Massachusetts isn’t a very big state, though it does pack a punch for its size. Traversing it, however, isn’t as easy at it seems. One can go south along the Massachusetts Turnpike, which is the fastest way to go. Another option is to travel along the northern side via Route 2, also known as “The Mohawk Trail,” which is a bit slower but has some great views and hairpin turns. Finally, you can cut right through the middle of the state on either Massachusetts State Route 9 or US Route 20, both are slower routes, though they are easily the most historic and present numerous opportunities to step out and experience some local character and history.
After a recent visit to the towns of Lee and Lenox in the Berkshires, we opted to take Route 9 back to Eastern Massachusetts. Route 9 runs from Pittsfield, MA into Boston, winding through historic towns and hamlets along the way. Historically, Route 9 is an amalgam of old roads, including the Berkshire Trail and the Worcester Turnpike. We left Lee (which happens to sit on the MA Pike) and headed north to Pittsfield and began our journey along the slower route.
Many of our trips are punctuated with the requisite coffee stops, which usually means Dunkin’ Donuts or Starbucks. Since we’re localvores, we feel we’ve hit the jackpot when we find an independent coffee roaster. While driving through the town of Williamsburg, MA, which lies west of the Connecticut River between Pittsfield and Northhampton, we accidentally passed an unassuming coffee roaster in a small building set back from Route 9. Realizing our mistake, we quickly turned around and headed right to Elbow Room Coffee.
Inside, we met Melissa Krueger, the owner, an eastern Massachusetts ex-pat who proudly calls this section of Pioneer Valley home. She proudly shared her technique and sourcing. In small batches of no more than 20 pounds, she roasts fair trade beans from Africa, Indonesia, and the Americas. After a couple of nicely brewed samples, Melissa had us hooked. As taste-driven coffee fans, we were thrilled and purchased several pounds of beans roasted that morning, including an amazing Ethiopian Yirgacheffe and an aromatic Flores Green Dragon.
Each sip of Melissa’s coffee will not only give us a great taste sensation but will also conjure up pleasant images of Williamsburg and our trip along Route 9. There’s nothing like taking the slow road for the maximum travel experience.
Boston is like a folded quilt with its well-known neighborhoods on top: The North End, Beacon Hill, Back Bay, Charlestown, The South End, Fenway, East Boston, and South Boston. Unfold the quilt to discover Allston, Brighton, Dorchester, Jamaica Plain, Roxbury, West Roxbury, Roslindale, Mattapan, and Hyde Park. Many of these neighborhood were independent communities that became part of Boston proper in the late 19thcentury, an activity that also led to the expansion of other cities such as New York, which consolidated other cities into boroughs such as Brooklyn. Just as in Boston, smaller borough neighborhoods such as Brooklyn’s Williamsburg, still have maintain their own identity.
Recently, Rob attended a Sunday morning event at Doyle’s Cafe in the Jamaica Plain (JP to the locals) section of Boston. Founded in 1882, Doyle’s is not just a historic JP Irish bar and restaurant, but it’s also a tribute to Boston’s history. It’s worth a visit just to look at the walls covered with pictures, magazines, and newspapers that so eloquently echo Boston stories from a different time.
That Sunday morning event was Boston Media Makers (BMM), a regular gathering of people working with audio and video on the web: podcasters, videobloggers, filmmakers, artists, writers, PR and social media people. Our host was the indefatigable Steve Garfield, who’s rarely seen in Boston without a camera. While there, Rob met Roy Krantz, a publisher, web designer, and just a fascinating and passionate personality.
Roy explained that he and his wife Susan would be hosting a concert at their Jamaica Plain house featuring the Hi-Tone Ramblers. The band describes their style as a “melting pot of Anglo and African-rooted songs, rhythms, blues and old-time fiddle and banjo tunes.” Also at the BMM meeting was Tim Rowell, the Hi-Tone Ramblers talented banjo player. Both men extended a very warm invitation. How could two rather curious, sentimental people like us resist?
So… last night we headed down to JP. Not surprisingly, we stopped at Doyle’s for a quick bite and headed to Roy and Susan’s house nearby. We were surprised to find an unconventional house, a former printing shop that had creatively converted by Roy into an eclectic and charming home. Even better, its unique design and tall ceilings would shortly ensure great acoustics for both the band and the audience.
