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.

Wednesday, January 14, 2015

Connecticut for the Jewish Traveler

Some time ago, a friend asked me for suggestions of where in Connecticut to send a Jewish group visiting New England from the Midwest. "I'll write a list!" I said, and proceeded to not write a list.
That particular group has probably come and gone with no help from me, but I thought a list of suggestions for travelers interested in Jewish historic and cultural sites around the Nutmeg State would be worth compiling anyway.

Please note: this list is not comprehensive, nor does it attempt to be. This state is full of Jewish cemeteries, delis, street names, and so many other little signs of historic and contemporary Jewish life that to gather them all would be a year-long project. As always when dealing with Connecticut for any reason, it's best to search for anything you would like to know based on the specific towns you'll be visiting. 


-Jews have lived in Connecticut since the 17th century, but the state's oldest synagogue building was built in Hartford in 1876. It is now the Charter Oak Cultural Center (pictured above) which hosts art exhibits and events that reflect the cultural diversity of modern Hartford, including programming dedicated to Jewish heritage.

-The Jewish Historical Society of Greater Hartford has information on the city's other historic synagogues (now mostly used as churches) as well as exhibits open to the public. In addition, the organization runs guided bus tours that explore Hartford's historic Jewish neighborhoods and important sites in the city.

-The Jewish Historical Society of Greater New Haven held their first tour of the New Haven area's Jewish History in the summer of 2014 (on bicycles.) The JHSGNH is associated with the Ethnic Heritage Center at Southern Connecticut State University. This "ethnic heritage archives, museum, and research center" also hosts local African American, Irish American, Italian American, and Ukrainian American historical societies.

-New Haven's Holocaust Memorial, located in Edgewood Park, was "the country’s first Holocaust Memorial built on public land when it was dedicated in 1977." There is also a Holocaust Memorial at the Mandell JCC in West Hartford.

-In the summer, Chabad of the Shoreline hosts the Shoreline Jewish Festival on the Guilford Green.

-In the spring, the Hartford Jewish Film Festival brings Jewish films from around the world to Hartford-area theatres.

-In the Southwest, the Jewish Arts & Film Festival of Fairfield County.

-In the Southeast, there's the International Jewish Film Festival of Eastern Connecticut.

-The Isabella Freedman Jewish Retreat Center hosts retreats, Shabbatons, educational programs, holiday celebrations, and other events at their farm and facilities in the Falls Village section of Canaan.

-The grandly named Museum of Jewish Civilization is located in the Mortensen Library in the Harry Jack Gray Center at the University of Hartford in West Hartford.

-Lectures, exhibits, and events at universities, such as those at UCONN's Center for Judaic Studies and Contemporary Jewish Life and the Joseph Slifka Center for Jewish Life at Yale are often open to the public. 

-Longtime readers of this blog will probably be aware that my personal favorite Jewish sites in Connecticut are the small rural synagogues that once served the Jewish farming communities in the Eastern part of the state. For a Jewish-themed road trip through beautiful rural Eastern Connecticut, seek out United Brethren on Routes 85 and 66 in Hebron, Anshei Israel on Route 138 in Lisbon, Knesseth Israel on Pinney Street in Ellington, and Agudath Achim on Route 87 in Columbia. (For other assorted historic synagogues, Historic Buildings of Connecticut is a good place to look. Or click on my "Jews" category here or at the right side of this page.)


If you have another site or event where you'd send a visitor in search of Jewish Connecticut, please add it in the comments below!

Wednesday, January 7, 2015

Wooster Square, New Haven

Sorry, New Haven Green, but in my opinion the Elm City's best rectangular patch of grass crisscrossed by walking paths, surrounded by historic buildings, and dotted with benches is Wooster Square.

Walking around or through this park, which is bordered by Greene Street, Academy Street, Chapel Street, and Wooster Place, you won't find the crowds and traffic you'd see at that other, larger town green. On a frigid winter day, it might even be nearly empty.

The streets that branch off and away from the park are worth strolling too. A distinctive archway with an elm tree motif stretches over Wooster Street, welcoming visitors to the city's Little Italy. Court Street (in the first photo in this post) is possibly my favorite block in all New Haven. It was once a "combination beer house and ice cream parlor, wax museum, and public bath."

Wooster Square refers not just to the park, but the historic Italian neighborhood surrounding it. This is where you'll find the original Pepe's, or Frank Pepe Pizzeria Napoletana, and its original competitor, Sally's Apizza.

Though Major General David Wooster gave his name to the area - he once lived and worked here - it's Christopher Columbus who gets a statue.

In the mid-19th century, this neighborhood was "a fashionable residential area which ship captains, wholesale grocers and successful entrepreneurs found conveniently close to their places of business."

Today, the Wooster Square Historic District is listed on the National Register of Historic Places.

