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Chef Michael Ballon: 25 Years Of A Chef’s Life In The Berkshires

By Lisa Green

When Chef Michael Ballon, a regional pioneer of the farm-to-table movement, first opened the Castle Street Café in Great Barrington 25 years ago, he had to import goat cheese from California. But he soon learned that excellent versions of it were being produced in our area, and over the years, the creamy, tangy cheese has appeared prominently on Castle Street’s menu.

It’s kind of him to keep it there; in his new memoir, A Chef’s Life: Farm-to Table Cooking in the Berkshires, he admits he pretty much can’t stand the stuff.

But, Ballon says, “I wouldn’t deprive my diners of the opportunity to eat it, and I recognize that many others enjoy it. It’s all in a chef’s work.”

Ballon, one of the Berkshires’ most beloved chefs and author of The Castle Street Café Cookbook published in 2010, is commemorating his quarter-century of pleasing palates with the new book, a series of essays (many with his favorite recipes) about being a chef, food trends, running a restaurant, and profiles of the farmers who have supplied the restaurant with food over all these years.

Filled with confessions (see: goat cheese, above) , memories (pianist Emanual Ax practicing at the café’s piano as astonished diners ate their meals) and quiet criticism of certain food trends (“Run fast when you see the word deconstruction applied to food”). A Chef’s Life lets us in on the why’s and wherefore’s behind his menus and management. As the book’s subtitle suggests, there is his take on the locavore revolution, which, for him, developed in part simply by virtue of being a chef in the country.

“You get to know the farms here,” he says. “We’re just buying from local farms and purveyors to provide ingredients that make great food.” The restaurant’s first menu, from the spring of 1989, is reproduced in the book. One side listed the items, the other listed the local suppliers — pretty rad back then. (The menu has entertainment value just from the prices alone; remember when an espresso cost $1.50?)

Aside from enjoying the contact with farmers, Ballon clearly cares about his customers, even going as far as calling a loyal customer in concern when didn’t show up on his regular night. “I always wanted to make Castle Street an accessible, affordable place that people feel comfortable in. Restaurants have an obligation to give back to the community.”

The community will have a chance to thank Ballon for his community involvement and 25 years at the helm of Castle Street at a special book launch event (including a food demonstration) at the Café on Saturday, September 13 at 3 p.m.

Twenty-five years is a good run for any business, but for a restaurant, it’s particularly impressive.

“Eighty percent of all restaurants fail within 5 years,” Ballon says. “This has proved to be a fertile place for chefs to ply their wares.”

A Chef’s Life: Farm-to-Table Cooking in the Berkshires
By Michael Ballon
Book launch at Castle Street Café on Saturday, September 13 at 3 p.m.
Reading and signing at The Bookstore in Lenox on Sunday, September 21 at 4 p.m. and at St. Paul’s Episcopal Church in Stockbridge on Sunday, September 28 at 4 p.m.

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Posted by Lisa Green on 09/06/14 at 08:25 PM • Permalink

Q&A With Author Courtney Maum

Author photo by Colin Lane.

Berkshire County resident Courtney Maum is a corporate namer, celebrity book reviewer, advice columnist for Tin House and now a first-time author. After showing up on countless “best summer reads” lists (Oprah, People, Glamour and Vogue just for starters) her debut novel, I Am Having So Much Fun Here Without You, will have a proper RI region book launch at No. Six Depot in West Stockbridge on Sunday, July 13. The book, set in Paris in 2002 at the very beginning of the U.S. and England’s involvement in the Iraq War, follows British expatriate Richard Haddon as he wittingly destroys his marriage by cheating on his (much) better half. His attempt to win back his French wife, and simultaneously regain his reputation as a cutting-edge, politically minded artist, is by turns hilarious and heartbreaking. On Sunday, Maum will be “live interviewing” two local couples (including Joanna Rakoff, author of My Salinger Year) with a question that is posed in the book. We recently caught up with Maum to ask her some interview questions of our own.