And the Hi-Tone Ramblers didn’t disappoint. With Cathy Mason on fiddle, Tim Rowell on banjo, Tim FitzPatrick on guitar, Bethany Weiman on cello, and Paul Strother on bass, they delivered two fantastic sets. Not a single foot was idle the entire evening. Complementing the music, the band members lightheartedly described the history and their philosophy of song selection. We’ve been to many concerts over the years, but we’re happy to say that listening to some creative string music in a converted print shop in Jamaica Plain proved to be one of the best musical experiences we’ve ever had.
It was quiet when we woke up this morning. Snow quiet. Over night, we received a couple of inches of snow on top of the previous few from the other day. Snow acts as muffler and creates a calm, especially on the weekend when the concern about a nasty work commute isn’t there. Unfortunately, snow gets a bum rap; it just isn’t winter without it.
Today’s was a dry, fluffy snow, which meant the temperatures outside were rather cold. Anyone who’s shoveled snow will quickly remark that it’s better to shovel this snow than the “warmer” weather, heavy wet snow. With the light stuff, one can clear the walkway, driveway and car in a matter of minutes, which is exactly what we did.
It was too pretty outside so we opted to go out for breakfast. Before leaving the house, though, we dressed in our L.L. Bean winter jackets and, most importantly, put on our favorite winter boots: Bogs. We learned about Bogs a few years back from Deb Paisley of Paisley Farm & Greenhouse in West Boxford, MA. We thought, “When a New England farmer recommends a boot, he (or in this case she) knows this from practical use. We picked up ours at the Kittery Trading Post in southern Maine. It’s turned out to be one of the best things we ever did. Though Bogs aren’t from New England, they’re perfect for our region.
With Bogs on and feet warm, we hopped in our S.U.V. Yes, it has four-wheel drive (4WD) to make the journeys around Maine, New Hampshire, Vermont, Massachusetts, Rhode Island, and Connecticut a little easier when the white stuff falls. 4WD, unfortunately, does not turn a New England country road with 14 inches of snow into a flat dry interstate in summer. We see more 4WD vehicles on their roofs during a snowstorm than regular cars. Nonetheless, it helps, but only with a healthy dose of Yankee pragmatism.
We went out, had a great breakfast that included Rhode Island-style jonnycakes with real Vermont maple syrup. After a pleasant and warm trip out into the snow, we’re now back home, sitting by the fire, and happily telling you about it. Thank goodness for warm shoes and four-wheel drive.
No matter where you travel in New England, you will find books: at antique shops, rental homes, inns, bookstores and even some restaurants and coffee houses. In New England, we love to read. It’s been part of our culture since the region was settled in the 1600s. Reading and books define us. A friend once remarked, “I enjoy meeting people, but I particularly like visiting their homes for the first time and seeing their bookshelves. What they read tells me so much about who they are.”
How those books got onto the shelves is also a story, one that’s really a narrative of life. When we first started dating in the 1980s, we often found ourselves in a bookstore after a nice dinner or an invigorating hike. (Things haven’t changed much for us since.) It didn’t matter whether the bookstore had new or used books, because what was on the pages of those books always left a lifelong impression. They became part of us. Perhaps the story we write now is an attempt to attach us to our books, inspiring a future reader long after we’re gone.
Today, when we pull a book off the shelf, it immediately evokes memories of the day we bought it and of that particular time in our lives. For instance, we fondly remember two cookbooks (one Greek, the other Eastern European) that we picked up in 1988 after a fall visit to Pack Monadnock in Peterborough, NH. Now, when either of those books is removed, we recall hiking the Wapack Trail that day, dining afterwards at Hiroshi Hayashi’s innovative Latacarta restaurant, discovering a great recipe for Shopska salad and listening to Pachelbel’s Canon later that evening. It’s fascinating how our brains retain information by association.
Other bookshelves tell stories too. Recently, we vacationed by the Oyster River in Chatham, MA on Cape Cod. Like many New England seasonal, coastal properties, our rental home had three elements familiar to many of us: beach paintings; musty smells; and bookcases of old, out-of-print books. Such bookshelves are a chronicle of decades of New England guests and snapshots of periods in American history. We were immediately drawn toward the hardcovers and paperbacks in our rental cottage.
