Friday, July 13, 2012

Doing History and Mission Chinese Food NYC

--> I spent the past week in NY doing archival research for my dissertation. Since this was my first "real" research trip, I began to reflect on the research process. While I’ve done primary source research before, conceiving of a dissertation is an entirely different endeavor.
As a junior in college I took a history seminar called "Doing History." We read a bunch of seemingly disparate texts: Sartre, Hume, Whorf, Remembering Ahanagran, Kuhn. At the end of the course, perhaps too predictably, we each wrote a history of the course from our own perspective. As it turns out, this course was more about post-modernism than about archives.

In fact, I have never taken, nor had the opportunity to take, a course on archival research. Rather, doing history seems to be something you intuitively figure out. Through years of graduate coursework, if you read enough history books and examine the footnotes closely, you can figure out how it works.

By taking a feminist research methods class this past semester, I learned that historians aren't very good at describing what they "do." I searched and searched for articles about historical methods (preferably feminist historical methods, but not necessarily). I found bits and pieces in introductions. I discovered footnotes that referenced sections in the authors' dissertation (ILL purgatory). I became lost in arguments about the cultural/linguistic turn and what "deconstructing" text really means. Beyond the theoretical arguments, I did not find much about what historians do in the archives. Perhaps historians should become better at this; it might help them acquire funding grants.

Taking a break from hours spent scanning PDFs of microfilm and looking through interesting, but potentially useless documents, I went to dinner. Segue to food blog...

Tuesday night I went to Mission Chinese Food. I cannot take credit for finding out about this place. Longer story very short, the widely popular restaurant from San Francisco opened a location in the Lower East Side. A pretty small place, we sat at the four-person bar in the back. Well, all the seating is in the back. However, if you end up waiting for a table, they do offer free crap beer from a keg on ice.  

I took photos of all four dishes. Unfortunately, it looks liked I tried to use some hipstamatic red filter to make everything look cool. I'll only post one photo because they are painfully inadequate.

The food, however, was in the food-sex realm. The standout, must-eat-every-last-fatty-bit, dish, was the Kung Pao Pastrami. The "explosive chili" element made my tongue feel awesomely numb, the fat at the bottom of the dish was a pleasant reminder of the pastrami long since eaten, the celery was refreshingly crisp, and the peanuts added something to the mix. I can see how people might react poorly to the Sichuan peppercorns (actually, we saw a person react poorly), but I think the dish was the perfect combination of flavors and textures. The other dishes, Sichuan Pickled Vegetables, Chilled Buckwheat Noodles, and Stir Fried Sweet Peas, were also terribly satisfying. Everything was well cooked with bright and fresh flavors. 

Overall, the meal was the perfect antidote to a bit of archival wanderlust. After all, there’s always another day in the archive.

Mission Chinese Food
154 Orchard Street  
New York, NY 10002

Tuesday, July 3, 2012

San Diego Rundown

In an effort to be a better blogger (read:more prolific), I may have to set my personal standards a bit lower. I can't write about every place I eat/drink with any serious amount of depth, but I can put it out there with highlights. 

San Diego was awesome. People seemed genuinely friendly. Everyone had at least one dog. The weather was perfect: 65, no humidity, mostly sunny. Multiple Bikram studios. Tons of breweries. I'm not sure what's missing.

I did some food research and tried to visit as many places as I could without completely ruining myself for the marathon. Here are the highlights:

1. Stone Brewing Co. Escondido: The "Stone World Bistro and Gardens" building is giant, without signage, and absolutely gorgeous. There's a stream/pond that runs through the restaurant. Every material used is beautiful, weighty, and appropriate.

I was worried about the food, as many reviews complained that it is expensive and not worth it. Yes, the food is "expensive," but it was worth it. The hummus was fresh and the boar ribs were some of the most tender meat I've ever had. While the beer was great too, I would visit this restaurant just for the beautiful interior.

2. Pizza Port, Solana Beach: Alright, this place blew my mind. Both the food and their system is perfect. Start to finish, I have nothing bad to say about it. It was all very no hassle.

