The Best of New England -- Plus a "Worst"
IF I WERE TO compile a list of what I consider to be New England’s “bests,” I wouldn’t include many restaurants, resorts, specialty boutiques, museums, country fairs, and the like. Those things change too quickly and, besides, the current September issue of YANKEE Magazine, celebrating its 70th anniversary in grand style, is devoted to that sort of current, useful, practical stuff.
My personal list would be made up of mostly little bits and pieces that together comprise the mosaic of our New England culture. Some might describe a few of them as downright odd.
For instance, I believe the best example of a New England legend that’s not true — could even be labeled a hoax — is the one asserting that Boston’s famed athenaeum contains a book bound with George Washington’s skin. Let me set the record straight on that one. It is true that the athenaeum owns George Washington’s private library and it is also true there is a book in the athenaeum bound with human skin. But the skin belonged to a Jamaican fellow and not the “father of our country.” There.
The September YANKEE Magazine includes a couple of pages of “bests” from The Original Swopper’s Column” — and they’re great — but mine wasn’t in there. Here’s my winner: “Will swop handmade size 5 champagne-colored wedding dress with appliqued lace and chiffon skirt as well as a 0.17-karat diamond ring for (are you ready for this?) a wood- and coal-burning stove.” I love the fact there are two stories between those lines — a romantic one and undoubtedly a sad one.
Speaking of the harsh realities of life, the best description of what it’s like to own and operate a New England inn was said to me by a former airline hostess who, with her husband, both with stars in their eyes, had bought the Barrows House in Dorset, Vermont, two years before. The reality, she confessed to me, was that running an inn “is like being on an airplane that never lands.”
The best New England sports moment? Oh, there are so many — including Carleton Fiske’s home run that beat Cincinnati in the sixth game of the 1975 World Series, Doug Flutie’s “Hail Mary” against Miami, Ted Williams’ last homer, etc. — but topping my list would be Mike Eruzione’s (Winthrop, Massachusetts) winning goal against the Russians in the 1980 Olympics in Lake Placid, New York. Truly that was a miracle moment.
The best “asking directions” joke is so old that maybe it’s not funny anymore, but, well, I still like it over all the others. It seems a fellow from New York (in old-time New England jokes, all tourists were New Yorkers) traveling in Maine stops at a fork in the road. Seeing a farmer out in the field nearby, he shouts, “Does it matter which road I take to Portland?” The answer: “Not to me it don’t.” I just don’t tire of that one.
I included the best way to cook lobsters in my September YANKEE editorial, but, while on the subject of food, let me say that the best strawberry shortcake must be made with biscuits, never cake. The best way to eat grapefruit is with maple syrup, not sugar, and, at a tea party, it’s best to never ask for “more tea” after your first cup. Sounds greedy. Always “some tea.”
There are too many complicated procedures for putting on a New England clambake to determine “the best,” but if you’re attending a clambake, here’s the best way to proceed, as described to me long ago by the late Joseph C. Allen, a sailor and jack-of-all-trades from Vineyard Haven, Massachusetts.
“Take off your coat and fold it up and lay it on the grass some distance off,” he told me. “A pretty fair distance,” he added after a pause, “so nobody can heave their shells into it. Take your knife, fork, and spoon and lay them on top of the coat to keep them clean. Roll up your shirtsleeves high and slew your necktie around aft so it hangs down your back. Then haul up close and turn to! When you have tucked away all you can, hunt up your knife, fork, and spoon and use them to scrape off your pants and shirtfront. Your coat and tie will be clean.”
How about the “worsts” of New England? Guess I’ll save that subject for another column sometime soon. But I can say that the first “worst” that comes to mind is adding a can of tomato soup to New England clam chowder. Some Rhode Islanders actually do that. Using cream instead of milk is bad enough, but tomatoes? Ugghh.