Tuesday, November 22, 2011

Jersey Crumb Cake

I sat at my parents' kitchen table in their Saratoga home one morning enjoying a piece of Entenmann's crumb coffee cake.  Long ago, after years of trying any crumb cake that came on the market, my mother had declared Entenmann's closest to her memory of the fabled cake she had had in her 1920s and 30s Hackensack, New Jersey, childhood. 

On this particular morning, I asked my mother, "Do you remember the name of the bakery that made the crumb cake in Hackensack?" Without hesitation, she replied, "Weimer's Bakery. My grandfather went there every Sunday and bought a crumb cake for us girls and my father, and a pecan ring for Mother and himself.  We liked the crumb cake best." 

My mother's tales of the Jersey cake's delectable sweet topping and base had reached mythic status in our family.  In the 1960s, my mother had attempted to recreate the recipe herself, combining different measurements of sugar, butter, and flour, until she was reasonably satisfied that she had come close to her recollection.  Back then, taste-testing these experiments was a task my sister and I had been more than willing to take on.

When I got home, I googled Weimer's Bakery.  It popped right up under the name Boehringer and Weimer (Boehringer was added in 1946) as the home of the best crumb cake in New Jersey! Still using the age-old recipe, B and W remains a thriving institution on Main Street in Hackensack. 

In early November, I visited Thomas and Marlie in Jersey City.  For the day's activity, Thomas suggested, "We should go check out that bakery."  He and Marlie had made a hobby of going to famous bakeries in Manhattan and New Jersey, so this was right up their alley, and throwing in a bit of family history made it all the more intriguing.

Meredith arrived from Manhattan, and, by noon, Thomas drove Marlie, Meredith, and me on a pilgrimage to B and W, Home of the Famous Heavy Crumb Cake in Hackensack, New Jersey.

With his BlackBerry as a guide, Thomas had little difficulty locating the bakery and its small parking lot.  Inside, a cluster of customers gathered and we studied the shelves.  Pecan rings overlapped in rows, but we saw no crumb cake.  We were waiting only a few minutes when a server brought out a huge pan of thick crumb cake and laid it on a counter.  She divided it into six-portion sections.  The crumb cake vanished so quickly that it didn't have time to linger on a shelf. Baked fresh all day from early morning until 5 p.m., B and W ensures that every customer gets a fresh piece at the reasonable price of $6.95 a section.  I purchased two--one for us to have that day, and one for me to take home.

Having secured our cakes, I called my mother from the car.  She was as excited as I was that we were discovering landmarks from 80 years before. Across from the bakery, a street sign read "Poplar Avenue."  A few blocks later, we parked in front of her childhood home.  "It's right up from the bakery!" I exclaimed on the phone.  "Oh yes," my mother said.

In this middle-class neighborhood, my grandfather had made his two daughters fantastic Christmas gifts that later became prototypes for the many wooden toys he created for FAO Schwarz from 1936 until 1970. My grandmother had cooked simple American foods, like meat loaf, baked beans, baked apples, and wholesome daily breakfasts of oatmeal or cream of wheat. My mother and her sister, in play dresses my grandmother had made, laced their brown buckle shoes into roller skates and skated on the sidewalk, laughing with friends after school.  And here, my great-grandfather brought waiting children a sugary treat every Sunday.

Back in Jersey City, at Thomas and Marlie's apartment, I laid our crumb cake on a cutting board. Three-quarters of an inch of sugary crumbs topped about a half-inch of cake.  I cut the cake into pieces for each of us.  Marlie made tea and we settled in for the taste test.

Meredith, Marlie, and Thomas are astute judges of baked goods; they know good goodies when they taste them.  I waited for their response.  Thomas said, in a less-than-enthusiastic tone, "It's good."  Meredith agreed.  Marlie studied the cake.  "It's not really cake," she determined.  "It has a rich yeast-bread base."
I looked closely.  No wonder my mother had had difficulty recreating this.  Jersey crumb cake was no ordinary combination of flour and baking powder! I pulled a piece of the base from the topping.  It was rich, moist, and sweet.  In contrast, the topping was a drier and chunky mix of brown sugar and butter. We decided that, while we liked the cake, it probably wouldn't be our first choice of breakfast treat given all the options at our disposal nowadays, both as bakers ourselves and from myriad nearby bakeries.