One title in particular drew our attention: Massachusetts: A Guide to the Pilgrim State, edited by Ray Bearse. It was printed in 1971, the second edition of a book originally commissioned by the WPA in 1937. In the preface, the editor reflects on how much things changed in the time period between the first and second editions. Reading the latter edition forty years after its publication left us equally moved. It not only provided an interesting view of how much things had changed since 1971, but also affirmed how many of those things we hold so dear remain constant. But with the book in our hands we asked: Who put this on the bookshelf in Chatham? Why did they come to New England? What happened to the author? Why did he choose to write about Massachusetts? What other visitors over the years picked up the book? Did the book influence their visit?
During that same trip, we went to some used bookstores on the Cape hoping to find another copy of the book. Even one of our favorite New England bookstores, Parnassus Book Service in Yarmouthport, MA didn’t have it. After several more attempts we realized our search might be futile, but we finally found the book online, and bought it. At the time of this writing it hadn’t yet arrived, but we know the book will end up on one of our bookshelves. From now on when we remove it from the shelf, we’ll recall our trip to Chatham, reflect on how much Massachusetts has changed, remember a wonderful vacation with family, and savor the smell of just-ground coffee and fresh-baked muffins from the Chatham Village Café where we wrote this story.
Because we travel all over New England, we’re often asked: “How do you know where to drive?” Though we don’t think about it much, we use a combination of process and intuition when we hit the roads of Connecticut, Maine, Massachusetts, New Hampshire, Rhode Island, and Vermont. On the process side, we have a large number of maps, some quite new and many over 100 years old. We also have smart phones and global positioning system (GPS) devices. Additionally, we maintain several databases of information, much of which includes historical village records as well as primary and secondary research. On the intuition side of the equation, we determine our next turn by looking at architecture, stonewalls, and old roads that often include names of neighboring towns, points of interest, and historic families. Our intuition also guides us to the “A” roads, such as Route 1A.
What’s the significance of an “A” road? To us, it’s where you discover New England. Many “A” roads are original routes through the old towns, villages, and hamlets; it’s where you find classical architecture as well as centuries of history. They’re often the most scenic (and winding) roads as well. Many original New England roads began as old Indian trails or were created by settlers to support commerce and trade. Throughout New England roads such 1A in Maine, Massachusetts, and Rhode Island, 12A in Vermont, and 4A in New Hampshire offer visitors a nice retrospective of America before the automobile. Note that the route number and less-frequent, accompanying letter designation did not show up until later.
As the popularity of the automobile in New England increased, cities and towns not only improved old, existing roads, but made new throughways as well. In 1911, the Quebec-Miami International Highway was created as the major north-south travel passage combining old and new roads. It was renamed The Atlantic Highway in New England in 1915. By 1922, improvements and new sections were added and it was renamed Route 1 in New England; the entire route to Florida was called Route 1 by 1926. Route 1 became the commerce route for many New England towns, driving a shift from many of the older routes that would subsequently be renamed “1A.” Though research is limited on the letter designation, one may speculate there were economic motivations for bringing travelers back to the old parts of town. Decades later, the Interstate system in New England was started in the 1950s, with Interstate 95 becoming the bypass (in most parts) to Routes 1 and 1A. Interstate 95 from New England to Florida was completed in 1970.
In this region it’s not unusual to find Route 1A, Route 1, and Interstate 95 in close proximity to one another. Though each of these roads represents different times in New England history, the richest and most interesting is 1A. One of our favorite Route 1A drives is from Salem, MA to York, ME, with short stops in many coastal towns such as Newburyport, MA, and Portsmouth, NH. Be sure not to miss smaller towns along the way, as all have a great deal of history, charm, and things to see. Route 1A is also a cornucopia of site markers, small signs that evoke another era. Recently we stopped at one identifying the “Minister’s Woodlot” from 1660 in Rowley, MA.
Enjoy Route 1A in New England. Catch a flea market. Visit a museum. Nosh on some fried clams. It’s worth the diversion from Route 1 and Interstate 95. Please note that many sections of Route 1A are not contiguous and frequently branch off and back onto Route 1.
