Wednesday, April 1, 2015

Glastonbury | Spring

Spring officially arrived two weeks ago. (Whatever that means. It's not like the weather reads the calendar and reacts accordingly.) Last year, I vowed to hate spring less, and I'm sad to say that despite my best efforts I did not succeed. Spring in popular imagination involves pastel sweaters and little cartoon birds singing. Spring in Connecticut is not like that; it's cold, and damp, and muddy, and it stretches on far longer than it has any right to.

But yesterday, when I ventured out into the 30 degree morning to move my car to the opposite side of my street, I smelled it. Real Spring may not have the balmy days and ubiquitous budding flowers of Imaginary Spring, but it does have a scent. It smells like earth emerging tentatively from a blanket of snow, or a river just beginning to transform from ice to water again. It smells cold, but not like cold arriving; it smells like cold getting ready - very slowly - to leave.

So I decided to combine the errand I had to run in Glastonbury with a quick walk down Main Street. Glastonbury looks lovely in any season, but it wasn't exactly warm out. Sadly, nobody was wearing a pastel sweater. But there's still time. Maybe Imaginary Spring will show up next month.

Friday, March 13, 2015

Nutmeg Poisoning

It's been a while since I compiled a round-up of Connecticut bits and pieces. Here are some I've been saving up.

-The New York Times had a story on Connecticut's tearooms.

-And one on living in Wilton. ("To live happily in Wilton, you should enjoy driving.")

-Gawker got a lot of attention for publishing this stupid tirade about how nothing good comes from Connecticut. (I think someone needs an Edible Arrangement.)

-The New England Historical Society has a brief  guide to old New England taverns.

-The Colin McEnroe Show had a discussion about spices - including nutmeg, of course.

-It's not Connecticut-specific, but Yankee Magazine has a little history of New England house colors. (Some of these seriously need to be eyeshadow colors.)

-From i09, there's the story of when Daylight Saving Time was illegal in Connecticut.

-Town and Country lists 27 ways to know you're from Connecticut. By which they mean 27 ways to know you're a certain kind of person from an area that covers about 1/8 of Connecticut.

-Design Sponge has an updated guide to Litchfield. (For a New York-based site, they're pretty low on the Connecticut stuff. I pitched them a Quiet Corner guide once, but it went the way of all pitches about the Quiet Corner because no one outside of Connecticut wants to know about the Quiet Corner. More Quiet Corner for us!)

-And finally, on Instagram, I found a company that makes (among other adorably twee creations) Husky rings. (Speaking of Instagram, follow me there!)

Wednesday, March 11, 2015

New Britain (At Last)

True blog story: I have been trying to write a post about downtown New Britain for years. It's always been one of those places (Mine Hill in Roxbury was another) that seemed to be trying to foil me at every turn. Be it weather, or timing, or who knows what else, whenever I planned to do this post - even when I actually got as far as driving to New Britain with my camera - some inconvenience interfered and it couldn't be done.

UNTIL NOW. You might not be as excited about this as I am, but that's only because you didn't wait years to finally climb two feet up a snowbank to put coins in the meter at a New Britain parking lot and begin roaming the streets.

New Britain (with a few exceptions, notably the New Britain Museum of American Art) is part of what I think of as the bit of Connecticut we don't put in the tourist brochures. This small city, about ten miles southwest of Hartford, is what you might call rough around the edges. Actually it's a bit rough in the middle too. But it has managed to hold on to a particular kind of retro vibe that few towns in the Northeast still retain. There's something very 1950s about the center of New Britain, with its small storefronts, sturdy old buildings, and eccentric layout.

So if you ever come here to visit the NBMAA or the Rose Garden in Walnut Hill Park or "Little Poland," take a few minutes to stroll around the Downtown District (does anyone really call it that? I don't know) and pretend you've entered a little time warp.

Wednesday, March 4, 2015

Connecticut's One-Room Schoolhouses

I grew up practically down the street from an old one-room schoolhouse, but I didn't really care about them - or begin to notice them everywhere I went  - until I found this one while researching a travel story. Since then I've found schoolhouses all over Connecticut: in towns, in cities, and on rural roads. I've also become very fond of them - strange, perhaps, since I hated almost every minute of school from kindergarten to college.