I packaged up the other cake and carried it back to Albany.  It was still only hours old when Bill had a piece around 9:30 p.m.  "This is really good!" he exclaimed.  I told him of our earlier somewhat subdued response and he repeated, "It seems pretty good to me."  Still, I knew the real judge was in Saratoga.  I froze a large section (against the recommendation of the bakery, of course) until I could take it to my parents.
In the meantime, I called my mother and we talked about Hackensack.  I found 1930 and present-day population statistics online and information on architectural and historical details.  I also found a recipe for a yeast-based New Jersey crumb cake! My mother reminisced about school, her friends, days when her father worked in New Jersey but her grandfather commuted by train to New York where he owned a men's millinery shop, and when Hackensack was a rising suburb separated by woods from the next town.

The following week, I was again at my parents' kitchen table. I hadn't told my mother that I had brought a crumb cake from Boehringer and Weimer's.  My mother's eyes opened wide when I took it out of the bag. "I can't believe you carried this all the way from New Jersey!" she exclaimed. My father was equally impressed.

When she saw the proportion of sugary topping to cake, my mother said, "No wonder we girls loved this!"  I waited for the verdict and she did not disappoint, "Boy, that's good!"  The rich yeast-cake base and the thick layer of crumbs were sources of admiration and brought up memories of a time when bakery treats like this were just that, treats. I showed my parents the photographs I had taken, and I was thrilled that the whole experience had been a fun vicarious journey for my mother.
When I visited my parents' home on Thanksgiving, I was surprised to hear my mother tell Bill that she and my father hadn't liked the crumb cake.  "What?!" I exclaimed. "You said it was really good!"   "Well, yes, but we decided that it was an awful lot of sugar, more sugar than cake, actually."  Ahh, I knew what had happened--my mother's adult perspective had kicked in. The day I had brought that New Jersey crumb cake straight from Hackensack, her gleeful response had been that of her 1930's inner child.

Sunday, October 30, 2011

Biking Philadelphia

When Bill said that October's Educause Annual Conference would be in Philadelphia, it took me about five seconds to decide to join him.  I have been to Philadelphia a couple of times and knew how I would entertain myself while Bill was in meetings. Biking in Fairmount Park, the largest landscaped park in the world at 9200 acres, topped the list. I emailed Breakaway Bikes, a shop that I had seen online as being closest to the park, to be sure I could still rent a bike this late in the season. 

Bill and I began the day fortified by a Belgian waffle from the Bonte Cafe along with a glass of fresh squeezed orange juice.  Full of rich butter, with European sugar caramelized on the outside, authentic waffles have to be cooked in an imported-only, super hot waffle maker. Crispy on the outside, and creamy on the inside, they tasted to us like the most delicious waffles west of Belgium.

From there, Bill headed to the convention center and I walked over to Breakaway Bikes. In minutes a nice young man set me up with a hybrid Fuji bike for the day, with helmet and kryptonite lock, and told me how to get to the bike path, about a half-mile away, and the park a mile beyond that.  

The Schuylkill River (pronounced "skoogle") cuts the park into East and West. The Waterworks, built in 1815, dominates the entrance to the East side.  Disease had already made people aware of the need for a reservoir of clean water and a system to send it to the city.  The complex became a Sunday afternoon destination for picnicking, skating, and walking. It is now open for tours.
Above the Waterworks, The Philadelphia Museum of Art houses a huge art collection, and was built as part of the 1876 centennial celebration.  The museums's 72 stone steps were made famous by Sylvester Stallone in the 1980 Rocky III movie.

I could have spent hours in the museum, but today I intended to explore the 40-plus miles of trails in this park.  I thought I would ride along the 20-mile loop on both sides of the river, and methodically take in the Colonial houses on the adjacent bluffs.  The first house I cruised by, Lemon Hill, made me realize that to ride the river trail and see the houses, I would be doing a lot of up and down.  The houses were built to take full advantage of river views below.  Up, down, and all around, became the motto of my day. 

My Fuji felt comfortable and smooth as I cruised along the riverside. At times, I shared the road with runners, but, in some areas, they had their lane to the left, I had the center, and cars were off to the right.  This is a biker's dream. 

Pedestrian and bike traffic were light on this Thursday morning, although my travels were occasionally impeded by Canadian geese. I could stop often to take pictures without becoming a road hazard. A cool autumn breeze kept me company as I rolled along.