Additionally, this may be the best pizza I have ever had. Look at the crust. Look at it. I'm not a fan of thin-crust, so if that's your style, this isn't for you. I like dough (cooked or uncooked) and I like the crust to be substantial. It was perfect bread, perfectly cooked. Sauce and cheese were also in good proportion.

3. PrepKitchen, San Diego: One of the more challenging tasks of traveling with a conservative, yet tentatively adventurous, eater is finding at least one thing on the menu that they can order. After I find that one dish (usually a burger), I hope that the rest of the menu has some amount of creativity and appeal. 

I chose PrepKitchen because it seemed to have a normal enough menu, but with good flavor combinations. I have a bit of a weakness for duck. Duck confit in June? I don't even care, I want it. The dish, with lentils, watercress, and apricot mostarda, was salty perfection.

I also appreciate seeing new ideas at restaurants. Under the dessert category is a "Kitchen Sixer" for $7.00. Why not have someone else pay for the kitchen to drink?

4. Underbelly, San Diego: I can't take credit for finding this one. The weekend before my trip the NYTimes did a San Diego beer scene write up. I'm always wary about following the NYTimes out of town recommendations. The restaurant itself is very pretty and modern. The wholly transparent indoor/outdoor bar aspect of its design doesn't exist anywhere in Philly (that I can think of). Another order at a register, take a number, and sit anywhere system. I'm a fan of simplicity. I ordered the meat ramen, instead of the basic version. I figured I needed protein for the marathon the next day. 

The soft-boiled egg was perfectly runny, the noodles were nice, the char-su belly, applewood smoked bacon, and Korobuta Sausage were flavorful, and the broth was okay. 
I also appreciate a good restaurant mission statement. Underbelly may have the longest manifesto I have ever seen. But it is fantastic: "Everything will be ok."

"You get out of the pot what you put in the pot."
5. Whisknladle, La Jolla: Eating brunch after running a marathon is a necessity. Around mile 20 I start thinking about brunch. This is perhaps the one time that obsessing about brunch is not obnoxious. After burning 3381 calories, there is no guilt about eating as much as I want. 

I wanted to see La Jolla, so Whisknladle (owned by PrepKitchen) seemed like a nice venture. The town is very California cute. Unfortunately, I was too sore to hobble around. Walking from the car to the restaurant was my limit.

I chose the heartiest menu item: pork shoulder verde. Or, meat and eggs with tortillas. I really enjoyed this brunch, but I would have been happy with just about anything at that point.

Also of note, Whisknladle has a self-serve coffee setup and a "wake 'n 'bake" pastry bar with jam and spreads. I think this idea is genius. First, serving coffee is a pain. Allowing customers to get their own coffee avoids a whole bunch of annoying time-wasting serving activities. Second, when people go get the coffee, they see the scones, and will probably decide to have one. For $3.50 each, the pastries with homemade jams were worth it. 

5. Rudy's Taco Shop, Solana Beach: Unfortunately, my trip didn't allow me to go crazy on cheap Mexican food. I made one attempt. The result was pretty mixed. 

The carnitas was a winner. Unfortunately, the carne asada had a sort of barnyard-y, off flavor that was rather alarming. The quesadilla was the thinnest I've ever seen; not like any American version. The small amount of cheese and the flat-top grease on the outside of it was fantastic. Really.

I wish I could have tried more Mexican food in San Diego to make comparisons. I suppose I understand the appeal of cheap food. But, I still want the food to be better than hit or miss.

6. Ballast Point Brewing Co., San Diego: Stopping at Ballast Point was a must. There's nothing quite like drinking really hoppy beer in the middle of the afternoon with no food. After a few trips to the lone container of free pretzels, I start to feel bad about myself. 

No real complaints, just good beer: Sculpin, Fathom IPL, Barmy Ale, Wahoo Wheat, Even Keel.

7. The Linkery, San Diego: In my search for crowd-pleasing restaurants, I was
also looking for a restaurant in a hipstery neighborhood. In the North Park section of town, The Linkery fits the hipster restaurant category: interesting menu, odd space, gentrifying neighborhood, ample street parking, bartender with handlebar mustache.