We’re fond of Cape Ann, and especially Gloucester, the oldest active fishing port in the United States. This city, which dates back to 1623, has it all: history, tradition, ethnicity, restaurants, art, museums, shops and natural beauty. We never need an excuse to visit the area, but when we received an invitation to join some North Shore friends for dinner at the Alchemy Bistro in Gloucester, we gladly accepted – or at least one of us did. The other, unfortunately, was hosting an event further inland in central MA, but let’s stick with Gloucester and return to the coast.
Alchemy is defined as the act of turning ordinary metal into gold. The aim of Alchemy Bistro is to turn extraordinary ingredients into culinary gold. On this night, the alchemist (also known as Chef Jeff Cala) spun course after course of wonderful dishes, mining flavors from Asia, Italy, France, and America, many of which were sourced with local, New England ingredients.
The meal was well organized and delicately balanced a bit of formality with a lack of pretentiousness – not an easy task at a tasting dinner. The staff maintained a nice cadence, allowing us to maintain lively and continual conversation over the centerpiece of food. The chefs emerged at each course and explained the preparation of the dishes along with the sourcing of ingredients. Concurrently, Matt Rose (the general manager) would share his vast knowledge of wine, beer and mixology by offering pairing suggestions for each individual item within the course.
Logistically, the dinner, spread between two tables, blended individual courses separated by samplings of communal tapas. The tapas selections were tastefully presented on rustic serving boards made especially for this evening by the artisans at Walker Creek Furniture of nearby Essex, MA. We’re partial to New England ingredients, even if that means non-edible ingredients (such as serving boards) too.
The dinner selections, representing a sampling of the broader menu, were diverse and creative. Some of the standouts and liquid accompaniments for the evening included: wild boar and native shrimp chopstick roll; cheese sampler paired with an Estrella Damm Inedit witbier from Barcelona by FerranAdrià (a new favorite); black pepper pappardelle carbonara with a farm raised duck egg (that was picked up by Chef Cala somewhere along his drive) nicely matched with Corte Rugolin Monte Danieli Amarone Classico; and, finally, warm chocolate soufflé complemented by a stunning Goose Island Bourbon County Stout.
I applaud the team at Alchemy Bistro and their creative spin on New England cuisine. One doesn’t need to drive to a major city like Boston to have a wonderful dining experience. Alchemy proved that. The restaurant plans to host more of these events, which is good news for the New England palate.
Visitors, as well as locals, north of Boston should seek out the many wonderful things both culinary and non-culinary in the region. Take in some of the Gloucester sights and then head to Alchemy to reflect on them over a delicious dinner.
Snow. Snow. Snow. There’s always a frenzy when a good ‘ole nor’easter works its way toward New England in the winter time. The store shelves are cleared of bread, water, and milk. The firewood is piled high. Many are glued to their televisions, changing stations from one meteorologist to the next looking for any extremes in the forecast. Have we not seen this before? This is New England and it snows here in the winter. Last year we commented on the non-stop snow. This year, we’re turning to Whittier for some rationale reflection.
For those of you not familiar with John Greenleaf Whittier, he was a famed 19th century American poet born in 1807 in Haverhill, Massachusetts. Today, he is not well known, perhaps his works eroded by the tides of time or eclipsed by the moon of Robert Frost. In Essex County in Massachusetts, you’ll find his name attached to the occasional street or school, likely found in a Victorian-era neighborhood. His homestead is remarkably preserved, though like many great buildings in the region, only open seasonally. Nonetheless, we thought it fitting to summon Whittier on this cold, windy, and snowy New England evening. We’ve included an excerpt below, but the complete poem can be found here. In the meantime, we’ll go sit by the fire, admire the Christmas tree, and listen to the snow brush up against the window panes.
-The Two Palaverers
Credits: Mural from the Whittier Home, Amesbury, MA. Painter, Jon Moores, photo by Pam Fenner.
John Greenleaf Whittier
Snowbound: A Winter Idyl
To the Memory of the Household It Describes, This Poem is Dedicated by the Author
The sun that brief December day
Rose cheerless over hills of gray,
And, darkly circled, gave at noon
A sadder light than waning moon.
Slow tracing down the thickening sky
Its mute and ominous prophecy,
A portent seeming less than threat,
It sank from sight before it set.
A chill no coat, however stout,
Of homespun stuff could quite shut out,
A hard, dull bitterness of cold,
That checked, mid-vein, the circling race
Of life-blood in the sharpened face,
The coming of the snow-storm told.