I had printed off a park map while still at home.  Although it had limited detail, it gave me some idea of where the trails went and how I could get to different houses and high points.  I was pretty impressed when I crossed the river on this bridge!  Wouldn't bikers and pedestrians like this kind of accomodation in Albany? 

When I thought about life in the mid-1700s, it seemed almost unbelievable that the city had become so populated and foul that wealthy residents were already seeking country homes here, a fair distance in those days of about four miles from the center city. Eight colonial homes are scattered throughout Fairmount Park, all originally having significant acreage for farming, and overlooking the Schuylkill River.  Some are open to the public.  I knew I wouldn't be able to take time from my bike ride to tour the homes today because I was determined to cruise by every one of them.  If I get the chance to go back again, I now know which of the eight I would want to go inside.

Mt. Pleasant, above, built in 1762, with its unusual architecture for that period, and additional buildings for the servants and smokehouse, was originally the home of a Scottish sea captain.  I would choose to tour this house because so many of our founding fathers visited it.  I liked picturing George and Martha Washington getting out of a carriage here for a dinner visit. John Adams proclaimed Mt. Pleasant the finest house in Pennsylvania.  And, before becoming a traitor, Benedict Arnold bought the property for his wife.

Cedar Grove, above, was built way back in 1748 by a wealthy widow.  What was it like out here for a woman alone (with her staff, of course!) at that time?  Wilderness surely must have been within sight of these rural escapes. This stone house boasts a "must-see" kitchen.  I liked the look of Cedar Grove with its stone construction, numerous chimneys, and beautiful windows.

Fairmount Park has a huge amount of land for recreational use with tennis courts, a riding stable, and ball fields.  I came across a track meet here at the Belmont Plateau.  I had to put my bike in the lowest gear to get to the plateau's summit, but was rewarded by benches under large oak trees that made a restful spot to enjoy this spectacular view of Philadelphia.  I sat down and ate the apple I had bought from an Amish vendor the day before at Philadelphia's Reading Terminal Market.

The bike path supposedly continues as far as Valley Forge.  I exited the park for a short distance, but came across construction and detours almost immediately. I circled back, seeing no reason to leave the park's beautiful designated bike trails, and returned to the city along the river. 

After leaving my bike at Breakaway Bikes, I managed to beat Bill back to the hotel with some time remaining to freshen up.  He had an hour and a half dinner break which he intended to spend at the famous Monk's Belgian Cafe and Beer Emporium, not far from the hotel. A pub dinner with Bill and the evening vegging out at the hotel alone seemed like the perfect end to my biking and sightseeing day.

Thursday, October 13, 2011

Blueberry Hill

As soon as I open the car door, I smell dry autumn leaves, goldenrod and grasses--the aromas of a meadow. This is my backyard, a 5 1/2 mile distance from my urban home, merely a stone's throw, a short drive, or even at times a bike ride. It isn't my first choice of escape. I prefer woods and mountains, but I can still feel alone in nature here not far from home.

For four years, I was a docent at the Albany Pine Bush Discovery Center. This past summer, I made the change to "preserve steward." Now it is my responsibility to walk my trails in the Blueberry Hill section of the Pine Bush once every two weeks. I hope to become intimate with this piece of land just inches away from urban development and the city land fill.

Today I came fresh from re-reading Anne Morrow Lindbergh's Gift from the Sea. The three ideas that Anne gleaned from her time at the beach were the need for simplicity, solitude, and an understanding of the intermittency of nature and relationships.

I had the solitude and simplicity--just me and my hiking boots. At times I could see office buildings beyond the tree line, and the outlines of houses on neighboring streets, but I did not see any other person.

I began my walk along the lane surrounded by typical pine bush scrub oak and pitch pines on my way into the meadow. Besides a low hum of distant traffic sounds, I heard birds in constant conversation. I was pleased to see a pair of bluebirds, lots of sparrow varieties, tree swallows, chickadees, and turkey vultures circling overhead. It was a treat to be out early on this Indian Summer day.

Albany's Pine Bush Preserve encompasses 3100 acres of inland pine barrens. While coastal pine barrens are common, our Pine Bush is one of only 20 inland areas remaining in the world. It gets considerable notoriety as a home of the endangered Karner Blue butterfly, but, in fact, over 50 species "of special concern" live here also. It is an ecosystem worth protecting.

