our cabinets just like they did when I was a child. The General Store is still there, but the Penny Candy is gone. I managed to find my lollipop in one of the many the Door County Confectioneries and of course it didn't taste as SweetTart as I remembered, but the feelings and the memories were all the same. The cherry orchards and apple orchards line the roads and the people are slower, more gentle. Probably because even the tourists are being nicer, enjoying the last brilliance of summer into fall before the long cold winter.
The light in Door County in the fall is a magical thing. Something I wish I could capture and bottle. A thing to be opened in the depths of our grey and dreary Chicago winter when I don't think I can take one more day of driving through the slush and the muck.

As a child we always ate breakfast at a regionally famous place called Al Johnsons in Sister Bay. It's a HUGE log cabin building with grass growing on the roof and goats grazing on that same brilliant green verge. If you go there today, Al Johnsons is still there serving traditional Scandanavian/ Swedish fare. You'll find lingon berries and swedish pancakes, cardamom bread, potato pancakes and Swedish rye to your hearts delight. As an adult however, I prefer Al Johnsons' smaller cousin. A little place across the street called the Sister Bay Cafe.

When DH and I went to Door County a few years ago, we happened upon this lovely little gem and we've never been back to Al Jonshon's since. We were afraid we wouldn't find it again because we couldn't remember the name and we didn't know which town it was in. But as luck would have it, we remembered the lay of the land nearby.

"Come up over the hill, look down into the little valley and it's there on your right" said DH.

"Well that sounds just like Sister Bay near Al Johnson's..." says I. Sure enough. There it was. They have the most divine Cardamom Waffles you'll ever find. And the decor is right out of a little Scandanavian Gingerbread House. Yellow, White, Blue and Red with lace curtains with little hearts at the bottom. It awakens in me some very distant memories of time with my Mother's side of the family when I was very young. The Swedish side. ETA: Of course, silly me, Sister Bay Cafe is Norwegian, (just look at the flag in the sign!!) but for me anything served with cardamom and longon berries rings Swedish regardless of actual origin.

I was absolutely enraptured with breakfast. We ate there every morning of our 3 night stay. The proprietess looked like family to me and the delicious smells wafting from the kitchen made me wiggle with pure joy. Husband laughed to himself in the middle of breakfast one morning and when questioned he replied "It's just wonderful to see you so happy over something as simple as breakfast."

If you ever get a chance. Go to Door County and then once there, breathe in the crisp fresh and and stop by the Sister Bay Cafe for the Cardamom Waffles.

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Anonymous Lynn said...

Lovely pictures and beautifully written post. Thanks for sharing it with all of us, Brought back memories of my Swedish grandparents as well

10:16 PM  
Blogger margaretex said...

So many memories. You were in DC when you were just a twinkie in your parent's eye! Remember the goose? Scan that photo and load it! I love you.

6:41 AM  
Blogger Tamara said...

After reading your Door County post, I feel as though I just returned from my own mini-getaway there!

11:28 PM  
Anonymous Diane said...

We live there, in Ellison Bay, and we'd say that Jen captures the light and people well. But, please don't tell the people at Sister Bay Cafe they are Swedish. They are Norweigan and over in the old country those two don't mix well, and they keep that up here. Silly as it seems now, they have history. We learned the hard way!!
Diane and John (the potter from Ellison Bay Pottery)

3:08 PM  

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