It is possible that I'm so fond of this little slice of New Haven because it's so reminiscent of parts of Hartford.

Though difficult to imagine in January, next April (barring some sort of weather disaster) Wooster Square will fill with delicate pink blooms just in time for the 42nd annual Cherry Blossom Festival.

Another local April tradition: Powder House Day, commemorating that time in 1775 when old stick-in-the-mud David Wooster almost didn't let fellow New Haven resident Benedict Arnold arm Connecticut troops for "the first act of support [for the revolutionary movement] outside of Massachusetts."

Thursday, January 1, 2015

Happy New Year & Hammonasset Beach State Park

Happy 2015!

I've made a few changes to The Size of Connecticut for the new year; basically, this blog is going to be less about me and more about Connecticut travel. Specifically, as the header says, about "unusual, unexpected, offbeat, off-season, underrated, and underappreciated" places in Connecticut. (There's more about that on the About This Blog page.) I also added some new, more travel-friendly categories (on the right side of the page.)

Now that I've said all that, let me talk about Hammonasset Beach State Park in Madison.

This is Connecticut's largest beach, and in the summer, as you might imagine, it gets crowded. Like, really crowded. In the winter, however, you can come here and have Hammonasset's two-plus miles of sand and Sound - plus lovely boardwalks, trails, and salt marsh views - almost all to yourself. The Meigs Point Nature Center is open year-round, but the campground and concession areas are closed, making this extremely popular beach feel like a secret known only to a select few. And the seagulls. You can't hide anything from seagulls.










Wednesday, December 24, 2014

Goods & Curiosities

Essex's Griswold Inn, aka "the Gris," has been charming visitors to this town at the mouth of the Connecticut River since 1776. It's now best known for its dining and drinking options, its marine art collection, and just for being so freaking New England and cute. (I mean, look at that wagon, right?)

But I am more likely to be found across the street browsing at the Griswold Inn Store, Goods & Curiosities, which is one of my favorite Connecticut shopping spots.

Gift stores, especially when they try to stock a wide variety of eye-catching items and associate themselves with a museum or other historic site, can easily slide into the realm of the tacky and cheesy. But this one resists that fiercely (something Essex is not known for) and manages to offer something for literally everyone while still pleasing judgmental snobs like me.

There's a slight focus on Connecticut, New England, and history, but there's also plenty of stuff that has nothing to do with any that. There are candles, toys, cosmetics, accessories, cookbooks, glassware, tea, cards, games, magnets, and approximately 9,000 other categories of tempting things. Prices range from a few dollars to "I think I'll just put that back and pretend I didn't see it."

And even if you somehow don't enjoy this store, you can't complain, because you're in Essex.









Friday, December 19, 2014

Nutmeg Poisoning

It's Friday! Here are some more little Connecticut tidbits that I've come across in various corners of the Internet recently:

-This self-styled "seasoned world traveler" thought Stamford and Windsor Locks were, like, a couple minutes apart. He was wrong. He wrote a piece about it for the New York Times.

-There's a mineral called Danburite and it is named after Danbury. Yes, Connecticut's very own Danbury. It was discovered there in 1839. Those who believe crystals can do things other than sit on the shelf and look pretty say it promotes emotional healing. It is also considered an alternative to diamonds.

-"Nobody had seen a fire of this magnitude. Basically, an area the size of Connecticut...burned in 36 hours."

-I've linked to a few great Connecticut-centric Instagram accounts in previous Nutmeg Poisonings. Here are some more: CTUrbanPhotoGroup, dan.butler, and newhaveninsta. (And there's always me, of course!)

-This is the Connecticut entry in the States Plates Project, wherein artists re-imagine United States license plates. I like the grapes, but the colors are rather bland, in my not-so-humble opinion.

-Last but not least, I couldn't resist this New York Times Warning on Nutmeg.

Monday, December 15, 2014

Rough Town

You may have heard that Hartford is for young people now. Certainly, many in Hartford would have you believe that it is, or that it should be, to the seeming exclusion of everyone else.

I think Hartford is for not-quite-so-young people, who have lived elsewhere and traveled elsewhere long enough to learn how to appreciate a place that doesn't hand everything to you on a shiny platter.

When I was young I lived in New York, and I could not have lived anywhere else. I could not have even imagined living someplace else. I love New York, yes, I was born there, it will always be my home in a way that no place in Connecticut can be, even though Connecticut is, now, my home.

But New York is a city where you don't have to work for anything. Entertainment, active or passive; culture; lights; sounds; crowds; all of them are there for you when you walk out of your front door in the morning, and you will find them if you're too bored to lift a finger or dumber than a wooden plank. Other places where young people also tend to flock are similar.