Rural Intelligence: I read that you live part time in France and NYC, so what lead you to buy a home in the Berkshires?
Courtney Maum: I lived in Paris for five years in my early twenties. Three years in, I met my husband, a French film director named Diego Ongaro. He’d never lived anywhere other than Paris, and I’d started to miss my friends and family back home, so we moved to Brooklyn, thinking we’d do the glamorous “struggling artist” thing. Except that it was all struggle, and no glamour. We worked from home as freelancers, and we were too broke to take advantage of all that New York has to offer in terms of culture. Heck, we were too broke to even join our friends for drinks! So much of our creative energy was being spent in negative ways—we were both feeling inadequate, cynical, envious, depressed. So we got the heck out of dodge. We figured that if we were working from home we might as well be doing so in an inspiring place. We didn’t have any friends or family in the Berkshires, but we fell in love with a fixer-upper and the landscape of the region. It’s been almost eight years and we haven’t looked back!

RI: You’re a corporate namer. What does that entail?
CM: I work for several different branding agencies, mostly in New York—and when a company wants to launch a new product, a new company division, or re-brand their corporate image, we’ll generate hundreds of names in order to present a client with twenty or so names that are legally viable for their new product. It’s a fantastic job—naming helps keep my mind sharp, and I like working outside of academia because I think the writer’s world can be a little claustrophobic at times.

RI: You write in a wide variety of voices – John Mayer, Carla Bruni-Sarkozy, Joan Didion just for starters—and your novel is told in the first person by a British man. How do you prepare yourself to write in another’s voice? And has anyone you’ve imitated contacted you?
CM: For my “Celebrity Book Review” column in the literary magazine, Electric Literature, (for which I review a newly released book from the point of view of a celebrity), I watch videos and read essays and interviews of the person I’m trying to imitate in order to get their voice and cadence down. And then I’ll do research about their life and career to find common points of interest that will tie into the book I’m going to review. For example, when I wrote a review of Steve Jobs’ biography from Michael Dell’s point of view, I read Michael Dell’s autobiography after Jobs’, watched some of his industry speeches, and looked at Dell’s advertising to see how they were keeping up with Apple’s. I was proud of that review—I was contacted by some higher-ups at Dell who said I’d gotten Michael’s voice right. But often the people that contact me—or my editor at Electric Literature, rather—are people who are angry, either with the celebrity in question (and they think they’re writing that person), or because they’re angry to find out that the point of view was faked. I had one really fanatic Sinead O’Connor fan who was positively irate to hear that the piece wasn’t written by Sinead. She went all over the Internet trying to apprise people to that fact. And for my most recent review, I impersonated Hillary Rodham Clinton, and we’ve got quite a few emails from people angry at her for one thing or another—none of these emails, of course, have anything to do with the book that was reviewed!

RI: You seem like an avid reader—is that true and how do you find the time? Do you prefer books or an eReader?
CM: I read at night, mostly, before I go to bed. This has been an ongoing ritual for me since I was a little girl. I struggle with insomnia and reading helps calm me down. I’m a book girl through and through, though—I’ve never read an ebook in my life. Of course, I understand and respect their popularity, but I’m a bit of a luddite myself—I like to turn the pages, feel the pages, smell them. And there is nothing better than curling up in a hammock during the summer with a fresh, hardcover book!

RI: It seems that in some European countries (France in particular in your novel) the people have a more “laissez-faire” view of adultery than do Americans. If true, to what do you attribute that?  
CM: I can only speak about France, because I lived there—but one major difference is that there are far less marriages to begin with than we have in the United States. I don’t know if it’s a generational thing, but most of my French friends are in serious relationships, they have children with their partners, but no plans to marry. My own husband’s parents were never married either. There’s just more legal protection in France for common law marriages than here. So it’s possible that because marriage isn’t a given for some French people that they’re approaching the idea of what it means to be in a relationship with more flexibility. In America, in terms of matrimony, I feel like we set ourselves up to fail. When I was engaged, for example, a lot of my American friends asked, “What does it feel like to think you’ll only sleep with one man for the rest of your life?!” That’s a terrible mindset going into a marriage! Marriage is so much more than monogamy, you know? Obviously, you want to aim for monogamy—it’s a goal, but I do think that French people are a little bit more realistic and forgiving about the fact that mistakes might happen. That if you’re going to spend the next fifty years with someone, yes, there might come a moment when you get bored, restless, where you might make a mistake. But that that doesn’t mean that you don’t love them anymore.

