Imagine you are six years old running through the woods of Aquinnah on the way to the beach. Your five older brothers are somewhere up ahead, keeping one eye on you, but you are free to stop and pick wild black raspberries and blueberries and suck on the edible tendrils of grapevines they have taught you to find. No one packs a lunch; foraging is a given. Down at the beach — where you’ll play for hours — you might smash open a few sea clams for lunch.

Bakery is a beacon of bread, biscuits, pastries and pies. — Jeanna Shepard

Your mother and stepfather are up at the Cliffs, running the Aquinnah Shop, baking pies and making famously delicious clam fritters. Later your father, who is a shellfisherman and harbor master, might bring you one of your favorites, a giant lobster. Raw bay scallops are like candy to you, but you learn the rule early — you can only eat what you cut for yourself.

If you can imagine that childhood, you can understand why for Juli Vanderhoop, food has always been tied to a place and a community. And why she had to leave the Island and come back to understand how important that was to her.

Juli, now the well-known proprietor of the Orange Peel Bakery and Orange Peel Bakery Café, an Aquinnah selectman, mother of two and a proud member of the Wampanoag Tribe, literally took flight from the Vineyard after high school, landing at Embry Riddle Aeronautical University where she got her commercial pilot’s license. From there she went to Arizona to work for several years.

The difference between ocean culture and desert culture was a shock.

“I was, like, what is this? I couldn’t find anything!” she remembers. “I was really angry at first. But then my friends and I started to hike. And then I really started to understand by going on travels through Navajo and Hopi lands.”

Juli would pick up little old ladies hitchhiking off the reservation, and while she didn’t speak their language, they would point to her turquoise bracelet and say, “You Navajo?”

Juli Vanderhoop's Wednesday community pizza nights are legendary. — Jeanna Shepard

She has had her bracelet since she was 16, the happy result of some wampum trading her mother was doing with a Navajo trader. He had taken the bracelet out of his special bag and slipped it onto Juli’s wrist. Oddly enough, it fit perfectly — it was meant for her. Turquoise is known for its healing energy, and some believe it holds the power to ward off evil spirits.

“It turns color over time as you are getting better,” she explains. “This one helped me heal from the poisonous bite of a brown recluse spider.”

The bracelet also opened up a conversation for her with the people of the desert about how they grew their corn, how they managed to have gardens in the dry, unfriendly soil, how they cultivated plants from almost nothing.

“Their soil is like dust!” Juli says. “It really impressed on me how lucky I’d been.”

It would be several more years before she would answer the call to return to the Island full time. During that time, she was diagnosed with a heart murmur, which forced her to give up her solo pilot-in-command’s license. She married, had her children (Ella Mahoney, now 22, and Emerson Mahoney, now 20), lived on Cape Cod (always with a big vegetable garden for her kids), directed a Waldorf School for young children, worked as an EMT, and often came out to the Island to work for the season, in the Aquinnah shop or other restaurants.

One year, after a horrible summer of working too many hours, feeling unwell and separating from her husband, she looked at her children and said: “We’re staying.”

Once Juli made the decision to stay on the Island, she began to feel better almost immediately. She and her children moved into the little house on Black Brook that her mother had built years before and had dubbed “Juli’s house” because she knew some day she would live there. The water table is so high that the brook practically runs beneath their feet. The thick brush is full of wild berries and grapevines and the spirit of her ancestors.

“Oh goodness. Oh yeah. I believe in ancestors. And when I forget about them, they come back to remind me they’re here,” Julie laughs. She laughs a lot, but especially when talking about the things in life that you think you have control over but that truly belong to the universe.

"People come here and they smell the history of the food." — Jeanna Shepard

Juli wasn’t sure what she was going to do full time on the Island, but the universe delivered. A friend who had traveled all over the world and had noticed the popularity of wood-fired ovens said to her, “You need to build an oven. All your friends come over here at tea-time to see what you’ve baked, see what you’ve got on your counter. It’s a natural.”

“It piqued my interest,” Juli said. Looking back on it now, it would seem that being open was the first step toward a new direction in life, one that would fulfill her purpose of being a grateful and generous advocate for her community.

After participating in an oven build in Rehoboth, she was sold.

“I just thought, I’ve got to have one of these. When I told them I was from the Vineyard and who my family was and the roots there, they said, yeah you do. You’re going to want the biggest one because you’re going to be very popular!”

Six months later her Le Paynol oven arrived from Maine Wood Heat in three 5,000-pound boxes. Unfortunately, it was July on the Vineyard, and all the people who had agreed to help build the oven were suddenly nowhere to be found. But somehow it got done. Juli believes her ancestors were present, helping her and watching her build what turned out to be both an oven and a phenomenon.

That was in 2006.

It is now 2017, and Juli’s community pizza nights every Wednesday are legendary (everyone is truly welcome). The bakery, which is open from 7 a.m. to 7 p.m. through the season on the honor system, is a beacon of bread, biscuits, pastries and pies (and now honey) on a lonely stretch of Aquinnah. Last summer, Juli also opened the Orange Peel Bakery & Café (pulled pork sandwiches, bay scallop rolls, salmon burgers with ginger soy mayo) up at the Cliffs. The oven fuels it all.

Fire of the oven, spirit of the land nourish Juli Vanderhoop. — Jeanna Shepard

“Time and time again from all over the world, this oven has brought great people into my life,” Juli says. “People come here and they smell the history of the food. It brings back their fondest memories. They always say, oh, this is so beautiful, thank you for being here.”

“I tell people who work for me, you can only hope to work in a place that gives you so much back. Listen to the people. And on the hardest days, like on a Wednesday when we get 100 people, I go to that.”

Juli tries to stay positive. “Oh, goodness,” (there she goes again!) “When you’re positive, you get positive returns, 100 per cent.

Staying positive helps Juli in the increasingly visible community roles she’s taken on as selectman, board member of Island Housing Trust, and a vocal proponent of finding healthy and sustainable ways for the tribe to generate jobs and income.

“It isn’t always easy. We argue like family,” she says. “This is my community. And they’re fighting. I’ve been covering and ducking, putting my dukes up since I was a little kid, which taught me to speak with my voice and to be heard. I really felt (and I still feel) that I was brought back here for something. I think that I need to teach those that are behind me in generations to raise their voices and be heard.”

She continued: “We need to be recognized. It hurts my feelings when no one sees Wampanoag people. They don’t know who we are. And people forget. But we are the stewards of this Island and I am going to yell it. We are the first people. We learn from cultures that have suffered that the only way to go about it is to yell, to put it out there. To tell people and demand that they respect your culture. And put the hatred away, put the hurt behind you. Move forward.”

It’s as if the fire of the oven and the spirit of the land have nourished Juli’s pride and confidence, and given her the strength to give back.

“I appreciate that people want to hear what I say. I think they know how much thought, how much time and effort I put out into the community every day and that I carry a lot of people’s thoughts and wishes for the community, that I want us to be healthier,” she reasons, adding:

“I want to help.”

Recipe for Juli Vanderhoop's blueberry lemon corn muffins.