Hartford (like the other cities I've lived in since I left New York, cities that I loved and other people were horrified to learn I'd moved to) makes you work. It has as much art and action and history and drama as any other place, if not always in as much quantity. But it doesn't deliver all that it has to your apartment 24/7, or set it all out before you in little pieces pre-cut for your ease. You might have to turn down a questionable street to reach it. You might have to make plans, or read something, or think. You might need to seek out rather than blindly stumble into beauty.

And yet, you'll stumble into beauty by accident often enough, if you stop unthinkingly comparing Hartford to other places long enough to look around you.

I hope more young people move to Hartford, but only because I hope more people move to Hartford, period. I think it could use more people, and I know more people would appreciate it if they took the time. It's certainly not the perfect city; I could complain about various aspects of it for days, and I have. (I have also complained for days about various aspects of my eyebrows, or the weather. So.)

It seems there are only three ways to talk about Hartford these days. There's the incredulous positive statement ("I went to Hartford once and surprisingly I didn't die and there was even a good restaurant!"), the ignorant put-down ("Hartford's been a pit since the 60s, kill it with fire!"), and the insider defense ("But! Mark Twain!"). That conversation is fine, I guess. At least it's predictable. (I always root for the insiders and their defenses.) But there's perhaps a more interesting conversation that could be had. I'm often too tired to have it with words, so I only contribute pictures of brick buildings.

But I hope if you read this post and haven't been to Hartford in a while, you'll come see it, and maybe tell other people about it. You can complain, but please try to complain about what you really encounter, not about what someone told you they encountered twenty years ago. And you might find, if you're not mapping Hartford onto an imaginary New York or Boston in your head, some things you really like, or at least find interesting. Because there's something here for everyone. Whether you're young or not.

(BTW: The title of this post comes from a brilliant Bronze Radio Return song.)

Monday, December 8, 2014

Riverton

I've only mentioned Riverton once before on this blog, in one of very my first posts way back in 2009. This little village in Barkhamsted is not Connecticut's fanciest, or its prettiest. But there's something arresting about it. Other towns might have a gently curving main street or a cozy-looking general store or an old mill on the river, but Riverton combines these in a way that makes you stop and take notice.

Before Riverton was Riverton, it was Hitchcocksville, named for Lambert Hitchcock and the eponymous furniture company he started here in the 1820s. His factory where the Still and Farmington Rivers meet churned out not only chairs but interchangeable chair parts, a new concept in the industry at the time.

To quote from the article linked above: 
Over the years Hitchcock designs varied, but Lambert’s early chairs were known for their broad back panels, narrow slats, square drop seats, and very sturdy legs. Perhaps their most distinguishing feature, however, was the hand-painted stenciling, which included the famous emblem: “L. Hitchcock. Hitchcocks-ville. Conn. Warranted,” which adorned the back of every Hitchcock chair.
Over the years Hitchcock designs varied, but Lambert’s early chairs were known for their broad back panels, narrow slats, square drop seats, and very sturdy legs. Perhaps their most distinguishing feature, however, was the hand-painted stenciling, which included the famous emblem: “L. Hitchcock. Hitchcocks-ville. Conn. Warranted,” which adorned the back of every Hitchcock chair. - See more at: http://connecticuthistory.org/built-on-innovation-saved-by-nostalgia-the-hitchcock-chair-company/#sthash.AlAcyyfm.dpuf
Over the years Hitchcock designs varied, but Lambert’s early chairs were known for their broad back panels, narrow slats, square drop seats, and very sturdy legs. Perhaps their most distinguishing feature, however, was the hand-painted stenciling, which included the famous emblem: “L. Hitchcock. Hitchcocks-ville. Conn. Warranted,” which adorned the back of every Hitchcock chair. - See more at: http://connecticuthistory.org/built-on-innovation-saved-by-nostalgia-the-hitchcock-chair-company/#sthash.AlAcyyfm.dpuf
Don't you totally want one now?

The company closed in 2006, but in 2010 the Hitchcock Chair Co., Ltd. opened on Riverton Road. They restore old Hitchcock furniture and they also sell new chairs. They even have limited edition Connecticut towns-themed ones. I mean.

The distinctive white Hitchcock building (which now holds storage units) was the model for this Little Free Library in the center of the village. (If that's not picturesque enough for you, there's another one elsewhere in Barkhamsted which was modeled on the fairy-tale-like gatehouse at the Barkhamsted Reservoir.)

And here's a bonus fun fact from the Barkhamsted Historical Society: "in the Riverton area are some of the oldest rocks on earth."

There is more to Riverton than the General Store and Hitchcock chairs. But not that much more. Which is, I get the sense, exactly how the people of Riverton prefer it.

Wednesday, November 26, 2014

Happy Thanksgiving





Wishing everyone a happy holiday (with as little time as possible on highways, in airports, and navigating the insane crowds at Stop & Shop.)

BTW the chocolate turkey is from Deborah Ann's Sweet Shoppe in Ridgefield.

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