Courtney Maum @ No. Six Depot
Sunday, July 13 from 1-3 p.m.
6 Depot Street, West Stockbridge, MA

Courtney Maum @ Spotty Dog Books & Ale
Saturday, July 19 at 7 p.m.
440 Warren Street, Hudson, NY

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Posted by Amy Krzanik on 07/07/14 at 11:18 AM • Permalink

‘The Race Underground’ Surfaces At Ventfort Hall

Doug Most, a deputy managing editor at The Boston Globe, is the author of The Race Underground: Boston, New York, and the Incredible Rivalry That Build America’s First Subway, published in February by St. Martin’s Press. Named one of the “18 Books to Read in 2014” by This Week magazine, the book traces the development of the Boston and New York subway systems, a complicated, terrifying journey filled with thrilling breakthroughs and horrific tragedies.“It’s full of American history, a little death and destruction, and a lot of drama,” says Most, who will be presenting an illustrated lecture, “New York & Boston: The Whitney Race Underground” as part of Ventfort Hall’s Tea & Talk series on July 8.  In anticipation of his appearance, we asked Most about his inspiration and thoughts on writing the book.


Rural Intelligence: What inspired you to tackle this topic?
Doug Most: I love a good story and I love exploring how we got to where we are today. We take so much of our history for granted, and the subway is a perfect example. We go underground now and think nothing of it. We’re not nervous, or scared, or hesitant. But as I learned, that was not always the case. Centuries ago man was terrified of the underground. Overcoming that fear, embracing the underground, and then constructing incredible tunnels, was a huge achievement for society. I was excited to tell the story of the people who did it.

RI: Your book promos emphasize the story of the two brothers each racing to build a subway in their respective cities (NY and Boston), but the cast of characters that were involved is enormous, all the way from public figures to the immigrant workers who risked their lives to work on the projects. Was there a character that most intrigued you?
DM: There were so many. The Whitney brothers you mention, from Conway, MA, were fascinating. William Whitney could have been president if he wanted. And Henry Whitney was Boston’s most powerful businessman. My favorite surprising characters are both in New York. William Steinway, the man who gave us the beautiful piano we know today, was a key figure in New York’s subway. And the amazing story of Alfred Beach building a secret subway right under the nose of Boss Tweed and the citizens of Gotham was a fun tale.

RI: With all the descriptions of the smells, sounds, dangers and fears of the time, The Race Underground does a great job of transporting the reader back to the late 19th century. While you were writing, did you ever feel like you had one foot in the past and one foot in the present?
DM: I tried to do that, for myself and my readers. I very much wanted to take people back to that era, so they could understand that the reason the horse-pulled carriage needed to be replaced was it was slow, dirty and smelly! I wanted people to feel like they could see, hear and smell those horses. No matter how badly they smelled!

RI: It almost strains credulity that the subways were built by men using pickaxes and shovels. The Boston subway was built in two years. How long did the Big Dig take — 15 years? Discuss!
DM: Not only did the Boston subway, the first leg anyway, take 2.5 years, it was finished under budget. Just like the Big Dig, right? Okay, never mind. Yes, costs were contained more carefully then, but workers also earned only $1.20 a day. Imagine that?!

