Polenta smooth as softened butter with sausage crisp, tender and sharp. Thick-sliced ham with collard greens, biscuits and pickled cabbage. An apricot scone, somehow soft, warm and lightly dry, with butter and honey on the plate — we broke it into pieces with our fingers and dipped it in.
On a Sunday afternoon in January, I fulfilled two wishes with one scone: My sister and my brother-in-law came to brunch with me at the Prairie Whale in Great Barrington. We were sitting at a long wooden table, taking time over cups of coffee and cream and listening to the rain drumming on the roof. This side room by the bar had planked walls and windows set high under the eaves, giving it a pleasant feel of dairy barns. Cobs of popcorn hung from broad iron rings, and a shelf over the windows held a long line of bottles. It was a comforting place on a raw winter day.
I’ve been hearing good things about the Prairie Whale for months — even a recommendation from Ruth Reichl when I had the luck to interview her in December for the Berkshire Festival of Women Writers. My mother had found and passed on to me a recent New York Times article about three Brooklyn chefs opening restaurants up here, including Mark Firth, who opened the Prairie Whale in 2012 and serves pork, chicken, lamb and eggs from his own farm. So I’ve wanted to try it.
And why the second part of the wish? Because my sister has just finished her medical residency in San Fransisco and begun a new job in the Bay area. She hasn’t been able to visit me here since the summer before she started med school, when I had just moved back here myself, and my brother-in-law has not been out this way in many years. This is the first time I’ve had a chance to show the two of them some of what I love about living here.
They flew in early Friday morning and walked into the living room of the house I moved into just before the holidays. We sat on my housemate’s futon, laughing at her cat and talking in waves with that punch-drunk feeling of arrival — when you see people you love in a new place — I can’t believe we’re all standing here. Last night you were 3,000 miles away listening to the street noises near Haight-Ashbury, and you could have walked to the Pacific as quickly as I can walk to the Pine Cobble trailhead. Two days before Christmas this room was a sea of boxes. How does the world shift so fast?
They drank coffee and ate whole wheat bread I’d just taken out of the oven, and we spent that day quietly, ambling through Wild Oats and coming home with the makings of roast chicken and butternut squash risotto. We talked about the new Star Wars while my sister stirred the rice and Dar Williams sang over the speakers.
Saturday morning saw us in North Adams, sharing Assembly Coffee at Oh, Crêpe. It’s a quiet, comfortable space tucked into an antique shop, and the crêpes come in a rich variety of flavors and combinations with local ingredients even in midwinter. The antiques eddy into the restaurant area, and the walls are lined with bookshelves. Laura took down a book and began reading a history of leaves. Jay sampled a mountainous savory crêpe filled with eggs and cheese and spinach, and I tried the Mistletoe, the December crêpe of the month, with Nutella and slivered almonds, dired cranberries and mint — like a supercharged melting Cadbury fruit and nut bar.
Full and warm, we wandered into Lickety Split at Mass MoCA to listen to the music jam. Local musicians gather here on Saturday mornings — fiddles, guitars, mandolins and banjos, concertina and accordion, flutes and whistles, an Irish bodhran and a standing bass … Readers of my old By the Way column in the Eagle will know I play contradance recorder here whenever I can. Today I brought friends instead of instruments, and we listened to Quebeçois reels and fast waltzes and talked about the old Star Wars films in the pauses. (This jig may be ‘Hundred Pipers.’ Do you really think there’s no hope anyone will remake the first three movies? There must be all kinds of people like us who want them to … wait, I know this one. I think it’s ‘Pays de Haut.’ I used to love this one in college, because I could play it at fiddle tempo. That high harmony is the Irish flute …)
Jay asked how I knew these people, and I told him about the contradance band I found in college at the end of a tough year, and how they taught me for the first time to play music in a group. Music like this was new to me. It comes out of an oral tradition like jazz, blues, klezmer, bluegrass, and playing becomes an informal exchange, an intricate game. Live music has a warmth and responsiveness and flow,. It can absorb you. If I had any skill at a team sport I think it could feel like that — to be one in a group of people all thinking and feeling the same beat. It’s like the kind of conversation that takes away any sense of time.
The musicians began to pack up, and we saw the afternoon was waning. We three turned in to the museum. Many of these shows I’ve written about, and now I had a chance to stroll through them with people who had no preconceived ideas about them. We came up to Clifford Ross’s massive mountainscape photograph printed on thin sheets of wood, and we stood close enough to see the tree rings. The buildings on the lake shore waver like watercolors. Around the corner, we compared the liquid and solid feel of the foam and crashing water in his images of hurricane waves.