Now, I think of these historic one-room (and sometimes technically larger) schools as a classic bit of Connecticut scenery, worth seeking out or at least stopping to appreciate when they turn up unexpectedly along your route.

Some of my favorites.

-State Hero Nathan Hale taught at two schoolhouses. In urban New London, the little red school named for him stands at the center of the city's downtown on the Parade across from the train, bus and ferry terminals. Thirty miles away, its counterpart in rural East Haddam stands alone on a grassy hill above a church. Both are maintained by the Sons of the American Revolution.

-In North Woodstock, the Red-White School is pull-over-and-stare adorable.

-Killingworth has one of Connecticut's largest collections of schoolhouses, but the mint green Union District Schoolhouse is a special one.

-And in Ledyard, where an impressive number of old schools have been preserved, the Geer Hill Schoolhouse is particularly sweet.

How to find schoolhouses.

Searching online for any town's name + "old schoolhouse" will frequently turn one up. (Except in some rare cases where you will instead find clubs playing old school house.)

Often, local historical societies own and care for schoolhouse buildings, so check their websites as well. Some simply keep the school building from falling down, but many offer programs for local children and sometimes for the public. Some schoolhouses have been put to creative use - one is now an art school in West Hartford, and another is a restaurant in Wilton. Many are private homes.

Sometimes, if the school is of particular interest to the town, it will be listed in the "history" or "visitors" section of that town's website.

If search engines and historical societies don't reveal any schoolhouses where you're heading, look for local history books at independent bookshops, museums, and in the "local" section at Barnes & Noble and other large bookstores. If you can't get to a store, try Google Books - just search for the town's name + school or schoolhouse.

Following a Schoolhouse Road will very occasionally yield a schoolhouse, but more often it won't; many have been torn down or moved over the years to more central locations for preservation.

In my opinion, though, schoolhouses are best when found by chance. Some good areas to do that are Ledyard and Killingworth, as mentioned above; country roads; older residential areas; and any part of town with a large concentration of historic houses and museums. A town where nothing of great import has happened since the 18th or 19th century is a good place to explore. And if you see a small white, red, or stone building, especially one with two doors, chances are it was once a school, even if it is no longer marked as such.

Schoolhouses were sometimes built in the center of a road. I've heard that this was a way of sparing good farmland, and/or that no one would dispute the ownership of such land. In any case, a small structure on the traffic island in the middle of an intersections is likely to have been a school.


Finally, if you're wondering about the school in the above photo, it's the Dr. Daniel Lathrop School on the green in the Norwichtown section of Norwich. In 1782, Lathrop left 500 pounds sterling to be used for a free grammar school. It was completed in 1783, and is one of Connecticut's oldest surviving brick schoolhouses - though there is another, very similar one nearby, known as the East District School, built just a few years later.

If you visit this school, a special bonus is the 1774 Joseph Carpenter Silversmith Shop next door. I've come across one or two blacksmith's shops in Connecticut before, but this is said to be the only remaining silversmith's shop in New England.

The other buildings facing the Norwichtown green, though much larger, are equally send-you-back-in-time lovely.

Wednesday, February 25, 2015

Snow and Books, 16

My very first Snow and Books post, back in February of 2013, was on the Insiders' Guide to Connecticut. (Go read that post for the Wallace Stevens quote, it's the best.) This time I'm huddled inside, cursing the weather for ruining all my plans, and reading the Insiders' Guide to the Connecticut Shore

Insiders' Guide is an imprint of Globe Pequot Press, in Guilford, and this edition's author, Doe Boyle, is described as "a lifelong resident of the Connecticut shore." Perhaps that's why I really, really like this guidebook. No, I'm serious. I'm not whiny and dismissive all the time. (If you know me in real life, stop smirking.)

The best thing about this guide may be simply that it covers every single town on the Connecticut coast, from Greenwich to Stonington, so no one is left out, even East Haven. It is also funny, with early history getting the brunt of the snark.

