Search This Blog

Friday, October 29, 2021


Scenes from Childhood Dept.: Here's a  re-run which first appeared here in 2009, but was initially published in Metroland Magazine in 1986, before it went all alt-weekly.


A KID UNDERSTANDS the importance of tracking down the neighborhood ghouls. The kid knows (as parents don’t) that those ghouls exist. It’s just a matter of finding them.

We had a witch on our street. I don’t know if we really saw her as someone who consorted with bats and such, although the movie “The Three Lives of Thomasina” gave witches a pretty good image. But we convinced ourselves that this lady was at least gently malevolent—and she certainly added a tinge of excitement to my afternoons.

It was our after-school ritual to tramp through the woods behind the houses on my street, back in a time before my Connecticut town annexed itself to New York City and lost its woodland to developers. Next-door neighbor Kenny, my brother, and I built primitive shelters and hacked at the bark of trees.

We discovered, on a neighbor’s property, an abandoned car. It sat in a woodsy corner of an otherwise immaculate lot, a hulk with the squatty wheelbase and sloped top of a vehicle in an old gangster movie, pale blue where any paint survived. At first we just sat in the smelly old thing, imagining it to be a limo or rocket or time machine. Than we got more rambunctious. I jumped on the roof, enjoying the bouncy resilience of the metal. My brother broke the windows, delighted with the reticulation of the old safety glass. Kenny peed on the engine.

Our games got noisy and attracted the property’s owner. She came after us waving a stick, like the lady on the old Dutch Cleanser can, careening across a quarter-acre of fresh-trimmed lawn to flush us from her rotting car.

We fled, in terror and giggles. Of course she was a witch! It wasn’t our noise that had attracted her, but a sixth sense or a crystal ball. The stick she wielded was a spell-casting wand. The car was a trap . . . .

Monday, October 25, 2021

Pastoral Song

JAMES REBANKS SNEAKS UP ON YOU. His prose is colorful and decisive. He’s writing about nature, which encourages lavish description, but he’s writing about the indignities humans have imposed on nature, which encourages hand-wringing. He does neither. He is a documentarian sharing a first-person farming experience in such a way that broader truths are easily perceived, and he is hopeful enough to keep it from seeming too apocalyptic.

Pastoral Song is Rebanks’s third book, following The Shepherd’s Life and The Shepherd’s View, both of which earned him deserved praise. Pastoral Song was published last year in the U.K as English Pastoral and promptly hit the best-seller lists. That in itself is hopeful, as this book takes aim at the horrific consequences of industrial farming, something that can be reversed only if enough people understand how they can participate in that change.

The story starts on a farm in the north of England, where a very young Rebanks learns to work the fields and livestock alongside his grandfather, a man who held new farming technologies in disdain. “There was something about working the land on foot behind a horse that seemed to make him see the world differently from the way later generations would see it from a powerful tractor. My grandfather knew our fields as if they were extensions of his body.”

It’s a portrait of his grandfather’s farm, but it’s also a portrait of England as an agricultural nation, struggling to keep up with 20th-century changes. “Time seemed to slow down around my grandad,” writes Rebanks, “He believed in watching carefully and taking time with his animals.” It’s a farm populated with the cows and sheep that Rebanks’s father and grandfather are managing, but it also boasts plenty of other fauna and flora that thrive in the wild. Not all of them benevolent, of course – there’s a passage describing the struggle to take down thistles using sickle and scythe – but all existing together in a natural and important harmony.

Friday, October 22, 2021

The Main Events

From the Food Vault Dept.: The restaurant visit described below took place twenty years ago. It turns out that the space we visited has seen a tumult of eateries within, going back at least to the 1970s, when it was the Capitol Restaurant. In 1997 it became Zoie’s; three years later it became Fifty-Five Main, but that lasted only two years, at which point it became Milan at 55 Main, under which aegis it had a six-year run. In 2008 it started an eleven-year run as The Hub, until Mark Meehan and Debra Morandi bought it and renamed it the Capitol, as which it still operates ... but the place is for sale. Here’s what we found there in 2001.


WITH THAT ARRAY of once-dark factory buildings now bustling with light and art as the Massachusetts Museum of Contemporary Art (Mass MoCA), the old industrial town of North Adams, Mass., is easing back to life. It couldn’t be a more pleasant drive than now, with colorful trees accompanying your journey past Troy and through Williamstown, and the museum has so much to offer that your afternoon will be well filled.

