BECKET -- For two nights only, The Dream Away Lodge will host dinners offering a menu of dishes that haven't been available since Alice May Brock left town in the late 1970s.
In this second installment in a series of gustatory collaborations that restaurant owner Daniel Osman dubbed "Chef Amy's Incredibly Short, Slightly Feminist Culinary History of the Berkshires," Brock will return to the Berkshires to cohost a revival of her famed Alice's Restaurant on Saturday, May 17, and Sunday, May 18.
"I love getting together with a bunch of people and making something happen," Brock said during a phone interview from her art studio in Provincetown, where she's lived since the late 1970s, working as a painter, illustrator and occasional prep cook. "That's the greatest feeling. And what drives me is not to create the most fantastic food, but to satisfy and nourish, on numerous levels, the people who come into the restaurant."
Osman and Amy Loveless hatched the idea for the series last year, prompted by a conversation about the women who influenced Loveless' burgeoning craft, as well as her lifelong interests in restaurants and food.
"We're always looking for reasons to have a party," said Osman. "Amy came to me and said we should talk about the early days of Berkshire foodism."
This led to discussion of Brock's first eatery in Stockbridge, the Back Room, and her next space in Housatonic, Take Out Alice, which was renamed Alice's Restaurant when a dining room was added.
The first installment of the Dream Away's "Incredibly Short ..." series last December recognized the influence of Ruth Adams Bronz, who owned, ran, and cooked for Miss Ruby's Café in West Stockbridge from 1978 to 1983.
"The 1970s was an amazing time in the Berkshires for food," said Loveless. "Alice and Ruth were doing their thing, and I was inspired. Part of it had to do with the fact that they were women chefs, which I aspired to be."
Osman jumped at the chance to build a public event out of Loveless' reminiscences.
"Amy said food came to the Berkshires with Ruth and Alice, in her view, so I invented this two-dinner series ..." said Osman. "But it's a work in progress, and other chefs may be scheduled in the long run. It's a fun way to honor what we do and those who influence us."
Brock's first foray into the restaurant business, a small luncheonette counter in downtown Stockbridge called The Back Room that opened in 1966, was borne out of maternal encouragement and a personal creativity more than an attraction to capitalism. By this point an evolving community of former Stockbridge School students lived at Brock's church and she cooked one or two meals a day for up to 10 people at a time.
"My mom said, 'Hey, there's this place for sale in Stockbridge. It's this little luncheonette. And since you're cooking for all these kids' - a lot of the students were at that point living with us in the church - she said, 'Why can't you get paid for cooking?' And it was a way out. It was a way to have my own money. It was a way to do my own thing," she said.
Brock insists that she's not a businessperson. She said she got into the restaurant game for the opportunity to create an independent life for herself and her community, to try her hand at making new types of food, and to feed and employ people who needed it. The business side of things kept getting in the way. The Room closed in April of 1966, before a song with Alice's name in the title climbed to No. 17 on the Billboard chart.
"After the Back Room came the movie," said Brock. "That was a little bit of an interruption in everybody's life. It was a little exploitive."
One bonus that came from the film was Brock's chance to publish a cookbook. Though you may want to relocate your copy of the "Alice's Restaurant Cookbook" to the fiction section. Or at least, nudge it over halfway. Brock was urged to write the book in 1969 when she found herself broke after a year of working to promote the film, which failed to generate much income for Brock. The film's producer, a friend, decided to help her out.
"I think he was feeling a little guilty about how they screwed me, so he said, 'Why don't you write a cookbook?' He said, 'I'll find a publisher for you and you'll make some money.' My mom sat there with a typewriter and I just kinda cooked the things in my head and she typed them out," said Brock. "I mean, I didn't test the recipes! [laughs] I was just making it up in my head. There was no kitchen involved."
She also notes that the point of her cookbook has little to do with any particular recipe.
"The cookbook was about the attitude of, 'Hey, don't be intimidated. Anybody can cook, it's not a mystery,'" explained Brock.
In the spring of 1971 she bought an old liquor store on the side of Route 183 on Housatonic and built Take Out Alice, a roadside food window serving, as Brock put it, "slow food served fast."
A political person since her teens, Brock's personal life reflected her political beliefs, and her political life was evident in her personal circumstance.
"We were making our own kind of way of living. We were making our own rules just like we were making our own personal sandwiches," she said, referring to the blurred lines between her home and work life. Brock and her former husband, Ray Brock, moved into a deconsecrated church in Stockbridge in 1964 while working at the Stockbridge School, a private prep school where they first met Arlo Guthrie.
With Brock in her early 20s and some of the students in their late teens, the church became a popular space where like-minded young people ate, slept and did plenty of other things together. Brock said this gained her some attention from town authorities.
"They gave me a really hard time way before that movie, even when I had the first restaurant," said Brock. "It was the early '60s and I was one of those beatniks I guess, and I was anti-war, and their kids were dropping out of college, and a bunch of people hated me because I became a symbol of everything they didn't like that was going on in the world. People were just shocked to see me move into the church. It was seen as sacrilegious."
Brock's frustrations with the town of Stockbridge came to a head in 1973 when she was blocked from adding a dining room onto her takeout window, becoming "Alice's Restaurant." Brock tried a third location in 1975 with Alice's at Avaloch in Lenox, much larger and more formal than any of her previous joints. After her generous personal politics conspired with unwelcoming neighbors, said Brock, she decided it was time to follow her real dream.
"I always wanted to just be an artist," said Brock.
Little about Brock's life has changed since the dawn of the 1990s. One exception is a softening of her relationship with the fictional character, "Alice," for whom Brock's been mistaken for since she was in her 20s.
"I'm still doing the same thing. I'm just amazed that I am still a 'person of interest.' I used to hate being 'Alice of Alice's Restaurant.' But now, I've realized that the '60s were so important to so many people, and are an inspiration to so many people who didn't live through it. That I am a symbol of it is wonderful!" Brock said.
When asked what she's most proud of, Brock points to the people she's had the pleasure of working with during her various forays into the food business.
"So many people that have worked for me over the years have gone on in the restaurant business. Some of them have cooking schools, writing cookbooks, they have restaurants," she said. "Miller, who was my baker, I think she was just the best chef in the Berkshires, ever. That woman could really cook."
That's the same Michelle Miller who, in the 1980s, employed Loveless at Suchelle Bakery. And now Loveless is gearing up to do her best take on classic Alice recipes.
"I went to Alice's in all the renditions, and Take Out was the really wonderful one," said Loveless regarding the many menus and recipes of Alice's from which the pair of chefs had to select a single list.
"I'm especially proud of the people who have gone on to do just great things," said Brock. "It's fabulous to have inspired people. To inspire somebody or to teach somebody is, to me, the most satisfying thing. More satisfying than being great."
Alice's menu ...
Alice Brock explains some menu items for her upcoming dinners at The Dream Away Lodge:
Tomato & Cheddar Cheese Soup - $7 'Oh, God. Everybody loved that and it's just the simplest thing. That was so popular. I made it up.'
Alice's Special Cippino with fresh cod, mussels, clams and shrimp in spicy tomato broth with garlic bread - $24 'It's like a fish stew. It has kind of a tomatoey base, but it's not, I think. It's sort of like a broth with stuff in it, all different seafood with plenty of garlic and spices. It's delicious.'
Chinese Duck (black duck) - $24 'That was a wonderful thing. That's what I'm gonna have when I go there.'