“Somebody in a red suit of mackinaw cloth and a wool hat is on the pond, fishing through the ice for pickerel. In winter pickerel tend to lose their somewhat muddy taste.”
On a winter night some time ago, friends gathered at Elizabeth’s in Pittsfield for a celebration, and as Tom Ellis, the proprietor, began thoughtfully explaining the specials, he added an extra: Henry Beston. This is Berkshire living at the core. You sit at a long table on the second floor of an old mill house with electric blue trim, waiting for the giant salad and pasta putanesca and Mediterranean shepherd’s pie — and the boss offers you a well-read paperback book.
Tom and his wife, Elizabeth, run the restaurant, and he often checks in with people at the tables as they pore over the menu (and enjoy the flavor text. I still love that woman better than tomatoes in August …) He heard us talking about books and writers and told us about his favorite. When we were sharing appetizers around the table, dipping sourdough bread into olive oil and anchovies, he came back with one of his own favorite books and read aloud to us.
This kind of gusto is one reason Elizabeth’s comes high on the list of places where I bring visiting friends. (Tender flakes of salmon with asparagus and mashed potatoes are another. Or melting brisket with eggplant and rice and a dollop of yogurt sauce. Inventiveness and freshness together.)
Henry Beston wrote The Outermost House about a year at the edge of Cape Cod, and he wrote the opening lines above in Northern Farm: A Chronicle of Maine. My mother gave me the first, the one Tom told us to read, but the second is the one I can find by my desk today.
I open it to follow Beston on a train north from New York to his Lincoln County farm on the Penobscot, where the neighbors have lit the wood stoves to welcome him home. It is winter there and then, too. Standing in his barn door on a January evening in 1948, he is listening to ice freeze on the pond. As the water changes state, it shifts in its bed and creaks along the scale.
A dozen years later at the top corner of Connecticut, Hal Borland sat by his wood stove or stood by his wood pile and listened to blue jays teasing the squirrels. In North Country Harvest, he sets out the joke: A jay would give an alarm call, scattering squirrels and birds from the feeder or the corn crib — and then the jays would fall on the food, jeering. He has also heard a jay sing alone in the woods, soft and tentatively.
How have I lived 38 years without seeing a jay play tricks on a squirrel? And It’s been years since I skated on a frozen pond. I remember the prisming of the ice and the way the light sank into it, so that if I fell and looked closely into the pond surface as I pushed myself up again, the ice between my wet mittens seemed to sink away indefinitely in tiny lighted chambers.
A variation on this post ran in my former By the Way blog at the Brekshire Eagle. I am updating it here after a recent return to the restaurant.