I walk at a relaxed pace soaking up the autumn sun, the bird sounds, and aromas of this morning.

Still, I am a woodland person, and I am glad when my path enters the trees, even though the trail runs under power lines and I can now hear children's voices from nearby neighborhoods.

My task for today is to pick up sticks and small branches on the new trails that are being built on the periphery of this part of the Pine Bush. By having fewer trails criss-crossing the acreage, the ecosystem will be more whole and will foster a more secure place for the animal and plant life that is native to this area. Old trails will be cordoned off.

I start picking up sticks. There are lots of them. I can tell right away that I'm not going to get the trail cleaned up in one morning. Now I begin to think about the time and plan how much of my morning I can spend here.

And then I hit the first bog. Okay, it's been an incredibly wet past few months, but this wet area is huge. I have to go way around it into the trees and off the trail. I don't like to go off-trail at the Pine Bush because there are lots of deer ticks.

Deer ticks carrying lyme disease are everywhere in the Northeast nowadays and I have found them on my clothes here and on other hikes, which is why I wear the fashionable Pine Bush style of tucking my pants into my socks. While it's fun to see deer and fawns, today I just see their tracks.

I finally get around the bog, pick up more sticks, and find a few beer cans and pieces of broken plastic. I regret that I didn't bring a trash bag with me.

Besides the bog, the ticks, and the trash, I'm getting hot and mosquitos are attacking me like crazy. As usual, I forgot the great new bug lotion I bought last summer for camping.... I check my watch. There are other things I need to do today than to be here whacking at mosquitos.

My serene mood has vanished. Sure, I'm still solitary out here with my hiking boots, but any spiritual aspects of the morning are long gone. I just want to get out of the woods. But there are two more bogs. I go around them, pushing twigs and branches out of my way.

Finally, I'm back in the meadow. What was that intermittency idea that Anne Lindbergh talked about? Oh yeah, moments of perfection come and go in nature, in relationships and in mood; it is best to recognize the fluidity of the ebb and flow.

The landscape reminds me of coastal pine barrens that I have walked on Cape Cod. Perhaps the drone of continous sound is not traffic, but the distant rolling of waves on the shore. I'm good at these kinds of imaginings and let my mind recreate this scene in another place.

I'm definitely overdressed, and I could use a little of that ocean breeze. It's supposed to go up to 80 degrees on this October day and the sun is rising. I take the shady side of the meadow and find a few lingering raspberries.

Birds still sing and flit from branch to branch. Even though I forgot the bug dope, I have my binoculars and try to get some good bird sightings. A couple of flickers cross my path, bees taste the last remaining pollen of goldenrod in the sun, and a chipmunk scrambles through dry leaves as it dashes into the wooded edge of the trail. Hey, there's even a seagull. Maybe I really am near the ocean! (I can't see the landfill that attracts them and pretend it's not there.)

While bright colors are rare in a pine barrens environment, this token maple stands out between the oaks. My mood is improving so I keep walking. I don't remember what else it is that I have to do this morning but I'm sure I have a list somewhere.

But what do I smell now? Something that is not dry leaves and meadow. Grilled cheese?? I look around. I'm at least a quarter of a mile from the nearest building and even farther now from the houses. And there are no fast food restaurants in this area. It smells really good. I even wonder if there might be a controlled burn happening in the Pine Bush that I was unaware of. No, this is definitely the gooey aroma of toasty cheese in a fry pan.

I realize that I'm kind of hungry. Morning is on the wane. A grilled cheese sandwich would taste really good, but I know I don't have any Swiss, my favorite, in my refrigerator. Still, a cold glass of fresh apple cider, something I do have, would taste pretty refreshing. I'll put Swiss cheese on my next grocery list.

As I turn into the tree lined path where I began and head to my car, I am reminded of naturalist John Burroughs who admonished his readers a century ago to "make the most of the near at hand." I will be back in a couple of weeks to scout out any changes and to pick up more sticks on "my" trails in the Blueberry Hill section of the Albany Pine Bush Preserve.

Saturday, September 10, 2011

Apple Picking

Even though we are still enjoying the fruits of summer in early September, by Labor Day our thoughts turn to apples. We like early Macs and "early" really is the name of this game when the MacIntosh apples are the most crisp and tart.