I only really disagreed with one statement in this book, the assertion that New Haven "sports a more sophisticated, cosmopolitan style" than Hartford. I can only assume that Boyle is simply much more familiar with coastal places than inland ones; she does, at least, know that "Stonington Borough is the most beautiful and evocative of all Connecticut shore towns."

Today I Learned: Greenwich is 29 miles from Times Square (I probably did know that, but thinking about it is always sort of mind-boggling, no?) and in 1644 its entire native population was massacred by combined English and Dutch forces. Stamford has a church shaped like a fish. Bridgeport has more designated historic districts than any other municipality in the state. Branford (of all places) does not allow out-of-towners on their "public" beaches in season. Flanders in East Lyme was so named because its cottage textile industry resembled those in Belgian villages.

Amusements: "In...Darien, the most exciting event to happen in a long time was the British raid on the parish church in 1781, when the Reverend Moses Mather and the men and boys of his congregation were carried right out of the services and carted off to prison for their Patriot sympathies." Rowayton has "funky establishments." (Next you'll tell me Cos Cob is edgy.) "Westport usually needs no is well known as the suburb of suburbs, with a dash of panache rivaled only by its imitators." "Let Waterford surprise you."

Listings: The book's focus is on beaches, boating, and nature, with a good amount of museums and a few unique shopping options thrown in. It includes two of the often ignored attractions that make me feel like I'm in good guidebook hands: Rocky Neck State Park and Fort Griswold Battlefield State Park.

Not that it takes much at this point, but this guide seriously made me long for summer. Though I'm a fan of Connecticut beaches in winter, there's something undeniably lovely about being on the water when it's 90 degrees out and you're drinking iced coffee and you're not wearing a massive scarf wrapped around your head. It also made me oddly nostalgic for things I didn't even particularly enjoy at the time, like fighting through the crowd for an overpriced salad at Firehouse Deli.

I rarely read guidebooks' dining and accommodations listings anymore, because, as I've said here before, they're almost always outdated and even if they weren't, it's becoming increasingly silly to depend on a physical book to tell you about restaurants and hotels. That's why it took me until New London (the towns are listed west to east) to realize that something was very wrong here. Namely, the suggestion to stay at the Lighthouse Inn. That was when I realized this book was copyrighted in 2006. Oops. (As my friend who also grew up in Westport said when I sent her the hilarious Westport section, which includes a line about the slim chances of sitting next to Paul Newman in a restaurant, "To be seated next to Paul now would indeed be astonishing.") This is not a problem if you're not reading the book for the listings. But it's somewhat of a waste to do what I did and pay $13.95 for a book that claims Clinton, where the outlet mall blasts announcements in multiple languages, is lacking in true tourist attractions. (I'm not aware of an updated edition, but maybe one is lurking out there.) Still, if you come across it for less or at the library, or if you're more interested in the timeless qualities of the shoreline, it's worth reading.

Aside from that problem, mentions of Westport's sidewalk sale, the Pequot Library's book sale, Point No Point in Stratford, Pine Orchard in Branford, and Waterford's old rope ferry are proof that Doyle really knows what she's talking about, which sadly is not a given in guidebooks.

I even came across some places that I'd never heard of or that had never caught my interest for whatever reason. Now on my list are the Greenwich Audobon Center, Cove Island Park in Stamford, the Life-in-Connecticut WPA murals at Norwalk City Hall, the trails around Lake Saltonstall, and Chaffinch Island Park in Guilford, among others.

Quote: "A connection with the sea is one not easily denied or forgotten."

Wednesday, February 18, 2015

All Together Now

One thing Connecticut loves to do, when we're not jogging in shorts in sub-zero temperatures or arguing about zoning, is to gather up a bunch of historic buildings as if they were so many ceramic figurines and display them all together in a collection.

In Waterford, pictured above, three buildings stand on Jordan Green, a.k.a. Jordan Park, on Rope Ferry Road. The former Waterford Library arrived on the plot of land (yes, there is land somewhere under all that snow and ice) in 1961. It now houses the offices of the Waterford Historical Society. In 1972 the 1740 Jordan Schoolhouse (the red structure) arrived, followed by the 1838 Beebe-Phillips House in 1974. There's also a corn crib. (I do love corn cribs.)