The wind blew east; we heard the roar
Of Ocean on his wintry shore,
And felt the strong pulse throbbing there
Beat with low rhythm our inland air.
Meanwhile we did our nightly chores, —
Brought in the wood from out of doors,
Littered the stalls, and from the mows
Raked down the herd’s-grass for the cows;
Heard the horse whinnying for his corn;
And, sharply clashing horn on horn,
Impatient down the stanchion rows
The cattle shake their walnut bows;
While, peering from his early perch
Upon the scaffold’s pole of birch,
The cock his crested helmet bent
And down his querulous challenge sent.
Unwarmed by any sunset light
The gray day darkened into night,
A night made hoary with the swarm
And whirl-dance of the blinding storm,
As zigzag, wavering to and fro,
Crossed and recrossed the wingàd snow:
And ere the early bedtime came
The white drift piled the window-frame,
And through the glass the clothes-line posts
Looked in like tall and sheeted ghosts.
So all night long the storm roared on:
The morning broke without a sun;
In tiny spherule traced with lines Of Nature’s geometric signs,
And, when the second morning shone,
We looked upon a world unknown,
On nothing we could call our own.
Around the glistening wonder bent
The blue walls of the firmament,
No cloud above, no earth below, —
A universe of sky and snow!
The old familiar sights of ours
Took marvellous shapes; strange domes and towers
Rose up where sty or corn-crib stood,
Or garden-wall, or belt of wood;
A smooth white mound the brush-pile showed,
A fenceless drift what once was road;
The bridle-post an old man sat
With loose-flung coat and high cocked hat;
The well-curb had a Chinese roof;
And even the long sweep, high aloof,
In its slant spendor, seemed to tell
Of Pisa’s leaning miracle.
On a recent, beautiful, summer evening, approximately seventy-five lucky individuals converged on Wilson Farm in Lexington, MA at closing time. Gathering among rows of tomato plants and other ripening farm vegetables, the crowd slowly filled the chairs that flanked three long tables draped with white tablecloth and adorned with beautiful fresh cut flowers. Many in attendance had never met before, but would share a common bond tonight: a culinary experience with fresh food from New England.
Dining in a location where one typically doesn’t sit down to eat (like in a field, a dock or a barn) is a novelty, and only added to the anticipation of knowing that much of our dinner had been picked hours earlier from the very field where we now sat. For us, it was reminiscent of the feeling we would get while picnicking with our young sons on a rainy day in our living room: out of the ordinary yet quite special.
Through the din of conversation, our servers (folks who worked at the farm stand and recently trained for the evening) began serving up course after course upon the table, some plated individually, and others offered family-style. With each course, Wilson Farm Chef Todd Heberlein would proudly and passionately explain each dish’s contents, philosophy, and thoughtful preparation. The colors, aromas, and flavors were an amplification of their freshness and a testament to Chef Heberlein’s artistry.
As the courses passed, the sun was replaced by candlelight, adding another welcome dimension to the evening. Ultimately, seventy-five content, satiated people left Wilson Farm as friends – not just with one another, but also with a passionate local chef and with a farm that very much embraces its New England heritage.
There is no better way to celebrate the harvest than to dine on food, simply and lovingly prepared where it was grown, shared at a community table among people who appreciate it and enjoyed in the fresh air beneath the open sky.
As we’ve said many times before: New England is as much about the people as it is about the history, culture, food and the landscape. We saw this here as well. Jim Wilson, one of the owners of Wilson Farm, was present the entire evening, sharing his big smile and ensuring that we were enjoying ourselves. Chef Heberlein didn’t hide either, making the rounds and checking to make sure we were smiling. Great New Englanders. Great farm. Great evening.
There’s something about a visit to the beautiful Green Mountain State of Vermont that always has us wanting to return before we’ve even left. Upon entering the state, we immediately sense a shift in the air and in the scenery, but surprisingly we also sense a shift within ourselves. Simply being among the pristine, New England beauty clears our minds. Bucolic open spaces dotted with quaint villages surrounded by magnificent mountains would put anyone at ease. And we always sleep better in Vermont, waking refreshed, recharged and rejuvenated.