I decided to try this place because they make all of their own sausage. You can order the daily offerings of sausage alone or in various other forms of sandwiches and platters. 

I tried the cochinita pibil and fresh polish as a picnic plate. Not only was the sausage delicious, but the bread and potato salad was amazing. I love bread and I most certainly love grilled bread. Furthermore, I have never seen such giant potato salad. I was worried about how consistently the potatoes would be cooked, but it didn't matter. The potato salad was perfect.

Interestingly, an 18% service charge is included with the bill. The menu suggests that if you would like to "express extra gratitude" that any cash left behind will be given to their charity of the month. I've never seen this idea before, but it sounds good.

All in all, San Diego was better than I imagined. I have added it to my list of terribly tempting west coast cities. This list seems to grow each time I go out there.

Tuesday, June 12, 2012

Lost Abbey at Long Last

All beer geeks have a list of places they must visit. San Diego should be high on the list. I chose to run the San Diego Rock and Roll Marathon for a few reasons. My desire for good beer just happened to be one of those reasons. Unfortunately, the days before running a marathon aren’t the best to visit breweries and beer bars. I did the best that I could. In one day I visited Lost Abbey / Port Brewing, Stone, and Pizza Port (Solana Beach). Thankfully, I had a driver.

Lost Abbey has always been a sort of mecca for me. Due to a scheme that I should not detail on the interwebs, I was a member of the Lost Abbey Sinners and Saints Club a few years ago. I went to great lengths to attain their limited release beers. As a result, I received emails from Lost Abbey about pickup only bottle releases that seemed like cruel taunts. 

When I worked at Tria I was obsessed with knowing the town of every brewery. I always mentioned San Marcos in my description of Lost Abbey. Not that the town particularly matters, nor is San Marcos actually that notable, but I couldn’t believe that I was finally in San Marcos.

Out of all the breweries with tasting rooms that I have visited, Lost Abbey ranks high. The nearly seatless bar in the breweries’ warehouse space has an aura of relaxation. I’m sure the place can get crowded, but it feels expansive. If I lived nearby, I know that I would stop in for a few four-ounce tasters with some frequency. 

The locals seemed to be devoid of stress; maybe that’s a southern California thing. People engaged me in causal conversation; this rarely happens on the east coast. While ESPN was on the TVs, not many patrons were particularly interested. In my five o’clock hour visit, on a Wednesday, I had finally made it to a place that I had long revered, and it was awesome.

The Lost Abbey / Port Brewing Co.
155 Mata Way, Suite 104
San Marcos, CA 92069
(800) 918-6816 x102

Friday, June 8, 2012

My Top 10: On Beauty and its Discontents, Part 2

When I first learned that I had the opportunity to leave Western Mass, I felt relieved and reluctant; even though I did not have much to leave behind, I felt connected to something. What could I take with me, and what did I have to leave in Amherst? What had I learned from my rural experience?

As I mentioned in the previous post, in spite of its beauty, Western Mass can be an unsettling place to live. I have come to attribute this discontent to my previous experiences in cities. The differences between the transient experience of city life and the staid experience of rural life are jarring.

Within my first weeks and months in Western Mass, I felt the need to escape. I craved the experience of the “time—space compression.” As David Harvey defines it, “the overwhelming sense of compression of our spatial and temporal worlds.”[1] Harvey suggests that this experience “is challenging, exciting, stressful, and sometime deeply troubling, capable of sparking, therefore, a diversity of social, cultural, and political responses.”[2] To a degree, the “time—space compression” is lessened/absent in a rural area. I felt trapped in a place where the passage of time was clearly discernable and the experience of space was expansive, yet limiting.

For many reasons, I felt a sense of relief the moment I drove onto 91-S to leave town. I went months without driving over 60 mph. My life was literally going slowly nowhere. Other times, I drove about seven miles east of Amherst to RT 202. While you cannot drive terribly fast on this winding climb, the payoff is a view of the Quabbin Reservoir.