In East Hartford, Martin Park on Burnside Avenue holds an old blacksmith shop, schoolhouse, and historic house. The Historical Society of East Hartford offers tours.

Wilton just had to be better than everyone else and create two of these groupings of historic buildings. Lambert Corners on Danbury Road has nine super cute little structures, now mostly commercial buildings, and Cannon Crossing in the Cannondale section of town is a destination due to the Schoolhouse at Cannondale restaurant (yes, in an old schoolhouse) and shops like Penny Ha'Penny. The Wilton Historical Society leads walking tours.

Stratford's Boothe Memorial Park and Museum, which overlooks the Housatonic River, is the oddest and possibly the largest of these complexes. It has to be visited to be appreciated, but it includes an old Merritt Parkway tollbooth, a "technocratic cathedral," a railroad station, and chickens.

Norwalk's contribution to the oeuvre is the Mill Hill Complex or Mill Hill Historic Park on East Wall Street, which the Norwalk Historical Society calls a "preserved slice of 18th- and 19th-century Norwalk life." It features a wee law office and a cemetery, and special events are held on the grounds.

In Granby, the Salmon Brook Historical Society has corralled a tobacco barn, a mail hut, and a state line marker (among other things) onto their property on Salmon Brook Road. Flea markets and shows take place here, and its range of buildings make it one of my favorites.

And then, of course, there is the "ghost town" of Johnsonville in East Haddam. Johnsonville is different from the rest because 1) it's a failed tourist attraction and not a historical society or town park, and 2) you're not technically allowed to go there. But I count it because it highlights so nicely the absurdity of the drive to wrangle unrelated historic buildings into one spot.

You could argue that Mystic Seaport is the original, grand version of these comparably tiny attractions; the "Museum of America and the Sea" began importing historic buildings from across New England in the 1940s.

I'm not aware of any other such museum complexes (or, as I prefer to call them, little building collections), but I would not be surprised if at least a few more were hiding in plain sight in other Connecticut cities and towns.

Wednesday, February 11, 2015

How Like a Winter

I've been reading a lot of guidebooks recently. They all rank fall and summer as the best seasons to visit Connecticut. Some of them propose spring as a sort of lower-cost, underdog, alternative season. But winter? Pretty much all conclude that it's miserable and best left to the locals.

They have a point. It is pretty miserable, most of it, and the locals (including me) are just about ready to decamp to Florida. But I've always found that places reveal the most interesting sides of themselves in the seasons they are not expecting to be seen.

All of Connecticut's familiar summer things are still around in winter, if slightly transformed. The boats congregate in yards, hulking shrink-wrapped things out of their element. The sand is covered in white - never fully, but like a cake half draped in icing. The wind chimes still sing from porches, though there are fewer walkers on the streets to hear them. The benches and gazebos and Adirondack chairs are still there, partly obscured by snow drifts. Coves and ponds freeze over; the other day I drove out of Hartford and found the Connecticut River had become a field of snow.

Because the parking situation on my street is impossible when it snows more than a few inches, I've been spending a lot of time this winter on the shoreline. The weather is often a bit milder here, though the snowfall is sometimes greater, and the wind off the water can slice though all but the toughest winter clothes. I've been trying to imagine it through the eyes of someone from somewhere else, somewhere hot and blissfully season-less.

I wouldn't say Connecticut in February is for everyone. But some visitors will appreciate the beauty of a salt marsh biding its time beneath the ice and the loneliness of a waterfront inn abandoned until spring. Certain crazy, contrary travelers will appreciate the fact that when walking on un-plowed snow, you always get to blaze your own trail.

Wednesday, February 4, 2015

Snow and Books, 15

Yes, it's another snarky guidebook review. It had better stop snowing soon, I'm running out of guidebooks.

But if the weather is the bad news, the good news is that Fodor's New England, while reserving a scant 63 pages for Connecticut (Massachusetts: 218; Maine: 135) does, at least, understand what the Constitution State has to offer. That's a nice change from this guide, and this one, and this one.

