Yankee sampler

In search of ingredients: turnips, granite, green and white mountains, blue house paint, rectitude

Email|Print| Text size + By Pippin Ross
Globe Correspondent / November 2, 2003

RUTLAND, Vt --It recently occurred to me that I am a Yankee. This dawned on me while crossing the street in the tourist town of Stockbridge, Mass., where I live. Someone with out-of-state plates (I won't name the state) seemed determined to run me over. How did this event make me a Yankee? My reaction. I didn't yell, or create a scene, city-style. Instead, I stood very still in the middle of the crosswalk, bringing the car to a screeching halt. Deep in my gut I felt a stubborn dignity as intractable as a piece of New Hampshire granite. Its message? Don't mess with a woman whose ancestors cleared hardwood forests and built stone fences -- a sentiment relayed to the driver in withering fashion, without uttering a word.

The thing to understand is that until that moment, I didn't know I possessed a single bone of rectitude. I cannot imagine anyone I know describing me as having granite-like dignity. I guess there's no messing with DNA. Mine is as thick as the pea soup we stoically consumed as children, bubbling from a long line of people from Boston and, before that, Scotland.

As much as I liked my moment of heretofore unrealized dignity, I wondered: Does being a Yankee imply that I am also a buttoned-down curmudgeon, the way ''outsiders" tend to see us? To plumb this question, I plotted a trip to places I consider indelibly Yankee: Goshen, Vt.; Bar Harbor, Maine; and Salem, Mass. Just for sport, I brought along my friend Glenn, who is, among other things, a gay bodybuilder. I also wanted to test the stereotype that Yankees are intolerant, and he was game. Based on my experiences as an entrenched New Englander, if we can survive protracted winters, weeks of gray days, and seven months without fresh produce, we are the most tolerant people on the planet.

One thing you know for sure as a Yankee is that New England, despite its relatively small showing on a map, is a very big place. This was never more apparent than when I was released from a Bonanza Bus in Rutland after a 4-hour trip from western Massachusetts. Glenn had flown from Provincetown. We were collected by Tony Clark, the owner of the Blueberry Hill Inn, a roll-with-the-punches kind of guy with a soft, disarming Welsh accent. Our half-hour trip on dirt roads to the 220-acre spread was at once knockout gorgeous and disturbing. Talk about the sticks. Even with my finely-tuned comfort with things rural, the dense hills, the endless fields, the complete lack of -- anything -- induced a low-grade panic. I was stuck way out here with a bodybuilder and a man who bakes cookies and makes bath salts? More than the sight of Blueberry Hill, a dignified 1813 farmhouse (yes, it was blue), it was Griffin, a lean, silky, black dog of dubious heritage, that made me feel at home.

We arrived famished. A good thing, since eating is a very big deal at Blueberry Hill. So much so that Tony just published a second book of the recipes his guests clamor for. (The first was ''Tony Clark's New Blueberry Hill Cookbook" by Arlyn Hertz [Blueberry Hill, 1990].) I have never thought of Yankees as passionate about food. Like canning, clearing fields, and building root cellars, it's a matter of survival. But at Blueberry Hill, I tapped into a relationship with Yankee food I had never acknowledged. Butter and cream are very important to us. In summer we eat fresh tomatoes broiled in butter. Summer squash is served with sauteed onions and sour cream. We eat lobster and corn drowned in butter, followed by a dessert of fresh peaches or raspberries swimming in heavy cream and sprinkled with sugar. Sunday lunch is roast beef surrounded by potatoes deep brown from their basting with beef drippings -- our euphemism for fat. That meal is followed by vanilla ice cream with hot chocolate sauce that hardens on impact. Sunday evening, you ''fend for yourself" (a very Yankee term). We have a palate for foods that most people dodge, like beets, Brussels sprouts, and turnips. Our evening meal is never, ever referred to as dinner. It's supper.

At Blueberry Hill's supper, we were served tiny lamb chops. My hidden little Yankee aberration is that I don't like lamb. Although, like with pea soup, I stoically consumed it with mint sauce at most childhood functions -- that is, when we weren't eating roast beef. But Glenn ate his chops ravenously and he's on a wicked bodybuilder diet, so I did as well, peppering both my lamb and then Tony the proprietor with what it means to be one of us. ''Coming here for me was the same motivation as every other Yankee:It was the promised land," Clark said. ''I booed and hissed at the sight of out-of-state plates. Our goal was to can and freeze, and tap every . . . tree we could find. Turned out the hospitality trade was the trade-off for living here." Which brings to mind another Yankee expression: ''Make hay while the sun shines." Which those of us who live here know does not always happen.

Clark managed his resistance to outsiders by taking pleasure in watching the city people show up ''white-knuckled on Friday night" and seeing how fast they calmed own. Needless to say, cocktail hour is an important evening ritual, served with things like hot artichoke dip and baby gherkins, smoked fish, and homemade Boursin cheese. ''The outsiders are surprised to discover that being a Yankee doesn't mean sitting on a front porch being monosyllabic," Clark says.

''What's wrong with being monosyllabic?" I ask, my mouth jammed with hors d'oeuvres.

