Fair Haven’s Fly by Night Cookie Company

Fifteen years ago while I was visiting Fair Haven aboard a yacht, a shipmate announced we must go to the Fly By Night Cookie Company – the “PMS” cookie is to die for. He launched and rigged his small sailing dinghy and shoved off with his wife to set sail across the bay. An hour later they returned and triumphantly presented us with a bag. These must be pretty good to be worth sailing and rowing a dinghy three miles, I thought. They were. Those chocolate and butter mint frosted morsels would, I think, cure, or at least bring brief comfort to, any consumer, male or female.

The Fly By Night Cookie Company and its legendary baker Bonnie Bridson have been featured in U.S. and Canadian newspapers and magazines, YouTube videos, blogs, and tourism trade publications with good reason. Her cookies are rich, savory, visually delightful and unique. Each comes with a backstory and has a touch of flavoring that sets it apart. Indeed, there is a hint of magic and a generous dash of whimsy about the whole endeavor located on quiet Fancher Avenue overlooking the dancing waters of Fair Haven Bay. It’s little wonder many visitors linger at the table on the porch to eat their cookies and enjoy the beauty around them.

The cookie shop opened in 1985. Bonnie had learned her way around the kitchen as a child assisting some very good cooks, and she later worked in a restaurant. As she put it, “Cooking was the only skill I had.” She made good use of it and soon settled on cookies as being the most manageable product for her operation.

The origins of the business’ name remain mysterious. One source said Bonnie originally ran a lunch wagon for the second shift construction workers out at the Nine Mile Two Nuclear Plant building site. Whatever its derivation, it fits well with the unorthodox style of an occasionally crusty baker whose last car displayed a bumper sticker that read, “My other car is a broom.”

Cookies continue to be the operation’s mainstay. Summer visitors to Fair Haven drop in and devour them by the hundreds. She makes dozens of different varieties seven days a week. Sugar cookies, filled cookies, chocolate cookies, rum balls, scones and pastries of constantly changing varieties fill the jars in the shop. All are made with local products whenever possible, including eggs from a neighbor’s free-range hens, jam from wild berries and other organic products from area producers.

I asked Bonnie recently how many she sells in a season. “Oh everybody asks that question. I have no idea! Remember that day last summer when I sold out by noon? I had to close the shop. We baked 50 dozen cookies in two hours then.” When I marveled at the sheer variety of cookies Fly By Night Cookie offers, she told me “Cookies are infinite.”

Bonnie explained that she basically uses classic recipes that she keeps reinventing, tweaking with a bit of flavoring or new combinations of ingredients. It certainly keeps the customers coming back.

The shop also offers pastries and pies. She takes special orders for Thanksgiving and Christmas, and then shuts down for a well-deserved winter break. The cookie year begins anew around the spring equinox as the shop re-opens for Easter treats.

Last year Bonnie began selling European style multi-grain breads. “There was no good whole grain bread within a 40-mile drive,” she said, adding, “I’ve always made bread. When you’re feeding four kids, you learn to make bread.”

She says there’s no respect for bread these days. It’s understandable. The insubstantial stuff I find in my local store resembles Bonnie’s bread about as much as my neighbor’s pony resembles Secretariat. Not only is it nourishing, but it’s real food with enough flavor that I’ll gladly eat a piece plain without butter or anything else on it.

White magic
If you can find Fair Haven, you can’t miss the bakery. It and the pastry shop occupy most of the downstairs of Bridson’s small two-story home. In 1987, her son John rebuilt the modest front porch and embellished it with chainsaw carved pillars and Black Forest style artwork. Here, as visitors browse for a Tiger Drop or a School Bus cookie or perhaps a Blessed Bee Honey Butter cookie, they often find themselves drawn into the life of the village of Minimally, which shares the room with the bakery products.

Minimally is a village in a parallel dimension where Baba Bani goes to seek inspiration and find solace, wisdom, and peace from the likes of Baba Yaga, the wise old woman of the forest, and Old Angus, a sort of prime minister to the folk of Faery. Make no mistake – the creative force that gave the world Nuts Behind Bars and Marzipan Rabbits with Attitude had to come from somewhere. This portal to the realm of magic started off as a pragmatic exercise in problem solving in three dimensions for Bonnie after she sought a permit to add on to her house for a commercial bake room and was turned down by the village board.