RI: You’ve said that holding the actual letters written between Thomas Edison and Frank Sprague was an emotional experience. Were there any other research “moments” like that?
DM: That was my favorite, probably. But visiting a distant relative of Henry Whitney in Connecticut and seeing her pictures of her great grandfather was cool. So was digging through the private papers and letters of William Whitney at the Library of Congress. The reporting and research was great fun. My favorite “find” was a book from 1938 of stories of people who survived the Blizzard of 1888. It was an incredible collection and I never expected to track it down, but I did and when it arrived in the mail it was like a gift from the heavens. That book alone almost single handedly wrote that entire chapter!

RI: How did Boston and New York differ in their approach to and acceptance of the subways? Did they mirror the personalities of the two cities?
DM: Boston was definitely more reluctant embracing it. But that’s also because Boston was first in America. By the time New York opened 7 years later, people understood the subway could be safe and reliable and helpful to a city. The biggest difference came on their opening days. Boston was very subdued, quiet, no big celebration. New York pulled out all the stops, a huge party, befitting New York!

RI: Your book is meticulously researched and told in a chronological manner, but you probably didn’t uncover your research in chronological order. How did you organize your massive amounts of material?
DM: One word: Timeline. I created an Excel spreadsheet and every time I found a date, I entered it there. That gave me a timeline of more than 2000 entries, and it was hugely helpful. A writer friend of mine suggested that and it was a great tip.

RI: There are characters with quite a few ties to the Rural Intelligence region. The Whitney brothers — William and Henry — were born in Conway, MA, just outside the RI region; Frank Sprague went to Drury High School in North Adams and his son Robert Sprague founded Sprague Electric of North Adams. Have you been able to find out much about William Whitney’s history with Ventfort Hall?
DM: I only learned about it after they invited me, so I am now trying to dig up more. I have an old biography on Whitney and hope to see what it says. I was thrilled by the invitation, can’t wait to come.

RI: How has writing this book changed your experience of riding on the subways in either city?
DM: I just appreciate the subways more. I ride them and stare at the tunnels, at the walls, the tracks, the stations and think about the work that went into building them. I hope other people take that away from my book, a special appreciation for the workers who gave us marvels of engineering like subways and bridges.

RI: This story could actually make a pretty compelling movie. Any interest — by you or anyone else?
DM: One can only hope!

Tea & Talk: “New York & Boston: The Whitney Race Underground”
Ventfort Hall Mansion and Gilded Age Museum
104 Walker Street, Lenox, MA
(413) 637-3206
$20 advance registration, $25 at the door

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Posted by Lisa Green on 06/28/14 at 08:48 AM • Permalink

In Bette Isacoff’s Memoir ‘Star Crossed,’ An Unlikely Pair Beats The Odds

By Lisa Green

In 1968, when Bette Francesconi met Richard Isacoff, she was a 21-year-old Catholic, a senior in college doing her practice teaching assignment. He was a 17-year-old Jewish student, a senior at the school where she was teaching. Seven weeks later they were engaged. There were, not surprisingly, objections to their engagement, from incredulous (hers) and disapproving (his) parents, uncooperative clergy, and the complications inherent in an interfaith marriage.

As Ladies’ Home Journal would ask, Can this marriage be saved?

Sorry, LHJ. You would never have heard from this couple. Despite the challenges they faced from the beginning, Bette and Richard Isacoff, who live in Cheshire (he’s an attorney in Pittsfield), have had an extraordinary marriage that’s still going strong after 44 years. It’s a love story Bette relates in her memoir, Star Crossed, published by Headwinds Publishing. Isacoff will be reading from the book and followed by a Q&A session at the Mason Library in Great Barrington on Saturday, May 17, with a chocolate tasting supplied by Chocolate Springs.

Star Crossed focuses on the couple’s first weeks of courtship, their engagement, and the obstacles leading up to their wedding, detailing the objections they encountered and roadblocks they had to overcome. The interfaith aspect was the most troubling to others, but there were also the age difference and education levels that seemed to concern everyone else. Still, they weren’t so blinded by love that they couldn’t see what they were up against. They began to work it out. When they were dating, Bette went to Friday night synagogue services with Richard; he went to Sunday mass with her. His family never accepted her; hers grew to love him like the son they never had.