Lindsey's Orchard on Sugar Hill Road in Clifton Park has been our apple picking spot of choice since 1980 when my sister recommended it to us. Over the years we have checked out other locations, but have stuck by Lindsey's for two reasons. First, while they suggest areas for picking, we are free to roam the orchard. Some orchards are far more rigid about where you pick, even roping off certain trees. Second, even though Lindsey's has a lovely country store and apple shop on Route 9, the orchard is very low key. Apples are weighed and a few items are available for purchase in the back of a small barn on the property.

For most of the past 30 years, we have picked apples at Lindsey's with our parents or sisters decades ago, babies and toddlers, and then teenagers. Although Clifton Park has changed dramatically in those years, this farm seems the same to us every time we go.

This year, Thomas and Marlie visited on the day we had in mind for picking. While they only planned to get a few apples to carry back with them to New Jersey, they were up for the activity.

Bill and I used to pick a full bushel, but now with just the two of us at home, a half bushel is plenty. With paper in hand, Bill scanned the orchard for the colored streamers of the varieties that we wanted to try.

On this Saturday, apples ripe for picking included Paula Reds, JonaMacs, MacIntosh, Rhode Island Greening, Gala, and Wolf River varieties. Plenty of options for the four of us!

I didn't remember Wolf River apples and wanted to taste test one of these. The apples were so huge that we decided they would only do for baking. Still, we needed to see what they were like, picked one, and each took bites from different sides. All of us determined that Wolf River apples were short on flavor.

We wandered to the Cortland trees, designated by long yellow streamers. These had good flavor, were comfortably large and skins a little tough--perfect for baking. I filled the bottom of my bag with Cortlands, visualizing apple pies and coffee cakes.

Finally, we wandered over to the Macs--perfect! Smaller and tart, with crisp skin, these are the apples to take for lunches or just to munch in the evening when we need a little snack.

I didn't have any difficulty finding plenty of apples at eye level, but Thomas went up the ladder to pick those that Marlie spotted up high, tossing them down carefully so as not to bruise any.

We weighed and purchased our apples while Marlie perused the local products that the Lindsey's has to offer. She ended up buying a jar of honey made at Stone Quarry Farm in nearby Halfmoon.

We decided to visit Riverview Orchards on Riverview Road in Rexford as well. Riverview has a shop with many products, activities for kids such as a hay maze, and a large window overlooking the cider doughnut making process.

Although Lindsey's also sells doughnuts, we had saved our appetites for Riverview. Fresh from the fryer, these still-warm doughnuts are just a little crispy on the outside and soft on the inside. Thomas declared them to be among the best cider doughnuts he had ever had.

While we had by-passed Bowman Orchards on Sugar Hill Road on our way from Lindsey's to Riverview, we were interested to find that the cider that Riverview sells is from Bowman's. Not only did I like this collaboration between neighboring farms, but I was pleased to be supporting another local farm with our purchases. (Don't miss Bowman's if you are in the mood for ice cream. They have a scoop shop of their own homemade, as well as pick-your-own apples and berries, and a nice store in the barn behind a lovely historic brick home.)

We spent a bit of time in Riverview's shop. Marlie studied the bee colony and found the queen bee, Bill perused the Palatine cheeses, and Thomas and I took a direct route to the doughnuts.

In the end Marlie bought a bottle of Arbor Hill Chocolate Cabernet Sauvignon Wine Sauce made in the Finger Lakes and a cut of Wisconsin Horseradish Gourmet Cheese. Thomas and I got cider and doughnuts, and I picked up my annual jar of Riverview Peach Preserves.

This weekend the orchards were seeing a steady business but were not overwhelmed with families. We were able to sit on the front porch at Riverview and have our snack while the doughnuts were still warm.

Next weekend (September 17/18) is the Clifton Park Farm Fest. Then every farm in the area will be hopping. If you have never attended Farm Fest, it's definitely a must-do. Check it out at http://www.cliftonparkfarms.org/ and click on Farm Fest 2011.

For now, we would head back to Albany, where I would juggle everything in my refrigerator to accomodate the half-bushel of apples we had just picked. We might be back in October to pick Northern Spy apples (the best for baking in my opinion), and maybe some Fujis for eating. And by then, I'd probably have a hankering for more doughnuts!