I knew that Fodor's was not going to ruin my day as early as page 10, where Connecticut is summed up like this: "The densely populated southwest region contrasts with the sparsely populated northeastern Quiet Corner, known for antiquing. Small shoreline villages line the southeastern coast and are near a pair of casinos. The Connecticut River Valley and Litchfield Hills have grand old inns, rolling farmlands, and state parks." In the past I would have protested the lack of cities in this description, but at this point my expectations are so low that I was thrilled just to see a few accurate sentences.

Today I Learned: Lake Compounce, in Bristol, was the first amusement park in the nation, and Foxwoods is currently the largest resort casino in North America. Should I have known these little facts? Yes. But I didn't, until now.

Amusements: "Boston motorists are notorious for driving aggressively." (That's a classy way of putting it.)

Listings: The first thing this guide does right is not trying to be a history or sociology textbook. There's a very brief section on New England's economy, politics, and such, but after that it's all travel.

The second thing this book does relatively well is to understand what visitors to New England enjoy. "Quintessential New England" is defined as coastline, food, artisans, and fall foliage, which this guide takes very seriously indeed. Connecticut does get short shrift in the picks for top attractions, experiences, outdoor activities, and historic places. But because it's clear that this is a "curated" selection by Fodor's, not an attempt at an all-encompassing list, makes this feel less obnoxious. 

And we do feature twice in the collection of week-long itineraries, with a New Haven to Boston culinary tour and another that combines Connecticut wineries and Rhode Island mansions.

In the 63-page Connecticut section itself, this guide checks most of my boxes. Does it know what the Quiet Corner is? Yes: "The cultural capital of the Quiet Corner is Putnam...smaller jewels are Pomfret and Woodstock." Does it include scenic drives? Yes: Route 169 and the villages of Litchfield County are noted. Does it mention state parks beyond Hammonasset? Yes, sort of: several others are listed, though not my favorites (or those I'd send tourists to see.) Does it like Hartford? Yes: "The city is a destination on the verge of discovery." Are there any hilarious descriptions of the Gold Coast? Yes. And a warning: "Bring your platinum card."

BUT - and this is a big, giant, got-fat-eating-cookies-whilst-snowed-in-for-weeks BUT - New London is completely omitted. This is one of my personal Connecticut travel guide travesties. It's not just because I love the place; a lack of New London in a Connecticut guide indicates, to me, an inability to appreciate omnipresent history (as opposed to that confined to a museum), as well as a blind spot about up-and-coming destinations and small (and less wealthy) cities. Were it not for that, I would probably look to this book for inspiration the next time I go to northern New England.

Quote: "You can travel from just about any point in Connecticut to any other in less than two hours, yet the land you traverse - fewer than 60 miles top to bottom and 100 miles across - is as varied as a drive across the country."

Wednesday, January 28, 2015

Blizzard and Books, 14

I wouldn't ordinarily write two Snow and Books posts back to back, but my plans for blog and life got a little bit destroyed this week what with all the snow. So, instead of going out and taking pictures and writing about one of the many lovely places on my list, I stayed inside where it was (thankfully) warm and read a very large guidebook.

I wanted so badly to like this guidebook. Partly because I always want to see good writing about Connecticut, and to share it, and partly because when you're snowed in with a book, it's a much nicer experience when it's a book you enjoy. Sadly, Insight Guides' New England (Apa Publications), was not enjoyable. In fact it made me want to go outside, walk through the snow drifts to the nearest body of water, hack a hole in the ice, and hurl the volume towards certain death in the frigid deep.

This book is, at best, a guide to Massachusetts with a focus on Boston. (Much like some other general New England guides I've "reviewed" here.) Why its editors didn't just go ahead and publish a guide to Massachusetts with a focus on Boston, I do not know; instead they bit off more Northeast than they could chew, with results that I found embarrassing for them and their writers and outrageous for fans of the Constitution State.

But it's not just the lopsided coverage that turned me off. As I read, I started getting the sense that no one involved with this guide had ever really been to New England. One writer was described as a resident of Massachusetts (which could account for that state's dominance) but the other bios showed no evidence of familiarity with the area. (Insight Guides has a London address, and Apa is part of the Langenscheidt Publishing Group, a German company.) Some of this unfamiliarity is funny (I'll get to that below) but some is downright offensive; the section on newspapers omits the Hartford Courant, New England's "long history" of "protests" is illustrated with a photograph of two Boston police officers conversing with a man holding a sign on which is printed a rambling, anti-Semitic rant.