The property at 55 Main, in a
much more recent view.

Then you’ll want something to eat.

The short stretch of Main St. is a short walk from the museum, and tucked away in the storefronts, between an excellent used book store and a small live-performance theater, is a restaurant whose name is its address, 55 Main. Ray Arsenault quit the computer business to open the place, and he bustles between the bar and the door, greeting and seating, making sure folks feel welcome and happy.

As befits a restaurant in a town newly defined by art, the place is decorated with an array of sculpture and design. Make sure you check out the kitchen area, in full view of the floor, to see the unique design elements there, protecting chef Susannah Warren.

Tables are small and undraped with linen, which works just fine – they’re handsome and fit well with the design. The menu, too, is sleek and brisk, with a good array of New American offerings.

Monday, October 18, 2021

Norwegian Rhubarb

“NORWAY BECAME OIL-RICH in the 1970s, so our view of the country is as a prosperous place on the right side of human rights,” said Darra Goldstein, introducing a talk about Norwegian culinary practices. “But before that they were seen as poor, and the Swedes and Danes looked down on them.”

We were assembled at the Lunder Center at the Clark Art Institute in Williamstown, Mass., at an array of tables where each place was set with a slice of rhubarb Tosca cake. Darra Goldstein is Professor of Russian, Emerita at Williams College and founding editor of Gastronomica: The Journal of Food and Culture, which was named the 2012 Publication of the Year by the James Beard Foundation.

She also currently serves on the Kitchen Cabinet of the Smithsonian’s National Museum of American History and on the Advisory Board of the Julia Child Foundation for Gastronomy and the Culinary Arts. She’s been a featured speaker at the institute many times before, and this time was tasked with tying in a look at Norway’s food with the Clark’s exhibition of the art of Norwegian painter (and farmer) Nikolai Astrup.

“It’s a difficult country to farm,” Goldstein said. “Only three percent of the land is arable. Many farmers concentrate on raising cows and goats for dairy products – I’m sure you’re familiar with Jarlsberg, which is the least interesting of their cheeses – while many more make a living from the sea.”

Friday, October 15, 2021

The Immortal Story

Early in the summer of 2021, I had the pleasure of crafting a new libretto for a one-act opera titled “The Ship’s Captain.” It was originally created in around 1820 by Carl Blum, a German composer, who in this case borrowed the pastiche style of “The Beggar’s Opera” and set lyrics to what would have been well-known tunes. I kept the tunes but had to craft all-new lyrics for this delightfully silly tale of two sisters competing for the hand of a man they’ve yet to meet, even as they flirt with his supposed emissary. Here’s one of the songs, a trio exploring the lessons of mythology. The singers are soprano Yvonne Trobe, baritone Charles Eaton, and mezzo-soprano Joelle Lachance, performing with the Musicians of Ma’alwyck, recorded live at Hyde Hall in Cooperstown on Jun 25, 2021.

Monday, October 11, 2021

Franking, My Dear

From the Tech Vault Dept.: I had a brief run of tech-oriented articles in Metroland magazine, Albany’s alt-weekly for which I wrote for some three decades, and this is one such piece. Over the twenty years since it was published, the technology has changed – but not much. At least at my end. I’m still using, still getting postage out of a Dymo printer, but it sure isn’t costing 34 cents for a first-class letter. And thanks to the reign of Louis DeJoy, a once-efficient postal service now struggles.


COMPUTER CONVENIENCES have come into their own with the Internet as a driving force. Online buying made the news over the holidays, but it goes well beyond that with online research, online entertainment and such online oddities as recovering lost money, paying bills, managing group projects – even buying checks and tracking bank and credit card accounts.

And, although e-mail is fast and convenient, not everyone is online. That’s why I’m using the Internet to buy postage. Mailing a letter to any address in the United States for merely 33 cents – make that 34 cents – is still a bargain. Snail mail? Not compared to some postal services in Europe and Asia. The U.S. Post Office’s service is impressively reliable (that’s a lot of mail they’re moving) and you can pay extra for the peace of mind of express delivery and/or a return receipt.

The most economical way to purchase that postage is over the counter (or from a machine) at a post office or other stamps-friendly outlet (friendly means not slapping a surcharge on the sale). The most convenient way is with a postage meter, but they’re expensive. You have to rent the meter, buy postage, and have the meter reset at the post office.