Sunday, July 31, 2011

My August Childhood

Early on every morning of my childhood between mid and late July, I awoke to the rhythm of horses' hooves coming from the Oklahoma training track across the street from our Fifth Avenue home in Saratoga Springs. I lay in my bed, eyes closed, listening. First one set of hooves, then another, faster, approaching and disappearing, or a group of them together. Sometimes conversation or the gentle crooning of "workout boys," as we called them then, joined the rhythm.

I would roll out of bed, and kneel on the floor, my elbows perched on the windowsill, my chin resting on my hands. I hoped to catch glimpses of the horses between the houses and trees that partially blocked my view. I was glad that my bedroom was in the front of the house where I could begin my summer mornings this way.

But by August, when racing traditionally began, I had moved my sleeping quarters to the basement where my older sister, Carolyn, and I would spend the month, because my parents rented the four upstairs bedrooms. In the final days of July, we emptied our closets, our desks and dressers, and made the rooms look ready for our "roomers." My parents slept in the livingroom for the month using the hide-a-bed (a fold-out sofa), opening it every night and closing it up every morning.

In the early years, my parents put a wooden sign on the lawn that read "ROOMS" in my mothers artistic lettering. Before long, we became part of the network of Saratogians who rented rooms or houses to August people, bringing in some additional household cash. When the husbands went to work for the day, housewives knew who to call. Lois might call my mother, "I have a man who needs a room and mine are full. Do you have anything?" My mother might call Marilyn, "I have two men, but can only take one more. Can I send the other to you?"

Our four bedrooms were always full, either from people who came year after year, or from someone who knew someone who recommended someone who needed a place. Most of the time our roomers were employed by the track. A few came to play the horses, but my parents preferred not to have flighty bettors who might not be depended upon to stay the entire four-week season.

Because our upstairs had only one bathroom, my parents almost always rented exclusively to men. "The men don't want to share the bathroom with women," my mother would say. Occasionally, a wife might be allowed to visit on the weekend.

We had Mr. Snow who loved "coming up to the country." He complimented my violin practice, and, when he returned to Queens, he sent me first-day-covers for my stamp collection. On Tuesdays, the track's dark day, Mr. Snow drove out to Washington County for Hand melons, and to Winslow's on route 9 for their turkey dinner.

Mr. Ludski did not have a car. Since our house was an easy walk to the flat track, this wasn't a problem, but in his free time he wanted to find unusual flowers. He would prowl the roadsides and nearby parks assuaging his botanical interest, walking many miles on a Tuesday. When he returned to New York, he would scatter seeds of wildflowers in Central Park.

We had a horse salesman from Ireland; the "boys," Charlie, and Marshall Cassidy, who were just beginning long careers with the New York Racing Association; the "three musketeers" who came back to the house in a slump if they had lost that day, and the "girls," who came only one season, adding drama and glamour, their sequined ball gowns hanging from the door jambs; and countless others.

In the mornings, Carolyn and I had a few chores. The men would leave by 6 a.m. My mother went into action instantly. I emptied the ash trays and waste baskets, and brought used sheets, towels, and water glasses to the kitchen. Waste baskets would be filled with pink sheets and The New York Times. How strange it seems to me now that the men smoked in the bedrooms! Further dating my experience to the 1960s and 70s, each man had a small fan to keep himself comfortable on the hot nights. Few people had, and no one expected, air conditioners.

Bedsheets were changed every third day. My mother had two long clotheslines across our large back yard. Sheets and towels went from end-to-end and side-to side. If rain persisted, she hung the laundry in the basement, but that would be a stressful week. Before any of the men might reappear, she would race up the stairs with cleaning supplies in hand. By 10 a.m., in her "work dress," as she called the A-line sleeveless shifts she made for summer, she was ready to sit for just a minute in the livingroom in front of one of our large oscillating fans, wiping her face with a kleenex.

Most of the men would return in the late morning and leave again before the 1:00 post-time. When we heard the track's bugle call from our house, we knew they would be gone until 6 p.m., around the time of the final race. Then they would go out for dinner, and be in by 8:00, ready to study the news for tomorrow's race day. Somewhere in-between times, Carolyn and I had to run upstairs to take our showers. Our first floor only had a half-bath. If we missed our chance for the day, we had to take a sponge bath in the basement set-tubs.

Carolyn and I liked sleeping in the basement. We had comfortable twin beds without bedspreads so they were easier to make each morning. The basement was cooler than our upstairs rooms, and sharing a room for a while was fun. In addition, our toys were in the basement, and we really weren't too worried about making that window of time for an upstairs bath. Some of this novelty wore off as we got to high school and college, but, for the two of us, the racing season always brought a sense of newness and curiosity.