As she pondered how to fit everything the bakery needed into a small space, a new kitchen began to take shape with vertical storage and cooling racks, a grand big oven and a separate clean up room. As she puts it in her book, Chronicles of Baba Yaga, “a pact between Baba Bani and old Angus was made, and all distinctions between large and small dissolved.”

Bonnie visits (and adds onto) Minimally during the winter slow season after she recovers from 50 to 60 hour workweeks, including many July days spent in a hot kitchen baking for the summer tourists. She says it keeps her sane. The village has been written up in a national circulation magazine for hobbyists, and it is as elaborately detailed and delightful as the most heroic model railroad layouts I’ve seen.

Soon after the mall at Upper Minimally was created a couple years ago, the Old Witches Retirement Home came in, followed by the building of the Cathedral of Our Lady of Perpetual Responsibility. (The cathedral shell complete with stained glass window bears a strong resemblance to the mahogany cases of those old Atwater Kent radios that graced homes in the 1920s). Not long after this, the Sisters of Complexity, nuns who weave and make lace, moved in, and on the day of my visit, Baba Yaga’s tea room was open and doing a brisk business. When I left the shop, the strains of piano and accordion from tearoom merry makers followed me out onto the street. (Music is central to life both in the village of Minimally and in the “real” world of Fly By Night Cookie.)

The full story of Minimally along with cookie, bread, soup, and main course recipes is detailed in The Chronicles of Baba Yaga. This unique cookbook/adventure/fantasy epic and celebration of art is on sale in limited quantities at the shop. Bonnie prints a batch up each year, modifying and updating it as events in Minimally and elsewhere dictate. They usually sell out pretty quickly, so don’t dawdle if you want the recipe for cream of spring soup.

Bonnie has a deep affinity for many of the earth- and nature-based teachings of Wiccans. This, along with some other happenings on the local scene, led to the first Fantasy Fashion Witches’ Parade held in Fair Haven about five years ago. The witches gathered in the town park in full regalia and proceeded down Main Street collecting money and goods for the local food pantry as they cast prosperity spells on the local businesses. Despite the light-hearted nature of their costumes and trappings, some of the participants felt a definite sense of power in the air – the power and solidarity of a group of women united in common cause.

Some of the participants definitely felt energized by it, especially after the flock adjourned to the Pleasant Beach Hotel to roost at the bar and enjoy a glass of wine or a beer. The parade has grown in popularity, and this past fall, a dozen or so local artisans set up booths in the town park for a half-day craft fair with food, music and Halloween games for kids.

Bonnie’s very real feel for Mother Earth also led her to spearhead a move to preserve a small waterfront park that lies between Lake Ontario and Fair Haven Bay. The West Barrier Bar Park had been turned over to Cayuga County about 25 years ago. Soon, however, the county lost interest in spending any money on maintenance or policing, and the park became plagued by trash and bad behavior. During the real estate bubble of a few years back, a move was made to sell the park to a developer. Bonnie, who, like a lot of locals, had spent many pleasurable hours there, rallied the village population with a petition drive to save the park. After the county backed down on privatizing the park for profit, she volunteered to help seek a permanent solution to the county’s unwanted asset.

It’s an ongoing effort but at least for now, visitors to Fair Haven can beach comb and bird watch, view sunsets and enjoy the passing parade of boats through the channel. Fly By Night Cookie Company runs a self-serve used bookstore in the back yard behind the shop to raise money for the park, selling hundreds of donated books each summer.

So how does a woman manage to make a living from cookies for 25 years? Hard work. Being tough, strong and creative helps, too. Through it all, Bonnie Bridson never lost that sense of wonder that led her to write in The Chronicles of Baba Yaga “white magic is not abracadabra lightning bolt quick as you might have thought. It’s a threefold braid – purpose, poetry, and perseverance, plaited together and wound round with song, but given time it cannot fail.”

For braided bread, pies of splendor and 65 different kinds of cookies, visit Fly by Night Cookie Company between March and December. Find it online at www.fairhavenny.com/cookiecompany.

by Susan Peterson Gateley

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