Isacoff’s enthusiasm bubbles out as she talks about her many accomplishments — teacher, writer, registered nurse, former dog obedience trainer, breeder and show dog competitor, multiple academic degrees (she went back for a master’s degree in creative writing at age 64), Iditarod volunteer. And yet, she says, all that really matters in the end is the love between herself and Richard.

“I knew when I met him he had something that was magical and unique,” she says. And perhaps she didn’t realize how exceptional their marriage was until, recovering after a surgery in 2000, she tuned into Dr. Phil and Oprah, and found herself aghast at all the “my man cheated on me” dramas bleeding all over the afternoon programs on TV.

“I thought, is this the message we’re giving young women about marriage?” Bette says. “It became important to me to show people what a marriage filled with love, devotion and respect can be.” Such was the inspiration for her memoir.

At the reading, Bette (and Richard — they’re rarely apart) will reflect upon their 44-year marriage and delve into deeper questions: How do you blend your religions, and combine your families to create one of your own in faith? What makes a successful marriage, interfaith or otherwise?

The book’s excellent reviews (not to mention an endorsement by Patricia McLachlan, Newbery Medal award winner for Sarah, Plain and Tall) have been gratifying. “You put a book out there and never know what the response is going to be,” Isacoff says. But love against the odds is a story that’s pretty irresistible, and Isacoff’s evident passion for her husband is charming, if not enviable. It’s no surprise that the comment she hears most of all is “I wish I had a husband like that.”

Star Crossed Author Talk and Chocolate Tasting
Saturday, May 17, 1 p.m.
Mason Library
231 Main Street, Great Barrington
(413) 528-2403

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Posted by Lisa Green on 05/05/14 at 09:50 AM • Permalink

Author Rachel Urquhart Brings Local History To Life In ‘The Visionist’

By Amy Krzanik

Photo by Sarah Shatz.

Rachel Urquhart, part-time Tyringham resident and frequent contributor to Vogue, The New Yorker, Vanity Fair and many other well-respected publications, recently published her debut novel, The Visionist, which tells the story of a transformative friendship between two teenaged girls carrying two very different types of burdens. The novel, set in an early 1840s Massachusetts Shaker community, explores the roles that charity and devotion play in lightening the loads and lifting the spirits of ourselves and others. In anticipation of her local appearance on March 30 as part of the Stockbridge Library’s “Sunday Speaker Series,” we asked Urquhart about the inspiration behind her new book. 

Rural Intelligence: Since the novel takes place in this general area, did you do a lot of your research and writing here?
Rachel Urquhart: I did most of my research and writing here. I spent at least three summers at Hancock Shaker Village, where at first, I just walked through the buildings over and over, telling myself my story and trying to imagine what my characters would have seen and done and felt as they went about their lives in similar surroundings. When I saw a bedroom, I tried to hear how the beds would have sounded as the girls tossed and turned at night. When I saw medicine jars lined up on shelves in the healing room, I imagined how my characters might have troubled themselves forever putting things in order. When I saw the single remaining open fireplace in the kitchen, I thought about the danger of skirt fires. That sort of thing. I also spent time in the archives, which yielded up some amazing artifacts. My favorite was a handwritten journal of medicinal “receipts” (an old word for “recipes”) that dates back to the early 1800s. Between the gorgeous names of the herbs — coltsfoot, fleabane, meadow rue — and the way the receipts were worded, many of the entries read like poetry. Finally, when it came to actual writing, I spent day after day at Lenox Coffee and in the library at Simon’s Rock while my sons were in camp. And whenever the conversations taking place around me became too interesting, I’d just put on my headphones, listen to Thelonious Monk, and keep on typing. 
 
