On Tuesdays, Mana’s Kitchen in Bay City opens at 9 a.m. I looked at my watch; it was only 8:30 a.m. Deciding to take a chance, we dialed their number. Our reward was an amiable male voice on the other end of the line. Yes, they were open for business. No, they didn’t serve pancakes on Tuesdays, only for Saturday brunch. However, they did have in-house baked scones and croissants. For lunch, they would make croissant sandwiches with chicken salad; those loyal to Mana’s Kitchen would drive for miles to savor them.
The agreeable voice called out in a direction away from the phone:
“Are we getting any greens today?” Turning back to us, he shared his news:
“There’ll also be salad.”
We inquired how long the drive to Mana’s Kitchen was from where we were staying.
“An hour. You want to stop at Whalen Island on the way. It’s pretty close to where you are. I make sure that everyone who visits us at Mana’s Kitchen knows to stop at Whalen Island. It’s a special kind of place.”
We decided to drive the hour it takes to get to Mana’s Kitchen. The voice on the phone could make any food sound inviting, and the morning held a promise of a genial day after the previous evening’s storm.
We missed the turn off to Whalen Island, so doubled back. To get onto the island, we had to drive over a narrow stretch of land with marshlands on both sides of the road. I hoped to see a heron. The sight of these birds wading through water with dignified patience has always filled me with dreamy serenity. If I could get close enough to a heron, I would follow its eyes as it takes in its surroundings with mindful attentiveness. A heron catching and eating its meal is an act of contemplation. Waiting and observing feed this stately bird as much as a frog or a fish.
As we roamed the area looking for the hiking trail, I kept glancing back to the marshlands with longing. No heron in sight. I turned my attention to the pale morning colors of the water, reeds, and sand on my left and the early summer shades of green in the dune forest on my right. I inhaled the scent of the delicate, salt-tinged moisture wafting inland from the ocean.
Together, we ambled through a meadow of lupine blues, pinks, and purples, warmed by golden rods and yellow beach heather, then followed the trail into the forest. The sandy ground felt soft beneath my feet. I tried to imagine what it would be like to run my hand along the furrowed reddish-brown bark of the trees. I took my time observing the rhythm of smooth and sharp patterns in the grass and leaves. A chipmunk scurried over entangled roots and creeping tendrils without a pause to look at me.
We took one of the spurs that angled off the trail. Stepping out of the thicket, we were able to savor a view of the water. To think that an unfamiliar voice we had asked about food had guided us to all of this.
Despite the beauty, we could stay only that long on empty stomachs. We turned and headed back to the car.
To get to Mana’s Kitchen, we drove through Tillamook. There were lines in front of the modern-looking creamery that reminded me of eager crowds lining up in front of European museums. Dozens of tourists sat at long slab-like tables eating ice-cream and scrolling on their cell phones.
To me, “Tillamook” is a lonely kind of word. The atmosphere in stores selling Tillamook products feels too impersonal to me. Thus, I couldn’t imagine myself sitting among the tourists at one of the tables even if all cell phones disappeared out of sight.
Mana’s Kitchen turned out to be an unassuming one-story building painted a shade of saturated blue, located next to a patch off the freeway. To the front of the patch stood an arty-crafty easel that held a wooden disc with the café’s logo — a winged letter M. At the easel’s top, glittering metalwork of a crow and feather-like leaves rotated in the wind.
When we opened the car door, a dog ran towards us in greeting. Its owner sat sipping coffee at one of the tables set up in the patch, in the company of a lady with pig-tails in her hair. After taking a seat at a table on the covered patio off the front door, we were immediately given attention.
For us, food goes hand in hand with conversation. We quickly turned the menu into a conversation starter with the lady serving us. She didn’t shy away, quick to offer vegetarian options that were not listed on the menu. We wanted to know everything: when the café had first opened; how it was faring during COVID; what the food philosophy of the owner was; and if any of the ingredients come from the adjacent patch. The conversation flowed. But when I asked about the gluten-free scones, the lady became reluctant to divulge the ingredients. I saw no choice but to elaborate on my own forays into baking with chickpea, oat, almond, and sorghum flour. A concerned look crossed my conversation partner’s face.
“Well, I should really get busy in the kitchen if I am to serve you any food … ” she said, then hurried back into the building.
While waiting for a bite to eat, those of us who felt restless went exploring the patch. I walked over to the arty-crafty easel to examine it more closely. This time I noticed that a barrel turned into a planter for wild growth sat nested at the easel’s base. Some adventurous butter cups had escaped from the barrel’s confinement only to comfortably sprawl right next to it. Looking at this arrangement, I realized that the wooden disk with the winged M had probably once served as the barrel’s top, later being re-purposed as part of the Dada-like, three-dimensional, kinetic café sign before me.
As the wind propelled the crow and the feather-like leaves into motion, I recalled my first experiences of coffee shops on the West Coast. I used to be taken aback by the second-hand furniture with which they had been set up. Customers sipped their coffee, read the paper, or did homework on mismatched chairs at mismatched tables, some of which had seen far better days. I assumed then that the intention behind this was to produce a homey effect, but I was uneasy at the sight of once-private chairs and tables being used in a public space. Eventually, I came to think of this shabby-chick aesthetic as an alternative expression of the American approach of “always putting one’s best foot forward.”
Without a doubt, the food that we were served in Mana’s Kitchen on that late Tuesday morning was over and beyond them putting their best foot forward. While we were enjoying our meal, the dog was delighted to welcome a man arriving on a motor bike. The man more than gladly returned the animal’s joyful greeting, kneeling in front of it and giving it love-filled rubs. It transpired that he was the person with whom we had spoken on the phone earlier that day, and we happily shared with him our first impressions of Whalen Island.
“The further you follow the trail, the more beautiful it gets,” he promised us before disappearing into the café.
Another café fellow who brought me a latte was our next conversation partner, and he briefly shared his own personal story. He was originally from NY and had come to Bay City to work on an art project, but life had surprised him with a job at Mana’s Kitchen.
While I sat contemplating my latte, cars would, off and on, drive up and park in front of Mana’s Kitchen to fetch their take-out orders. I imagined their owners were looking at us and soon began to feel like we were in a film playing at a drive-in movie theatre. The café patio became the screen and we were the actors, taking our time in a slow-paced foreign movie.
It had indeed been a laid-back, Sergio Leone kind of day, but instead of cowboys randomly shooting bullets, we were starring alongside friendly NY artists serving us lattes and croissants freshly baked to perfection.