Locals give the Berkshires our bests

Thursday June 21, 2012

Do you have a best local soda flavor or a best place for gonzo bikers? In the first Best of the Berk shires readers poll (run in 1997), Randall Howe, then editor of Berkshires Week, added some of his own favorites. He was clearly having a good time.

He distinguished clearly be tween the poll and his own invented categories -- no one would expect a newspaper to ask, seriously, for votes on "Best Tripe." (I'm not sure it's still possible to get a portion of the stomach of a ruminant from a local restaurant menu. If you know a place, would you fill us in?)

You can feel his laughter and his knowledge all through the section. My colleague Amanda Korman, laughing as she read, called it a microcosm of its time and place: He has preserved a year in the mountains, in a series of inside jokes. It's a collection of planning snafus, political gaffes, local frustrations and bright spots -- a comic book shop, a vanished restaurant where regulars used to sit on summer evenings and talk over the city council, the hang-gliders on Mount Greylock, and how early they picked snap peas this year.

The great thing about local talk is that you can tell they live here. You can feel the community around them, in all its unique knobs and points and scents. I find out things I would never have known about -- where to find ladies' slippers and agates, where to hear Donald Hall read a wry, funny and blunt recognition of aging, where to get freshly made clotted cream or plate-sized blueberry pancakes.

So here we are putting our heads together. We are asking ourselves: Where are our best places to fall in a river or fall in love? What is our best local ice cream flavor, band name or superpower?

In the advertising section that follows, places appear because many people chose them. Here they appear because one of us chose them -- and, often, remembered one intent time there.

If I could preserve the year since we asked these questions last, I would remember sliding down an icy pathway in Ken nedy Park and learning the goatish root of the word "capriole" -- and then sipping thick, dark hot chocolate at Chocolate Springs. I would remember picnicking on the lawn with an old college friend, at Triple Shad ow's rehearsal barn in Otis before a play, and watching the dusk fall and the lanterns light -- and then stopping at the top of Washington Mountain, on the way home, to look at the stars.

I would remember sitting under a maple tree on a mountaintop, with the leaves blowing like the sound of rain, waiting for a hurricane, and watching three people spin staffs high into the air with flames streaming at both ends. Come on out the door and join us. We wish you all ser endipities.

Berkshires Week offers some of our own bests

Best backstory for a Pittsfield baseball player: Kirk Presley, a distant cousin of Elvis (yes, that one), pitched for the Pittsfield Mets in 1994 after turning down a football scholarship at Mis sissippi State to play pro baseball. He was the Mets top pick in 1993, taken seventh overall in the Major League draft. Presley hurt his shoulder (the rumor was that he had originally gotten hurt playing high school football) played a couple more years of minor league ball, then was released by the Mets.

Best fishing hole: A tiny fishing hole, but it yields a trout every time, exists on the South Branch of the Hoosic River just north of the Cheshire town line in Adams. Nearly right across Route 8 from Hobby World, find this fishing spot when you see the island in the river and fish it on the side near the Ashuwillticook Rail Trail. Cast upstream to the head of the pool and let your dry fly ride the current just past the big rock on the river's bank. Be patient. And then bam!

Best alternate means of scaling a mountain: Trail riding up from Bonnie Lea Farm or through Greylock Glen.

Best most-unknown picnic table: There's usually just one picnic table -- if it's there at all because sometimes it's not -- set up at the overlook at the top of Berry Pond Circuit Road at Pittsfield State Forest. With the view west into New York state, it's simply the "best most-unknown picnic table" in the Berkshires. And if you're lucky, you can get it all to yourself.

Best secret garden: The walled garden on the Ben nington Col lege campus, near the carriage barn, with a sign on the gate -- "Secret Garden Closed for Safety." The wall is worn red brick, set snug among red-clapboarded buildings that seem once to have been barns, and the garden could have come straight from "The Secret Garden," the children's book by Frances Hodg son Burnett. Since the garden in the book was closed for 10 years after an accident, we wonder whether the Bennington garden's sign is meant as a plain warning or a rich and gentle joke.

As MFA students wander past us in their summer residency, talking at counterpoint to the green frogs in the pond, we think the gardeners might well enjoy a play on words. This campus, with its

Best treasure island pirate enclave: Norman Rockwell Mu seum's tribute to Howard Pyle's adventures.

Best wild iris: Outside Louise Glück's poignent collection of poetry, the purple spears along the shore of Pike's Pond at Mass Audubon's Pleasant Val ley Sanctuary on Lenox.

Best place to pick your own goose: Moon in the Pond Farm in Sheffield. They also offer duck eggs -- twice the size of chicken eggs, with twice the flavor.

Best raspberry lambic on tap: The Old Forge in Lanesbor ough -- widely known as the kind of place where you get a pub burger as a foundation for the beer -- has more brews on tap than any half-dozen college kids put together have ever heard of.

Best birthday dinner on a January night at 7 below: Eliz abeth's in Pittsfield. A dip into their garlic and olive oil bagña is heaven on a cold night -- and equally good on a warm one, with fresh goat cheese and a giant salad of baby lettuce and local peaches. It only gets better from there.

Most creative use of turnips: Hops and Vines, as a buffer for buttery roast duck.

Best place to eat head cheese: The Meat Market in Great Bar rington, where it's lovingly handcrafted from local pig (heads). You can buy in bulk or get it ready to eat on a tasty Vietnamese sandwich with duck pate.

Best place to sample real cheese: Rubiner's in Great Barrington always has at least four fine cheeses out for your consumption. Be warned, the cheese is good, and even if you fully intended just to taste, the chances are good you'll walk out with a $8 chunk of cheddar.