Friday, October 08, 2021

Russian Hours

From the Classical Vault Dept.: I’m not sure if this piece ever actually ran in Metroland – CD reviews, at least from me, wafted in an editorial limbo for a while – but I’m assigning the date on which it probably would have appeared. Although the likes of Beethoven and Mozart have warranted box sets of their complete works, to collect all of Prokofiev requires diligence. The sets reviewed below are helpful components.


ALTHOUGH THE RECENT Bard Summerscape Prokofiev festival offered plenty of reasons to continue to celebrate that composer’s music, I’ve never required any extra excuse. Prokofiev managed the difficult feat of writing forward-thinking, challenging works livened with appealing melodies, fascinating rhythms, instrumental combinations that are surprising and satisfying and an old-fashioned sense of architectural cohesion. In short: great stuff.

Sergei Prokofiev
His seven symphonies – eight, if you count that fact that he re-worked number four and both versions remain in the repertory – could not be more varied. His first was a jewel-like tribute to Haydn, but sporting characteristically wide-leaping themes. The second, inspired by Beethoven, is a theme and variations of such fury that it’s like being stuck in a room with someone shouting at you. By 1944, the time of his fifth symphony, he’d stayed away from the form for several years and, influenced by the war, he wrote a sweeping, unsettling work that has become the most popular of his symphonies.

The popularity of number five unfairly overshadows the equally appealing sixth, while the final symphony, composed a year before Prokofiev’s death in 1952, returns to the more simple world of the first.

Monday, October 04, 2021

Road to Glynwood

From the Fields and Forests Dept.: A few days ago I posted a review of Laura Lengnick’s book Resilient Agriculture. Here’s a follow-up piece about her recent activities.


LAURA LENGNICK IS, among many other pursuits, a soil scientist who has put in over 30 years of work as a researcher and policy maker, a teacher and, most especially, a farmer, whose focus is on sustainability in agriculture and, therefore, food systems. Research for her book Resilient Agriculture (reviewed here) took her throughout the country to see how other farmers were coping with problems of climate and economics; now she’ll be taking this experience to New York’s Hudson Valley as she becomes the Director of Agriculture at Glynwood in September.

Laura Lengnick

Glynwood, based in Cold Spring, NY, is a farm with a mission is to help small- and mid-sized farmers in the Hudson Valley and beyond by strengthening agricultural communities and regional food systems – including the re-regionalization of the U.S. food system as a whole.

Lengnick is based in Asheville, North Carolina, “so the plan is that I’ll be living and working at Glynwood for about 18 months to learn the farm and feel it through all the seasons,” she said, speaking from her home. “I’ll get to build relationships with both the staff and in the agriculture community. Then at some point I’ll head back to Asheville and do the job from there.”

Although there would seem to be a great deal of difference between the two areas, Lengnick finds a great deal of commonality where food and agriculture are concerned. “Asheville has a very active local food movement, with local farming and lots of organizations promoting healthy eating and connecting from the farm to the plate. But then in some ways they’re really different. Each of them has its own culture and landscape.”

Friday, October 01, 2021

Wintry Market Mix

From the Food Vault Dept.: What’s encouraging is that, thirteen years later, almost all of the winter farmers’ markets detailed below are still in operation.


IT’S MORE THAN GOURDS AND COLLARD GREENS. Winter produce is tough-skinned stuff, those spaceship-like spears of Brussels sprouts perhaps the most emblematic. And while it’s true that these are good things to eat and you celebrate the season by eating them, you’ll find much more than cold-weather comestibles at those farmers markets that choose to run through the winter.

The phenomenon of these markets has been considerable and impressive, not only offering consumers fresh, locally grown items but also presenting the growers themselves. And bakers. And cheesemakers. And craftspeople.

Nothing beats being able to admire a loaf of bread and while you’re learning its provenance. For some, an accurate ingredients list is vital. For some, there’s a wonderful sense of community in the act of eating locally grown and/or assembled stuff.

The number of local farmers markets has exploded, giving us an unprecedented warm-weather bounty. I’m sure you’ve seen it: booth after booth of vegetables, fruit, meat, cheese, honey and milk, along with artisan products like crafts, sauces, jam, clothing – anything made by hand.