For one week each August, my parents shipped us off to our grandparents who lived in a small rural home in the Berkshires of Massachusetts. We swam in the nearby river, sent sticks sailing in the brook, picked raspberries, helped our grandfather in his toy shop, climbed the apple trees, ate four meals a day, walked a half-mile to the tiny post office for the mail and a treat, and were doted upon but not spoiled (horrors!). If it sounds idyllic, that's because it was.

Some years, we also spent an August week at our aunt and uncle's in northern New Jersey. Then we might get a trip to the ocean where there were boardwalks and salt water taffy, an exotic outing for children who grew up with Adirondack lakes. At their suburban Victorian home, we ate gingersnaps from a box and made leaves burn using the sun and a magnifying glass.

But back in Saratoga, we found plenty to do. We could pick up the Spa bus on Circular Street and ride out to the Peerless Pools. Orthodox Jews who rented places on Phila Street also rode the bus, getting off at the Lincoln Baths. By the time I was ten, my best friend, Patti, and I could ride our bikes the four miles to the Spa pools or to play in Ferndell Spring.

For a few years, Patti and I made a checklist with the name of every state on a piece of paper. Riding our bikes, studying the license plates of the cars parked along the sidestreets, we tried to find a car for every state in the country. (Nooo, we did not have cars parked on the front yards. Our neighborhood of finely groomed grass never allowed such a thing!) Any state in the northeast was an easy find. More distant places like Illinois or Georgia intrigued us, but Alaska and Hawaii were the real trophies. Years could go by without finding one of those, although now and then a Rolls Royce with a British license plate crossed our path! This required adding a whole new line on our checklist.

And we were horse crazy. Patti and I drew horses, painted horse pictures, pretended to be horses, talked horses with our friends, read every girl-and-her-horse story we could find, and knew the different horse breeds from books. Even though my parents rarely went to the races and kids were not allowed to go, we made regular pilgrimages to the flat track early in the morning to watch the workout. We always had some knowledge of the year's star horses and jockeys and hoped to see them.

Then August would come to a close. Before the Henning Road entry, horse trailers rumbled up our street to the stables a few blocks away. We were ready for it all to end. My mother looked forward to taking down one of the two clotheslines and folding up that hide-a-bed until company came for Christmas. Carolyn and I had tired of our toys and the basement. We had nice bedrooms and were ready to reclaim them.

No sooner had the last roomer walked out the front door, than we began cleaning and moving our clothes back upstairs. Now horse trailers went by in the opposite direction with horses peering out from behind the small windows. Still, a few of them stayed a while and worked out across the street. In the misty cool late-summer mornings, the rhythm of hooves would wake me as I again slept in my bedroom. Now-and-then I would hear the soft singing of the workout boys whom I knew sat high in the saddle of the sleek thoroughbreds as they went around the Oklahoma Track.

By early September, the horses would all have gone, just leaving their flies behind. Cars no longer parked along the street, August's earnings went into the budget, and my mother went back to her part-time job at Skidmore College, while Carolyn and I headed to school.

After I graduated from college in 1978, my parents rented to just a few people for a couple of weeks during August for the Fasig-Tipton yearling sales. Before long, they stopped having roomers altogether. Still, until they sold the Fifth Avenue house in 2007, I made a point of staying overnight in my childhood bedroom once during the season and listening to the sound of horses' hooves going by.

I'll be heading to Saratoga tonight and will have my calendar in hand. My parents and I need to find a date to go early to the flat track and watch the morning workouts and admire the sleek thoroughbreds. Maybe I'll even see a car with a British license plate parked along the street.

Thursday, July 7, 2011

What's in Sharon Springs these days?

When my friend, Maggie, said that our outing this summer would be to the town of Sharon Springs, she added, "Bring your camera. This will be perfect for your blog!"

I was a bit skeptical. Bill and I had explored Sharon Springs ten or fifteen years ago when it was on an upswing, featured in the local and national newspapers. Since then, I'd heard nothing of it. And also, as a Saratoga native, I knew that this town had always been Saratoga's second cousin.

As I climbed in Maggie's car, joining her teenage granddaughter, Jorian, Maggie's first words to me were, "Did you do your homework?" Uh-oh, I hastily changed the subject!