In the 1930s, four towns in the Swift River Valley were flooded to create the largest man-made public water supply in the U.S. Covering 39 square-miles this eerie Reservoir provides drinking water for Boston. Before I knew the story of its creation, I drove to the Reservoir for its beauty and sense of expansiveness; for once, I could see beyond the hills. But, after learning of its inception, I drove to the Reservoir to view the “creative destruction” and annihilative power of modernity. I needed evidence of modernity. Yes, I saw modernist architecture at UMass everyday. But, I read the campus layout as the product of a disorganized and poorly funded state university.

While my conclusion about rural discontent reinscribes a nearly unavoidable dichotomy between urban/rural (excuse the academic jargon), it appears that my experience of rural life as confining, suffocating, and inescapable contrasts with the sense of possibility, reinvention, and freedom one finds in urban life. I craved the modern/postmodern life I had known; it was time to return to the chaos.

[1] David Harvey, The Condition of Postmodernity: An Enquiry into the Origins of Cultural Change (Cambridge, MA: Blackwell Publishers Ltc., 1990), 240.
[2] Ibid., 240.

Saturday, May 26, 2012

My Top 10: On Beauty and its Discontents, Part 1

Until I moved to Western Mass, I had never lived anywhere that is truly beautiful. For twenty-five years, I lived within the same twenty-miles stretch from the suburbs of Philadelphia to West Philadelphia.

The suburbs are not beautiful. I am happy to debate this point. As a product of post-war consumer society, the suburbs represent many of the social, economic, and cultural practices that are wrong with the U.S. I cannot find the beauty in strip mall after strip mall, punctuated only by massive homes in gated communities. The sense of entitlement that accompanies extreme affluence is oppressive and unwelcoming.

I admit that Philadelphia has its beautiful qualities. I would take a cityscape over suburban sprawl any day. For two years, I enjoyed a fantastic view of the Philadelphia skyline from my east-facing high-rise dorm room. Lest anyone think otherwise, I have a special affinity for "the city" that I will take up in part 2 of this meandering reflection on the relationship between humans and their environment, or if you prefer, society and space.

I had only visited Amherst twice before I moved. Similar to many decisions in my life, I made this choice without enough reflection. I relocated for school; that was an adequate reason at the time. Even if I had attempted it, I could not have predicted the ways in which living in a rural area would affect me.  

I never paid attention to the seasons until I moved to Amherst. In Western Mass, the seasons are an unpredictable assault. The beauty of the fall foliage is spectacular. Yet, enduring six-months of a pale and grey snow-covered landscape can make one insane, depressed, and restless. Spring arrives late in New England (gratefully, it was four to six weeks early this year), but it is accompanied by a sense of relief that the worst is over. Quickly, the humidity and oppressive heat arrives. As someone who used to live here told me, “You freeze until you melt.”

While I can now find the beauty in each of these seasons, and in pastoral life more generally, there is something profoundly unsettling about living in a rural area. Like any academic, I decided to look to other academics to explain my discontent.

What is the relationship between the rural landscape and its inhabitants? How has the postmodern experience affected rural life? Am I discontent because I have lived in a place where the effects of modernism and postmodernism are unrelenting? 

As Marshall Berman wrote in his defense of modernism, do I miss “an environment that promises us adventure, power, joy, growth, transformation of ourselves and the world—and, at the same time, that threatens to destroy everything we have, everything we know, everything we are…” and the “maelstrom of perpetual disintegration and renewal, of struggle and contradictions, of ambiguity and anguish”?[1] Or, to take one portion of David Harvey’s rendering of postmoderism, do I long for the “ephemerality, fragmentation, discontinuity, and the chaotic…” that characterizes the experience of postmodernity?[2]

To be continued…

[1] Marshall Berman, All That is Solid Melts into Air: The Experience of Modernity (New York: Simon and Schuster, 1982), 15.
[2] David Harvey, The Condition of Postmodernity: An Enquiry into the Origins of Cultural Change (Cambridge, MA: Blackwell Publishers Ltc., 1990), 44.

Friday, May 25, 2012

My Top 10: Amherst Cinema

There isn’t a whole lot to do in Amherst. People like to make the argument that Northampton has “so much going on,” but that’s debatable. Thus, the age-old pastime of going to the movies remains a good option.

Luckily, Amherst has a nice independent movie theater. While the movies don’t always get there that quickly, at least the theater exists. Amherst Cinema is in the center of town. Conveniently, it’s right behind Amherst Coffee.

Over the past year I developed a study habit that involved going to the movies. I’d get to Amherst Coffee when it opened, then I’d take a break to see a matinée between eleven and noon. Most times there were only a few people at the matinée; usually they had grey hair.

I found that a movie was a great way to relax between study sessions. Well, usually this was the case. A few times I was blindsided by a terribly depressing movie and unable to return to studying. For example, after seeing Melancholia and Martha Marcy May Marlene, I felt like I needed a drink. But, for the most part I enjoyed the mental break and a whole lot of popcorn.

I’m actually a little upset that I will miss Amherst Cinema’s Woody Allen Summer Series. It figures, I leave and they show twelve movies I’d go see. As a (potential) historian, admittedly, I live in the past and discover previous times periods, somewhat sporadically. Having never seen a Woody Allen film until Midnight in Paris, I was promptly educated on which films I should have already seen. My Woody Allen aversion is hard to explain (besides my age), but it has something to do with an Italian textbook in college and Howard Stern. In the past three months, I’ve seen quite a few Woody Allen films (the classics) and I realized what I had been missing.

And so, I’ll miss the proximity of the Amherst Cinema. There are independent movie theaters in Philly, but they lack small town charm.

Amherst Cinema Art Center
28 Amity Street
Amherst, MA 01002
(413) 253-2547

Further reading/why I love Woody Allen: The Whore of Mensa, by Woody Allen

Thursday, May 24, 2012

My Top 10: Norwottuck Rail Trail

In November 2010, I accidentally ran the Philadelphia Marathon. One of my best friends, who was intentionally training for the marathon, asked me to join her for an 8-mile run on a disgustingly hot August day. I said yes. I continued to follow my friend’s training plan when I moved back to Western Mass for the fall semester. My friend, her father, and I completed the Philly marathon together and signed up for the Cleveland Marathon the next spring. 

This past January I ran the Walt Disney World Marathon. Next week, I am running the San Diego Marathon.

I was never a runner. I played the sport that requires the least amount of running: softball. Even then, I’d get on base and someone would pinch run for me. But, I found that training for a marathon coincides nicely with the rhythm of a semester. An 18-week training schedule keeps all aspects of my life on track. The flexibility of a graduate school schedule requires some sort of coherence. Further, there are very few finite and tangible milestones in a Ph.D. program. Running a race provides a much-needed sense of accomplishment.

Western Mass is a gorgeous place to be a runner. When I began running, the Norwottuck Rail Trail was my favorite route. This 10-mile paved trail runs from the Northampton side of the Connecticut River, through Hadley and Amherst, to the edge of Belchertown. There are views of the Holyoke Range, conservation areas, swamps, and farms. The Schuylkill River Trail cannot compare. The rail trail was the perfect place for me to learn to run (without cars). I ran on the trail every month of the year. Many winter days I was the only one out there.

People think that running more than one marathon is insane. As the daughter of a football coach, I grew up with concepts like “mental toughness.” I have always known that being a great athlete is not entirely about physical strength. There is a mental component to athletic success. Running a marathon cannot be done without willpower; your body gives out somewhere after mile 20 and your mind must do the rest.

I will miss running in Western Mass. I finally accepted the hilly terrain and came to enjoy the challenge. I learned to run in 20-degree weather with 5-foot snow banks. Running in Philly will be difficult for a variety of reasons, but to quote a classic movie, "the hard is what makes it great."

Norwottuck Rail Trail
446 Damon Rd.
Northampton, MA 01060
413 586-8706 ext. 12

Wednesday, May 23, 2012

My Top 10: The Idea of the High Horse

Only I could like the “idea” of a beer bar more than a beer bar itself. This sentiment is similar to how I feel about nose and eyebrow rings. In my head, those things sound great. But, in reality, they wouldn't be that cool for me.

Last summer, the Amherst Brewing Company (ABC) gave up the best location in the town: a prime spot at the main intersection. To expand their brewing capacity they relocated to a cavernous retail space about a mile down the hill (and it IS a hill). The previous tenant was Gold’s Gym. The new ABC feels like someone turned a Best Buy into a bar.

I have worked at a few restaurants. If there is one thing I have learned, it’s that location matters. I worked at two restaurants in the suburbs. One of them was near the center of town. The other was set back from the road in a terrible commercial/retail space. The former is thriving. The latter resulted in an $8 million dollar disaster; it remains the biggest debacle in the history of the Main Line dining scene. Location matters. Period.

I will never understand ABC’s decision to move. They lost their clientele from the center of town, Amherst College, and UMass. While they can brew more beer, who wants to have a beer in a cavernous soulless space? Beer bars require an atmosphere. The new ABC has none.

I was pleased to find out that the owners of The Moan and Dove decided to open a brewpub in the old ABC space: High Horse. Even though I don’t like the name, I was ready for a new beer bar in town.

The High Horse opened in December. The interior update has the feel of a nice bistro. Yet, the too-loud classic rock playlist clashes with any other attempt to create an upscale atmosphere.

The menu is eclectic and the portions are too small for the price. I’ve had the burger, the veggie burger, stuffed mushrooms, and the poutine. I don’t think the people of Amherst want an overpriced three-ounce burger.

The head brewer, with experience from Mayflower Brewing, has yet to hit his stride; the in-house beers are unbalanced across the board. The guest beers are basic craft beer choices (Lagunitas IPA, Allagash White, etc.). I realize my craft beer needs are on the on the extreme end of the spectrum.

Overall, I like the idea of the High Horse more than the actual High Horse. There is potential left and right, but no execution. In the several months that it has been open, not much has changed. It’s possible that they are making enough money off of their upstairs bar (for hipsters), to keep the downstairs bar going (for adults). But, I have no desire to go see “live DJs” and “Brojuice” perform. That’s just disgusting.

I wish them well. The center of town needs a solid restaurant/bar. Until High Horse improves, it remains just a nice idea.

High Horse
24 North Pleasant Street
Amherst, MA 01002

Sunday, May 20, 2012

My Top 10: Amherst Coffee

In "downtown" Amherst, there are several independent coffee shops, and a Starbucks. Everyone has their favorite; inevitably, this choice allows others to draw conclusions about your character. My favorite is Amherst Coffee. Admittedly, this coffee shop can be rather pretentious. Oh, and it is somewhat expensive. These are two things that I have been accused of being/being into.

The shop is frequented by professors, graduate students, a mass of Amherst College students, early-riser locals, and many young couples with toddlers. At the very least, I know I won't run into any of my undergrads.

The baristas are no nonsense. Their attitude cannot be defined as rude. Rather, they are disinterested. As long as they don't make me feel stupid for patronizing their expensive coffee shop, I can deal with neutral detachment.

This place is so popular that it's often impossible to find a seat (and a parking space). I believe Amherst could sustain at least 10 more coffee shops. In order to avoid the frustration of seatlessness, I developed a strategic study plan. 

I started arriving at Amherst Coffee the moment it opens: 6:30 am (Monday - Saturday). While I was never alone, I was guaranteed the best spot in the place: a seat at the granite bar in the front window. The study space is expansive and no one can sit directly next to you. The seat looks onto the main intersection in town. In the winter, as the sun rises, this seat enjoys the best natural light (and warmth).

Also, Amherst Coffee has a full bar that opens at 3:00 pm. I gather it's called "Whisk(e)y Bar" because people continue to drink coffee and use their laptops at bar seats past 3:00 pm. The whiskey menu is extensive and the wine is cheap. While you can study late into the evening, the noise level of happiness peaks around 8:30 pm. At that time, it's best to join the somewhat pretentious crowd and order an alcoholic beverage, or call it a night.

Amherst Coffee
28 Amity Street
Amherst, MA 01002

Saturday, May 19, 2012

My Top 10: The Moan and Dove

In Philly, beer bars are ubiquitous. When I left three years ago, the beer scene was thriving. This craft beer bubble has continued to grow. Thankfully, almost every restaurant in Philly serves a few local beers on tap. You don’t know what you’ve got till it’s gone.

When I moved to Western Mass I was ecstatic to find two beer bars in the area. I wasn’t expecting much. As such, I blogged about The Moan and Dove as soon as I arrived.

The Moan and Dove has some great qualities: 20 taps, a giant bottle list, and a mug club if you drink every bottle on the list. For monetary and caloric reasons, I was unable to make it into the mug club. The bar does not serve food, but there are free peanuts. The dropped ceiling is spray-painted dark green. For some reason that makes me laugh. They have a turntable for hipsters. They light candles at night. They have a chalkboard draft list. You can bring in your own food or order takeout. Dogs are welcome.

Unfortunately, The Moan and Dove is about a 10-15 minute hilly drive from my apartment. Lightweight that I have become, the drive home is problematic. I never made it to Moan and Dove as often as I wanted. Yet, the bartenders always remembered me. I think it was my habit of ordering Cantillon bottles and double IPAs. Most days, I was happy to know that a beer bar was within reach.

While I will miss the quirky vibe of The Moan and Dove, I'm thrilled to be returning to a place where there are many beer bars within reach.

The Moan and Dove
460 West St.
Amherst, MA 01002

Thursday, May 17, 2012

My Top 10: Montague Book Mill

The Montague Book Mill is an incredibly unique place. They sell a bumper sticker that explains it all: “Books you don’t need in a place you can’t find.” About 15 miles from Amherst, the Book Mill (housed in a 1842 gristmill) includes a used bookstore, a café that sells coffee/beer/light food (
à la the Tria toaster-oven kitchen), a reservations-recommended restaurant, an art gallery, and a record store. Eventually, some professor will ask you, “Have you been to the Book Mill? You must go to the Book Mill.” In addition to drawing the academic types, this place is a favorite stop for cyclists.

While I have never bought a book at the Book Mill (small miracle), I have spent many hours in the café. Last spring, the Book Mill was my favorite place to study for my comprehensive exams. A lovely 25-minute drive through the rolling hills that define the landscape of Western Mass, the round-trip time commitment requires you to stay a while.

The café, set partially above the Sawmill River, enjoys tons of natural light. The sound of rushing water below helps to drown out the sound of fellow café goers. While the café doesn’t have an espresso machine, the coffee is strong. The light menu of pressed sandwiches, charcuterie, and salad is totally acceptable. They make what they can with a panini press, toaster over, and microwave.

I have a particular love for cafés that also serve beer and wine. After several hours of studying, this is a rather nice/tempting option. A Dogfish Head or Victory on tap always made me smile. There are about four bar seats in front of the food preparation area. Later in the evening, a local contingent shows up to drink the craft beer on tap and watch the Red Sox on an unnecessary and distracting flat-screen TV.

As anyone who reads or writes for a living might agree, a quality working space is invaluable. As an undergrad I came to believe that certain locations have good “study karma” (southeast fourth floor Van Pelt Library, last carrel on the right, I’m thinking about you). When I'm in Philly, I still find that spot to be incredibly productive. By contrast, UMass has the worst library ever built. Amongst other reasons, I don’t go there because I’m afraid of being sexually assaulted (no exaggeration). Thus, off-campus locations have been the lifeblood of my graduate work in Western Mass. 

The Book Mill has all the qualities of a solid working space: natural light, caffeine, the ambient noise of water rushing, food, and if you like, alcohol. I have never found a café quite like it and I probably never will. I’m tempted to buy the bumper sticker, but I’d like to get out of Western Mass with a minimal number of bumper stickers. 

Montague Book Mill
440 Greenfield Rd. 
Montague, MA 01351