Best place to find cheese fresh from the dairy and watch the cows line up for milking, as you head out of town for a holiday weekend with a bag full of farm vegetables: Cricket Creek Farm's shop, for mild and nutty, ched dary, or soft and rinded cheeses by the wedge. (Closely tied with High Lawn Farm, which has been known to offer blue cheese by the wheel.)

Best institutional herd of cows: The Clark Art Institute's backdrop on Stone Hill. The walk up Stone Hill in firefly season, the glacial rock at the top for a look-out, and the view from the Sonte Hill Center terrace or high windows have prticular balms, cow-enlivened or not.


Best place to pretend you're weekending in Paris: Bizallion's in Great Barrington -- where the café au lait, the crescent-shaped chocolate pastries, and the bag uettes with lightly cooked eggs or ham, butter and spicy pickles, have a flavor all their own.

Best place to pick up free fashion advice: Style is on par ade at Central Berkshire Dis trict Court, and if your manner of dress is wildly inappropriate, the helpful court officers will kindly but firmly let you know. Dashing Eagle court reporter Andrew Ame linckx is great for a tip or two; look for the man in the fedora.

Best place to pick up vintage fashion advice: Until Edward Maeder returns for another set of workshops, we can explore Vic torian shirtwaists and 1930s em broidered jackets at Grey stone Gardens (those of us who live in Pittsfield are sorry to hear about your move to Len ox!), straw sunshades at Hats & Jewels in Lee, and old glass buttons in the Antiques Center at Camelot Village in Bennington, Vt.


Best used bookstore: We offer our thanks to G. J. Askins at the Eclipse Mill in North Adams, Bruce Gventer's collection in Egremont, Yellow House Books in Great Barrington, and the Bookloft's second-hand loft in West Stockbridge, for keeping the tradition alive -- with a hearty wave to Second Story Books in Bennington, Vt.

Best approach: The Mount in Lenox, with its winding gravel drive through carefully tended woods, old connifers shading ferns and periwinkle, fills us with promise when we walk up the road to the house (and with glee when we dash back through the rain under a borrowed umbrella). We also applaud the staff's approach to the house itself, in their new ehibit, which interprets each room as a part of Edith Wharton's work, friends and soul.


Best place to learn wood-fired pottery: IS183 teaches raku and other outdoor wood-fired cer amic techniques, as well as wheel-throwing and other ways of getting your hands muddy. Have you ever used metal tongs to take a pot glowing like molten glass out of a raku kiln, dropped it into a metal bin filled with sawdust, and put a lid on it to cool, waiting to see what color the irridescent glaze will be? If you simply want to see wood-fired pottery, Bizen, the sushi bar in Great Barrington, takes its name from a thousand-year-old Japanese pottery -- fired for 10 days straight in a several thousand cubic feet of flame. Michael Marcus, who owns Bi zen, serves his customers on his own hand-made plates.

Best creative use of found metal: Joe Wheaton's sculpture

Best place to watch bronze casting: Andrew DeVries, known for his fluidly moving figures at the DeVries Inter national Art Studio in Lenox, will demonstrate the art of lost-wax bronze casting July 1 at the Lenox Library at 2 p.m., pouring molten metal at more than 2,000 degrees.


Best quote from a local inhabitant: "Any time, any time while I was a slave, if one minute's freedom had been offered to me, and I had been told I must die at the end of that minute, I would have taken it -- just to stand one minute on God's earth a free woman -- I would." Elizabeth Freeman, who won her right to live free in Stock bridge in 1781, as Catherine Maria Sedgwick quoted her in "Slavery in New England."

Best Mohican tie: Stock bridge Library Historical Col lection, which carries a blessing from the contemporary Mohican nation, the people of the Stockbridge-Munsee, who return to the Berkshires from Wisconsin every few years to visit. The collection also includes the original plan of the town, with the names of the Mohican landowners who lived in the Mission (and lost their holdings within a generation.) And ethnographer David McAllister's essays to the Monterey News describe the games and music, legends and skills, of the Mo hicans when they lived here and picked wild strawberries for a June festival. We hope they remember these songs, or write their own, or simply enjoy ripe, sun-warm strawberries.


Best selection of free entertainment: Jacob's Pillow Dance Festival, where Former ballerinas Cynthia Harvey and Anna-Marie Holmes reflect on their lives tonight at 5, and the as sociate director of circa will explain where dance and circuses meet, on Saturday at 4 p.m. This summer's series of performance on the Inside/Out Stage will bring Bill Evans Dance Company on Friday at 6:15 p.m. International students of the Ballet Program perform classical and contemporary ballet will perform on Saturday at 6:15 p.m. And RFX Swing will catch the excitement of the 1930s and ‘40s in partner dancing, solos and ensemble numbers, from Lindy Hop and Charleston to tap and Vaude ville, on Wednesday at 6 p.m.

Best giant puppets: Mettawee River Company's ‘Archie and Mehitabel' -- the investigative cockroach with the soul of a free-verse poet who apeard in a New York humor column in 1912 and spoke to hundreds of thousands of readers.

Best place to play live music: The Center for Economic Dev elopment's living room, with a collection of student groups and the graduate students in Wil liams' international program -- because when you have played French Canadian reel or two and a quick-skipping contra dance waltz in A minor, and the folk group and the a capella groups have sung for them, the students will borrow drums for a Kenyan drum circle, retune a guitar and sing a Vietnamese lullaby, and you will go on playing for each other until the small hours.

Until classes resume, we may also offer Bang on a Can at Mass MoCA, drumming with the Berk shire Bateria, Mara fanyi, Otha Day or Aimee Gel inas, and music jams at Lickety Split in North Adams or Spencer town Academy in Spencertown, N.Y. And for sheer acoustics, we suggest the marble steps in the Williams music building.

-- Tony Dobrowalski, Kevin Mo ran and Ned Oliver contributed to this collection.


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