I didn't have to worry because our first stop for the day was My Sisters' Place Cafe in the "upstreet" area of Sharon Springs. Tucked away, it presented a comfortable setting that would make anyone feel at home. Margi, the owner, offered us the day's selections. I chose a highly-recommended omelet made with goat cheese and pesto. Although, truth be told, I could have chosen anything she mentioned--the food here is fresh and local, just what I like. The omelet came with side salad of mixed greens.

Maggie, Jorian, and I had pleasant conversation and then we headed outdoors. "Be sure to walk the labyrinth," Margi told us, describing how neighbors had built it for her, and that Amish carpenters who lived nearby had built the Tea House.

I have been to labyrinths--circles where the path goes in ever smaller rounds--at Kripalu in Lenox, and in Jackson's Garden at Union College in Schenectady. I had tried to understand their meditative aspect and I had diligently walked them both, but walking in circles just didn't do it for me. This serpentine labyrinth was just my style. Large and meandering with the tea house at the far end, it wandered across the lawn. I could imagine getting lost in thought on this narrow gravel path. Already, I was starting to see the charm of Sharon Springs in the 21st century.

Sharon Springs is a town of 517 residents (2009), but in its heyday it boasted a summer crowd of 10,000 sharing its population of rich and famous with Saratoga Springs, just to the north. By the mid-20th century, Sharon Springs, always known as a particular favorite of New York City's Jewish population, attracted holocaust survivors who could take the therapeutic spa treatments as part of a medical reparations package.

Maggie insisted that I try the Eye Water Spring, noted to improve vision and focus. Jorian agreed and hurried over for her own treatment. Having Jorian along added credibility. Okay, Maggie is a friend of nearly 25 years, but I knew you couldn't get anything past a 14 year old. I rubbed some of the water into my eyes and tasted it, clean, sweet, and not sulphury. Below is my picture of the spring today, along with a historic photo from the mid-1900s. Note the women rubbing their eyes.

Unfortunately, the bathhouse, below, has fallen into extreme disrepair. I was surprised when Maggie told me that it had been a working therapeutic center just five years ago. Since then, a Korean-American company bought many of the old properties in 2004, but have been absentee owners. Much speculation revolves around their plans as local folks despair while the spa and several very large old famous hotels crumble.

Past the Bath House, we walked on Main Street, the "downstreet" area of town, where many charming businesses looked welcoming on this summer day.

The historical society had restored an old schoolhouse, while businesses, new just in the last decade, gave the street charm and vitality. And the most famous restoration project, the American Hotel, made a good case for staying overnight here.

(Historic plaques line both sides of the street. This town is justifiably proud of its past.)

(Restored shop buildings and even some "bottle" art reflect glory days as an internationally known Spa.)

(We were full from our lunch at My Sisters' Place, or we might have considered this pretty cafe.)

(This lovely home is now a massage therapy business.)

(The American Hotel, true to its name, sports the red, white, and blue.)

Still, there remain signs of long-ago prosperity and modern neglect. Besides the old hotels, boarded up with tall ever-encroaching weeds, homes and guest houses on the side streets are desperate for repair. I was particularly taken with this one, where columns go nowhere. How long would they continue to stand? Yet, this same building had gorgeous detail, such as the stained glass above every window.

I wondered what would happen to these buildings. They looked ripe for arsonists, the final note to other buildings in this town and such as happens in so many places. And, despite the rural beauty of the surrounding rolling hills and farmland, who would come here in this day and age when few people touted the benefits of mineral waters?

(Stone steps once led to a grand Victorian home entry and a lion-bracketed bench faces a former garden area.)

The residents of Sharon Springs hope to encourage artists and artisans, billing the town as a place off the beaten path for the post-911 crowd of city dwellers seeking the restorative quiet of an artist's community. As such, some homes have been lovingly brought back to life.

For now, go to the cafes, check out the shops, have a massage, and walk the paths of history. Oh, and if you're adventurous, trundle down a path next to the bath house and try clarifying your vision. I didn't notice a difference, but that was before I saw the photo of those ladies from the 1930s. Maybe I need to get a nice white handkerchief and dab gently at my eyes. Splashing the water camping-style didn't do the trick. Still, Jorian swears by it. Well, Maggie does too, but I'm sticking with the opinion of a history-loving, grandmother-accompanying, high schooler.