It was with some reluctance that we left Griffin, Tony Clark, and Blueberry Hill to catch a flight to Bar Harbor on Colgan Air. The annoying process of having our belongings rifled in airport security was promptly forgotten in flying over New England at 5,000 feet. I was comforted to see that our turf is still surprisingly unpopulated and achingly beautiful. Even traffic-tangled Boston appears draped in nature. Flying onto the scattered jigsaw puzzle of Maine's coastal topography, I was perturbed that for all the years I have lived in New England, I had not explored this incredible land. We went instantly to Acadia National Park, a place that made me say, ''God, this is sooooo beautiful" ad nauseam. The only nauseam to be found were the phalanxes of tourists. Though I know nothing about Maine, I felt only possessiveness over what we Yankees like to call our neck of the woods.

On the surface, the vibe of coastal Maine does a great deal to reinforce the ''cranky Yankee" stereotype. People are polite, but unfailingly aloof. After checking into The Balance Rock Inn, a huge, gray clapboard robber baron mansion poised above Frenchman's Bay, Glenn and I pursued a ''to each his own" Yankee-type independence. He glued himself to his e-mail and cellphone; I headed off on a mission to explore the cultural charade that we are all a bunch of brittle Ethan Fromes. Wandering the rocky coastline, dipping into touristy Bar Harbor, I encountered warmth, kindness, and benevolent dogs beyond my wildest dreams. Yes, there were complaints: The winter is ruthless, it's hard to make a living, and lobsters -- to locals -- are ''bottom-feeding cannibals." Nosing around gift shops with their clever tchotchkes of shells and sea glass and brightly painted birdhouses, I understood we are not cheap -- we are thrifty and resourceful. I saw elderly women with supple spines down on their knees tending firework displays of perennials and fat, red tomatoes proffered by the short growing season. I saw men hosing down the decks of spotless fishing boats. I saw a sense of community as dense as cornbread.

At supper at the Blue Sage Bistro, I opted for what turned out to be a knock-your-socks-off lobster strudel with caramelized onions and Boursin cheese. In this display of culinary creativity, I acknowledged yet another Yankee trait: adaptability. Well beyond dressing up simple foods like cream cheese and herbs (Boursin) to appeal to the high-brow preferences of outsiders, our flexibility is apparent in all sorts of ways. For example, how we embraced tourism when whaling, then farming, and then manufacturing abandoned New England. We invented the potluck out of necessity. Now? It's considered a clever dinner-party motif. We understand the value of a mud room. We cling to a common language. Galoshes are boots. Andirons belong in the fireplace. We buy groceries. We never, ever refer to a couch as a sofa.

When people suggest Yankees are intolerant, I remind them that we ended up here in pursuit of religious freedom. This argument foundered a bit when Glenn and I hopped another Colgan flight to Salem. Talk about intolerance! Those poor witches and their ''if-you-drown-you're-not-a-witch" conundrum! On one of those dorky, albeit excellent, trolley tours through Salem, I learned that in the 1600s, a bunch of crops were infected with the fungus ergot, a hallucinogen. Hey! They made a mistake! Everyone was tripping.

In Salem it rained, reminding me of something else that truly distinguishes a Yankee: We need regular doses of dreary days. I wandered the streets, overcome by the carpentry skills of my forebears. Wainscoting and curving banisters. Carved molding and hand-hewed beams. I sniffed at Yankee scents: Real grocery stores that smell like leather and popcorn. Whiffs of the Atlantic Ocean laced with diesel. And in the Salem Inn, where we stayed, the hallways were resplendent with the commingling fragrances of enamel paint, wood smoke, and wool sweaters tucked into cedar chests.

Just before going home, Glenn and I visited the Peabody Essex Museum. Dedicated largely to maritime history, it has an impressive spread of Asian art and artifacts, which in the 1800s, were bought, bartered, and pilfered by sailors in a discount shopping frenzy. Glenn was entranced by the carved wooden ship figureheads that he said reminded him of ''guys I've seen in Provincetown." I was on a determined hunt to find the museum's famous dried leatherback turtle, which many years post-mortem still drips its precious oil. I asked a guard where it was. ''They got rid of it," he said sadly, in a distinct Down East accent. ''People didn't understand it. They didn't get its history."

Just like us Yankees, I thought. Hard shell. Soft and vulnerable insides. Frequently misunderstood, history notwithstanding.

Pippin Ross is a freelance journalist living in Western Massachusetts.

Blueberry Hill Inn

Goshen, Vt.

802-247-6735 or 800-448-0707

www.blueberryhillinn.com.

A restored 1813 farmhouse in the Green Mountains' Moosalamoo region. A dozen guest rooms ($125-$200). A full breakfast, hors d'oeuvres, and a four-course dinner are served daily, family style. The inn has 30 miles of groomed hiking and ski trails.

The Balance Rock Inn

Bar Harbor, Maine

207-288-2610, 800-753-0494

www.barharborvacations.com

www.barhbinns@aol.com.

A 1903 mansion built by the Scottish railroad tycoon, Alexander Maitland. Plush and opulent, it is separated from the ocean by a sweeping lawn. Breakfast and tea are served daily. Most rooms have fireplaces and Jacuzzis, $95-$625. Within walking distance to downtown Bar Harbor's shops and restaurants.

The Salem Inn

978-741-0680

www.saleminnma.com

Three stately19th-century homes on a quiet street in historic Salem. Rooms and suites have period detail and antiques, $139-$285. A continental breakfast is served daily.

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