This is a shame because in its way, this book really does try. It has over 450 pages, with color photographs and an ambitious attempt to delve into the region's history. I would almost feel bad for those who created it, if I got the sense they ever imagined anyone from Connecticut - or anyone with access to Google - might pick up their guide.

Today I Learned: "Southern Connecticut" is an "urban center." (Quick, someone alert Old Lyme.) Connecticut's only specialty food worth mentioning is Paul Newman's "Newman's Own" line of salad dressings and sauces. New England is "rarely affected by hurricanes." (Quick, someone tell all those houses that keep falling into the Sound.)  At restaurants, "denim jeans are usually permitted if they are not obviously faded, worn, or patched." Paper money is, on rare occasions, issued in $2 bills. Car-jackings are "rare, but not unheard of." Route 7 passes through New London. (Quick, someone warn Kent.) And my very favorite piece of information, one which will no doubt cause me to cry with laughter whenever I drive south on 95 from this moment on: there is a place called "The Norwalks."

Amusements: I repeat: "The Norwalks."

Listings: First off, this book contains one of the longest "background" sections of any guide I've ever read. It really does try to cram hundreds - or thousands - of years of New England history into the minds of readers who probably just want to find a good beach town. It gets into politics, education, immigration, commerce, war, religion, I could go on. But, as is perhaps inevitable when aiming for detail in a form that practically demands generalities, it does this poorly. In a timeline of "decisive dates" that starts in 9000 BC, Connecticut is first alluded to in 1852 and first mentioned by name in 1954. Important groups of people (e.g. Native Americans living south of Massachusetts, and the Dutch) are left out. Witch Trials happened in Salem, not Hartford; early industrial innovations and the whaling industry bypassed Connecticut altogether.

In the sections on New England as a whole, the lists of "bests" and "top tens," Connecticut fares a little bit better. There are mentions of Mystic, Yale, and Philip Johnson's Glass House, i.e., the Connecticut spots any middle-school student could quickly learn about in a search of the New York Times archives.

Given all that, the Connecticut section itself (all 37 pages of it) is not as bad as I feared. There's nothing unusual here, nothing quirky or off the path beaten by the hundreds of short guidebooks that came before. There's nothing to give a sense of any one city's personality or appearance (though, oddly, there are several assertions that Connecticut is absolutely stuffed with white clapboard houses.) But there are decent lists of major museums and other mainstream attractions, and most regions (if not most towns) are covered. There are good little sections on Connecticut's many nicknames and whether Nathan Hale really made that statement about his lack of regrets. The relative quality of this section makes it even sadder that while the guide recognizes the Quiet Corner is "relatively unheralded," it thinks the Quiet Corner consists of Willimantic, Coventry, Storrs, and the Prudence Crandall Museum.

Listings of accommodations and restaurants are so limited as to be useless and quite funny; for the entire state of Connecticut, it suggests four bars. Some information (e.g. the bit on blue laws) is outdated.

The "Activities" section at the back of the book is woefully inadequate. Mentions of Connecticut under the headings of Festivals, the Arts, Nightlife, Shopping, Outdoor Activities and others are anemic or nonexistent.

Lastly, as a whole the book completely fails to paint a picture of the Connecticut most travelers seek and find here. In the Connecticut of Insight Guides, are few beaches, little natural beauty, no farmland, no ice cream stands or outdoor markets, no local shops full of the work of local artisans, no scenic country drives, no sweet quiet villages, no small-town Main Streets to stroll. There is little diversity, little vibrancy, and the history that is here is of the museum sort, not the sort that's obvious in every brick and street name.

Quote: Despite including a section on regional literature, this book does not quote many New Englanders on their home states. So, an observation from the guide itself: "Rocky, infertile soil; treacherous coastline; short, unreliable growing seasons; long, harsh winters. You wonder if the Mayflower would have had any passengers if they'd known what awaited them."