Vermont isn’t just a special place; it’s a way of life. Vermonters clearly live what they love and love what they live. The visitor quickly discovers the striking connection between the green beauty that surrounds and the passion for all things green, which includes both philosophy and food. There is equanimity here.
In Vermont, wherever you turn, you drink up beauty like rich milk, and feel its wholesome strength seep into your sinews.
Threescore: The Autobiography of Sarah N. Cleghorn, 1936
Our attraction to things local seems endless throughout Vermont and includes farmers’ markets, restaurants, and country stores. Our recent trip was to the magnum opus of local, the Vermont Cheesemakers Festival. What a fête it was, hosted on the beautiful grounds of Shelburne Farms with Lake Champlain and the Adirondacks for its stunning backdrop. With a canvas like this, we knew we would be in for a treat.
The Vermont Cheesemakers Festival
We arrived as the event opened and discovered it immediately bustling with visitors. Though the festival was crowded, we still managed to catch up with fellow cheese aficionados from home – Richard Auffrey, Jennifer Ede, and Jane Ward. We also had the chance to meet and chat with the knowledgeable Nancy Gilman from Provisions International, a regional distributor that works with many Vermont producers.
The event consisted of a vast array of tables staffed by many Vermont cheese artisans and purveyors, along with a few “flatland” participants from Massachusetts, Rhode Island and New York. There were so many wonderful and diverse cheeses to sample. Though some of the more familiar, widely available cheese producers were present (Blue Ledge Farm, Cabot Creamery, Jasper Hill Farm and Vermont Butter & Cheese Creamery), we decided to focus our attention on lesser-known artisans, some of whose work we had experienced and others we had not.
Artisans & Purveyors
Aside from cheese, we also enjoyed meeting and speaking with many other passionate, hardworking, dedicated Vermonters who were proud to share their local provisions, some of which we’ve enjoyed before, some we’d heard about, and some we discovered for the first time. This included the many non-cheese artisans presenting breads, crackers, jams, syrups, brownies, candies, condiments, wines, beers, spirits, and meats.
What a rich and rewarding experience it was to listen to personal, hardscrabble stories of why, where and how these craftsmen do what they do. Such stories help connect us not only their products and Vermont, but also to New England. We look forward to following them closely as they continue to refine their crafts.
On the ride home we discussed the festival and other things that make Vermont an interesting destination. We reexamined weekend highlights, food favorites, and interesting people. Even after many, many trips to the Green Mountain State, we realized that there is still so much yet to explore not only from a food perspective, but a historical and recreational standpoint as well.
Fortunately, we always manage (figuratively) to bring a bit of Vermont home with us, and this weekend was no exception. Even better was that we did manage (literally) to bring home some excellent cheese, beer, and other foodstuffs.
OK, full disclosure (in case you haven’t read our story): The Two Palaverers was the name of a tavern in colonial Boston. Though The Two Palaverers is no longer with us, more than a few colonial taverns still dot the New England landscape. Many of the remaining ones are tastefully preserved, but their taps have run dry.
Fortunately, the contemporary New England brew scene is far from running dry. Recently, we had a chance to visit the American Craft Beer Fest at the Seaport World Trade Center in Boston. Our intent was to taste every New England brew we could find. Though we’ve been hunting down craft beers for years, we had the pleasure of being chaperoned by our brother-in-law from Vermont, one of the most passionate craft beer guys we know. We used to think he came down to visit us because he enjoyed Massachusetts, but soon realized it was all a front as he was really just looking for an excuse to get to Andover Liquors, one of the better craft beer retailers in New England.
Here’s the summary: all six New England states are brewing – and brewing well. There is, fortunately, no uniform style. We found IPAs, porters, stouts, lagers, wheat beers, summer ales, etc. If you like your hops beyond the level of an IPA, you’ll have choices there, too. New England beer is like New England herself: historic, diverse, and never boring.
We’d also like to call-out and thank fellow New Englanders Jason and Todd Alström, founders of BeerAdvocate. These brothers, in our opinion, are doing great things not just for New England brewing but for beer in general. In addition to running an informative web site, BeerAdvocate hosted the American Craft Brew Fest. They also wrote one of the best pieces on New England beer that we’ve read. Thanks guys.
-The Two Palaverers
Here is a sampling of New England brewers at the Craft American Brew Fest: