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

Wednesday, May 16, 2012

My Top 10: Bikram Yoga Amherst & Sartre's "No Exit"

--> ***Spoiler Alert*** This gets a little “Dear Diary”

Approximately 2 years, 5 months, and 13 days ago I became addicted to Bikram yoga. While I started practicing in Philly, I have experienced most of my classes at Bikram Yoga Amherst. A quick summary of the practice: 1.5 hrs, 105 ‘F, 40% humidity, 26 postures (2 sets of almost everything), and 2 breathing exercises. Certified teachers spend 9 weeks learning the postures and a specific dialog for the class. Therefore, every Bikram studio offers the same practice.

Recently, I have been reflecting on the similarities between Jean-Paul Sartre’s play, No Exit, and the Bikram “room.” One of the main goals of the practice is to stay in the room and stay present. Bikram (the man who created the series) likes to play up the torture chamber aspect of the practice: “to kill yourself for 90 minutes.” Many studios embrace the inferno theme by painting the room’s walls red/orange or flames on the exterior of the building. Thus, the similarities between No Exit and Bikram begin.

No matter what is experienced in the room, you must keep your eyes open. Regardless of how painful and difficult the practice may be, you cannot escape it. Whatever your weaknesses, physical, mental, or both, Bikram will find them and challenge you to overcome them. Yet, your problems one day may not be your problems the next day. Eventually, once you adjust to the heat and the physical aspect of the practice, I believe the issues are mental. And, as Garcin, Inez, and Estelle come to discover in No Exit, “hell is other people.” Perhaps you have constructed the person standing next to you, for whatever reason, as your biggest problem. But, you cannot escape them, and you cannot escape the room.

While many people refer to this style as the “really-hot-insane-militant-yoga,” it is many other things. I have learned more about myself by practicing this yoga, 5-6 days a week, than I can possibly express. This practice teaches patience; doing the same poses day after day, with no variation, requires you to accept that your body will change at its own pace and that every posture has a beginning. This practice teaches humility; you are not in a competition with the person to your right or left. This practices teaches focus; if you remain calm throughout the practice, you will be able to face problems in your daily life more easily.

Needless to say, I believe in this practice. I am certain that I could not have run 3 (soon to be 4) injury-free (fingers crossed) marathons without practicing this yoga. But people cannot be convinced of the changes that are possible in their own bodies; they must experience it themselves.

As I have practiced mostly in Western Mass, I must thank Dan Finn, the owner of Bikram Yoga Amherst. Without Dan’s attention to detail and welcome ability to push me beyond my present capabilities, my practice may not be what it is today. I will miss the "wicked" hot windowless room with red/orange walls, a disco ball, and lava lamps. The Bikram studio on the Main Line has two smallish windows; what kind of hell is that? Well, as I already know, it’s a whole different kind.

Bikram Yoga Amherst
267 Amherst Road/Route 116
Sunderland, MA 01375


Saturday, May 12, 2012

My Top 10: Amherst Farmers' Market

Local produce is one of the things I will miss the most about living in Western Mass. Growing up in the suburbs of Philly, I knew that there were (are) farms in Lancaster County, and in South Jersey. Aside from Jersey corn in the summer, I doubt I ate very much local produce. Ironically, when I lived in Philly (Fishtown), I actually visited the closest farm every other week in the Summer (Greensgrow CSA was awesome).

Strawberries and Basil from Atlas Farms

Yet, living in a rural area was quite new to me. Suddenly, I was aware of the growing season; it’s hard to miss when you live next to tobacco fields, smell manure (year round, I swear) in the parking lot of the nearest shopping center, and are constantly stuck driving behind a tractor. However, this is all worth it. 

Eggs from Old Friends Farm. Root Veg.

The town of Amherst has an outdoor Farmers’ Market, set up on the town square, from April to November. My first winter, I discovered that the market continues in the winter. From December to March, the market moves indoors to Amherst Regional Middle School. This is seriously awesome if you are a fan of root vegetables.

Rainbow Carrots!

While I love the Farmers’ Market, the best part about living in a rural area is that I don't necessarily need to go to a farmers’ market. I can walk a few houses down, to a nearby farm, and buy produce at the “honor system” stand on the side of the road. In the summer and early fall, roadside stands are everywhere.

Never had these before; they taste like candy.

I will miss the legitimately local aspect of eating and cooking in Western Mass. While I never went so far as to buy the “No Farms, No Food” bumper sticker, I understand the concept more than I ever did. Once I move back to PA, I don’t know the next time I will cook a meal composed entirely of items grown within three miles of my house. And yeah, it really does taste different. 

Amherst Farmers' Market
Every Saturday
Center of Amherst

April 21st to November 17th
7:30 a.m. - 1:30 p.m.

Amherst Winter Farmers' Market
Every Saturday
Amherst Regional Middle School
170 Chestnut Street, 
Amherst, MA 01002
December 3rd to March 31st, 
10:00 a.m. - 2:00 p.m.

Tuesday, May 8, 2012

Homeward Bound

It is official. The Femme is moving back to Philly. After three years in the Pioneer Valley (see above), it's time to return to the land of jawns, wooter, and Murray Christmas.

I've changed quite a bit and learned a few things while living in rural Western Massachusetts. Most appropriate for this forum, I've learned that you need to live in a place that has a food scene to have a food blog!

There are very few (almost zero) places I spend money to dine out in Amherst/Northampton. There are about three beer bars in the area; all of these places involve a precarious drive home. As such, this blog was difficult/impossible to keep up. (Not to mention, I was working on a Ph.D. I will be writing my dissertation in Philly, lest anyone think I've given up!)

I feel the need to pay some sort of homage to the place that I have never called home, but where I have lived, for the last three years. I'm going write posts about my Top 10 favorite places/things/activities in the area. For the above reasons, not all of these post will be food related. But, they do explain what I've done with myself instead of dining out.

After this digression, this blog will happily return to a food blog, and Philly.