2016-12-08 / Life in Leelanau

HAIL MARY: Queen of the Cooks

Suttons Bay cook known for award-winning wild game entrées, delectable desserts
By Amy Hubbell
Of The Enterprise staff

PREPARED FOR whatever comes her way, Mary Forton of Suttons Bay is always cooking up great things for herself and others in the community. PREPARED FOR whatever comes her way, Mary Forton of Suttons Bay is always cooking up great things for herself and others in the community. Newspaper columnist Harriet van Horne said, “Cooking is like love. It should be entered into with abandon or not at all.”

Mary Forton of Suttons Bay embodies that credo.

Forton, 76, has developed a reputation for cooking up everything from award-winning wild game dishes to delicate mini liquid chocolate “shooters” and everything in between.

The fruits of her labor and that of others will be featured at the Friendship Community Center’s 24th annual “Celebrate Party” Friday at the center on Broadway St. in Suttons Bay.

“I’m happiest when I’m in the kitchen cooking,” Forton said. “I love it. I really do.”

She doesn’t get that love of cooking from strangers.

THESE ARE just a few of the hundreds of cookbooks Mary Forton has for reference. THESE ARE just a few of the hundreds of cookbooks Mary Forton has for reference. Forton grew up on the East Coast of the U.S., the daughter of Portuguese immigrants. Her mother, Armanda, moved to Boston/Watertown, Mass., from Sao Miguel in the Azores. Her father, John Fernandes, emigrated from Lisbon, Portugal to New York.

They met when her mother went to get bread at Sunny Bakery on Willow Street in Yonkers, N.Y. It was her father’s bakery.

“I grew up in a family where everyone talked loud and everyone talked at once,” Forton said. “But we all understood what the others were saying. My kids do the same. I think it’s a Portuguese thing.”

Her bright and bold personality set Mary apart for Andy Forton, a young service man from Suttons Bay, whom she met while visiting her sister in Virginia in 1959.

“We met on a Friday and the following Tuesday, he asked me to marry him,” Mary recalled. “I told him ‘It’s a good thing you asked me, because come Thursday I would have asked you.’”

They met on March 27 and by April 25 the young couple was married in a small chapel in New York City.

Andy was a career Navy man and the couple moved wherever he was assigned. This included a 3-year stint at Guantanamo Bay Naval Base from 1969 to 1971.

“Those were the days when Bob Hope would do shows at military installations,” she recalled. “One year, he had Charlie Pride, Alan B. Shepard (astronaut) and Vida Blue (professional baseball player) with him.”

After Andy retired, the couple returned to raise their four children in Suttons Bay.

But regardless of where they called home, the Forton’s kitchen was the center of activity. And the activity didn’t always stop when the sun went down.

If something was on her mind, rather than lay awake and stew on it, Forton would get up and go to the kitchen.

“I’d go bake bread,” she said. “It was a great way to work out frustration.”

The smell from the baker’s daughter’s kitchen could wake the sleeping and on one occasion, attracted a stranger to the home.

“A woman came to the door and asked if I was baking bread,” said Forton, who left her windows open that summer night in hope of a cool breeze. “She had just gotten out of work and smelled the bread on her way home. She wanted to buy a loaf, so I sold it to her.”

There were more than 75 cinnamon rolls made by from scratch sold at the Friendship Community Center Cookie Extravaganza Sunday.

Appreciation of Forton’s efforts doesn’t stop at the Leelanau County line. She’s turned out award-winning concoctions from recipes developed at her kitchen table.

“I’m always working on something,” said Forton, whose husband died in October 2006.

Her crowning achievement is a salmon chowder that delivered one of Forton’s three first-prize awards in a Michigan Outdoors recipe contest.

Unlike most chowders, Forton’s contains no dairy. It has clear broth, salmon, potato, green onion, white wine, bacon, red pepper flakes and is thickened with cornstarch.

“They called it ‘Pure Michigan’ and said ‘You can’t get any better than that.’”

Her other winners include sweet and sour venison balls and a turtle stir-fry, made from a turtle Andy caught in a swampy area off Co. Rd. 633 in Suttons Bay Township.

“Did you know there are seven different flavors of meat in a turtle,” she said.

Eventually, Forton said the organizers suggested that she shouldn’t participate anymore because it would look like a “put up job.”

But that hasn’t stopped her from turning out original recipes. Neither has a diagnosis of Type II diabetes.

“I know what I can have and I watch my portions,” said Forton, who adjusts some recipes to limit carbohydrates. “You have to watch your portions.”

A traditional Christmas during her childhood included Portuguese bread and steak — a steak sandwich — after Christmas Eve Mass.

Roast turkey and dressing were on the table Christmas Day.

However, the consummate cook won’t be slaving away in the kitchen on Christmas. Her attention will be turned to something other than food.

“I do all my holiday cooking for Celebrate,” she said. “I’m going to visit my brother-in-law who lives in an assisted living place in Traverse City.”

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Although I have never met

Although I have never met you, I did know your late husband Andy. I lived in Lake Leelanau and graduated from St Mary. Went into the Air Force in 55 and now live in Tucson. I get back up there ever couple of years. Would loveto sample your baked goods. Germaine