Talking through a show often brings it to life for me in new ways — and sometimes shows me what I wish for. We enjoyed the explosive pages at the entrance to Bibliotechaphilia and browsed through the comments in the margins of Jonathan Gitelson’s books. He gathered the books from local used bookstores, and the messages he found in them could be triumphant, terrified and even suicidal. I remembered some he told me about — a young women writes “I love math” in an algebra book. A child calls out that she afraid her mother is starving herself. A young man looking for his life’s work writes: “I will sing solo gospel and music focused on healing and empowering, lifting up men, brotherhood and gay male relationships.”
When this exhibit opened last winter, I talked with Gitelson and with with the curator, Alexandra Foradas, and they made me curious. It’s an exhibit about libraries in the 21st century, about a public space that can create intimate encounters between people … or between people and books. Laura and Jay and I are all bibliophiles. (Witness the number of boxes of books I’ve just moved across the county. We stopped counting around 40.)
The space Gitelson is exploring fascinates me: Intense feeling in a margin, someone crying out silently. He has collected books with powerful examples and encouraged people to find more and mark them. His work still draws me more than the rest. (For me the films actively work against the themes Forderas told me she wanted to develop.) But after a year in this show, many of Gitelson’s books have bookmarks without any explanation marking pages without writing, and when you have turned to a dozen or more even a bibiophile may grow puzzled and withdraw. The show could easily have encouraged visitors to play with the books and given them ways to do it. Choose a book you know and find a part you like; mark it and tell us why in a sentence. Find a passage underlined in a book: Write a Haiku using three words in it. They could offer pencils to go with the blank bookmarks — or a chalkboard, or a tablet. Gitelson told me he meant people to get involved with this work over time. Hundreds of people must have seen the show this year — and if they could have responded in ways we could see, this work could have grown.
Laura and Jay and I stood in a gallery of photographs, Liz Duchenes’ ‘Artist’s Choice” exhibit, gemoetries and abstractions and people. The young girl in the image beside me looked lost and sad. The window looked out at the Hoosic River and the brick bread oven. The sky grew overcast, and we walked slowly through the saturated colors in the Sol Lewitt abstracts, showing each other the signs asking people in many languages not to touch the walls, and the walkways and old brick and scintillae of the old mills. In all the years this show has been here I have never looked more closely at the variations in his patterns — the color block geometry stands out from the cross-hatch shading, irregular dark shapes like black holes or spider-web lines in many light colors, turning white walls into dizzying and almost invisible patterns.
We left not long before the museum closed and headed to another center of old mills to do something I’ve wanted to do for years: introduce Laura and Jay to Elizabeth’s. This place feels to me like the essence of Berkshire. It’s an old mill house with electric blue trim in the middle of Pittsfield mill territory. The Italian-inspired menu brims with gusto and conversation — I still love that woman more than tomatoes in August … And it’s one of the few places in the Berkshires where you need a reservation — and where, at least in summer, I’ve actually been unable to get one.
We began with a gentle red wine and a generous bowl of salad to share … real lettuces, cheeses and winter fruit tossed deftly in a vinegrette … and warm whole wheat sourdough bread, the bagna coada — hot bath — of olive oil, butter, anchovies and salt to dip it in, and a lightly sweet and salty Spanish onion. Then we passed around the entrees, elegant comfort food: lasagna, puttanesca (pasta with olives, garlic and spicy tomato sauce) and a Mediterranean take on shepherd’s pie — beef, eggplant, spices, rice, a tangy yogurt.
Laura and Jay enjoy good food and good wine and good character. They used to live in Brooklyn, and they used to know the small restaurants in their neighborhood where the owner might stop at their table or the ice cream was made with real steeped mint. Now when I visit they take me to the yogurt shop connected with a dairy outside the city and to the Robert Burns dinner at the Pelican Inn, where the carved screen comes from a pub in England. I have wanted for a long time to return the favor. We linger over wine and coffee and brownies in a glow. And in case it’s not yet clear, it isn’t about showing off; it’s about making them welcome. Laura and I have always been close, and the telepathy still works fairly well, even on opposite coasts. And Jay is a friend. I want to share this place for the same reason I like seeing close friends of mine from different worlds meet each other. Because they matter to me. Because they’ll drive me home in the rain with John Prine on the radio.
On Sunday morning, the Word X Word Festival had invited me to an event at the Norman Rockwell Museum. Word X Word has chosen a group of poets to present poems as part of the annual 10×10 Festival in Pittsfield in February, and I’m one of them. Each of us has gotten as prompts three of Norman Rockwell’s 323 Saturday Evening Post cover paintings.
We all came to the museum on Sunday to draw three prompts randomly and to read some of our work. It’s a diverse group in ages, backgrounds and experience, and a compassionate one, and I listened to teenagers talking about friendship, a college woman talking about a restaurant when the power went off, a father talking about his daughters … and felt warmed and very lucky.
My own people met me as the event wound down, and we went in to Great Barrington quietly in the driving rain for our farmhouse late breakfast.
And two hours later, here we were at our table with the rain drumming on the roof, talking as though we could keep off the time when they would have to drive away.