Wednesday, January 21, 2015

Snow and Books, 13

This is a different sort of Snow and Books post; not a quasi-review of a Connecticut guidebook, but a quasi-taste test from a cookbook containing a recipe with a Constitution State connection.

It begins at Ocean State Job Lot. I'd been fascinated by the Waterford location of the store since first moving back to Connecticut seven years ago. There it stood, across from my regular Stop & Shop, looking vaguely shady with its basic logo and weirdly recessed parking lot. I looked over at it countless times, thinking "Someday..." But I never went in until a few weeks ago.

I had expected dimly lit aisles full of gym socks with one deformed toe and boxes of toothpaste that just might have fallen off the back of a truck in 1985. And that's pretty much exactly what I found. (Along with racks of strange clothing, a curious assortment of packaged food, stacks of carpets, creepy little figurines, and about a million other things I didn't need.) There were also two large shelves full of very heavy, very glossy, very price-reduced cookbooks. I don't know if OSJL is always a cornucopia of deeply discounted cookbooks or if this was a fluke occurrence, but I could not resist. I walked out with a copy of United Cakes of America: Recipes Celebrating Every State by Warren Brown (full price $29.95) for $3.99.

Here's why I had to buy this book: One, I have weakness for hokey Americana (like books with a silhouette of the U.S. cut out of the cover.) Two, Brown clearly loves factoids and odd little moments of American history, and incorporates then into his writing and recipes. And three, Connecticut's cake is actually representative of Connecticut. Most food-by-state lists I've read treat Connecticut like an afterthought, sticking it with the one recipe they had no better place for but nevertheless wanted to include. This one, though, gets it right: Connecticut's dessert is an updated version of Hartford Election Cake.

Since actual elections in Hartford have been a disappointment and embarrassment lately, making Election Cake seemed a nice distraction. The traditional Election Cake was like a dense English fruitcake; Brown respects that version, including some early and inscrutable directions, but also offers up a  modern, lighter, nutmeg-y recipe that I had to try.

I didn't follow the book exactly; as a thrifty Yankee I was not about to run out and acquire a whole nutmeg and a grater or superfine granulated sugar when I had plain old supermarket nutmeg and regular granulated sugar on hand. Making do with what I had, I told myself, was a Connecticut tradition too.

The cupcakes turned out light and spicy,  really more like muffins than cake. (If I make this again, I'll probably do it in a loaf pan.) I eschewed the complicated buttercream recipe that goes with them and instead made the cream cheese frosting intended for Kansas's carrot cake. Is that breaking the rules? maybe. But it's Hartford Election Cake, after all.

Nutmeg Spice Cupcakes

(From United Cakes of America: Recipes Celebrating Every State by Warren Brown)

Yield: 10 Cupcakes

Dry Ingredients:

Superfine granulated sugar   8 ounces (1 cup)
All-purpose flour     5 ounces (1 cup)
Potato starch    1 tablespoon
Kosher salt    1/8 teaspoon
Nutmeg, freshly grated   1/2 teaspoon
Allspice      pinch
Salt         pinch
Baking soda    1/8 teaspoon

Wet ingredients:

Butter    3 ounces (6 tablespoons), melted
Half-and-half   1/4 cup
Rum     1 tablespoon
Vanilla extract    1/2 teaspoon
Whole eggs   2
Egg yolk       1

1. Preheat the oven to 325F and place the rack in the middle position. Lightly coat a cupcake tray with non-stick oil-and-starch spray and line 10 of the cups with paper liners.

2. Measure and combine all the dry ingredients in a deep bowl. Whisk lightly for about 15 seconds to blend.

3. Combine all the wet ingredients in a container with a tight-fitting lid and shake well for 15 seconds.

4. Lightly whisk the wet ingredients into the dry ingredients. This should take about 15 seconds.

5. Scoop or pour 2 ounces of batter into the paper-lined cups. (Using a food scooper or ladle works best.)

6. Bake for 20 to 25 minutes, or until the tops of the cupcakes are golden brown and a wooden skewer inserted in the center of one comes out clean or with just a few crumbs.

7. Cool the cupcakes for five minutes before removing them from the tray. When they are room temperature, frost or decorate them with the Old-Fashioned Milk Buttercream.


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