RI: Did the idea for the novel come to you fully formed, or were you inspired by a certain part of the story, whether it be the Shakers, the friendship between the girls, or of something else?
RU: Weirdly enough, the idea did come to me fully formed, though only after I’d read about the Visionists, whom I’d never heard of. Very quickly after that initial plot download, I began to hear the voices of the girls, and to think about the profound friendship they shared — what it meant to each of them, how it would change them. It took forever for me to figure out the voice of the detective — Simon Pryor — but when I finally got it, I had fun galloping through the action with him.

RI: Was there a reason you chose a friendship versus a romantic relationship, seeing as how both types of intense feeling were frowned upon by the Shaker community?
RU: I chose to focus on the intimacy of friendship rather than romance because I felt that a story of full-on forbidden love in a Shaker enclave would be a pretty cheesy cliché. It’s true that while the Shakers approved of a general sense of affection amongst the believers, they felt that anything more exclusive would throw “union” out of balance in the community. So the close friendship between the two girls in my novel is a form of forbidden love. It’s just not one that involves the passionate flinging of bonnets and ripping of petticoats. It is much more about intimacy, which, especially when expressed in a restrained manner, is infinitely subtler and more revealing than sex.

RI: Because Shakers were so strict, were you nervous about depicting them in a negative light? How do you feel about the religion now that you know more about it? Are you religious yourself?
RU: At a certain point, I simply had to write a story I felt was true, even if at times it might make people see the Shakers in a dark and possibly negative light. I trusted that the years of research I did would help me paint an accurate if more complicated and interesting portrait of the group than the bland and saintly one I was accustomed to. They were real people, after all—people who brought a lot of personal baggage on their journey “into the light.” As far as my own feelings about the sect go, I’ve always been pretty nervous around organized religion of any kind. So setting my first novel in the most rule-bound religious community imaginable must have been some kind of attempt on my part to understand that way of thinking. I’m not sure that I will ever be able to grasp what it means to completely give oneself over to one’s faith, but something that was clarified for me in a very satisfying way was the difference between the formal aspects of Shaker life and worship, and the wildly expressive spirituality that animates them. I would say that I am, in my own peculiar way, quite a spiritual person, and by immersing myself so deeply in imagining what it might have felt like to be a Shaker, I grew more so. The fact that such a practical people could embrace their inability to explain so much about the world appeals to me. They rejoiced in wonder, and I think that was sort contagious for me. 

RI: Was it difficult writing from more than one perspective, and writing from the point of view of people “from the past”?
RU: The idea of staying inside the head of a single narrator terrifies me, so in choosing three, I think I picked the simpler route. That said, having to puzzle together multiple separate but simultaneous plotlines nearly split my head open on more than one occasion. I felt like a plate-spinner with far too much twirling to attend to. As far as writing in the voices of people from the past goes, it was difficult, yes, but it was also something I never could have imagined doing differently. I think that the novel has a certain strangeness to it — I think of it as New England magic realism — and so I feel that the language needs to be old-fashioned, contemporary, expansive, blunt and other-worldly all at the same time.

RI: What was the most interesting thing you learned about the Shakers while researching the book? Perhaps something you found out that didn’t make it into the book?
RU: Well, of course, this is all over the book, but I never really knew about the Shaker attitude towards family before — the fact that they demanded the dissolution of all “blood ties” as a condition of signing their covenant. That was really fascinating to me. But on a smaller level, there was so much that didn’t make it into the novel — and I’m still coming across amazing tidbits. Last week, I was looking something up in a really great book called One Shaker Life (by the local Shaker scholar and writer, Glendyne Wergland), and I came across the mention of three Shaker girls being punished for watching flies mate. Granted, it was 1793 and the religion was in its wild and wooly early days, but you can’t make up stuff like that.

RI: Since Rural Intelligence focuses mainly on this region of the country, what are the things you enjoy doing when you’re here?
RU: I’ve lived in the Berkshires during summers and weekends for my entire life, so my favorite things are a hodge-podge of nostalgia and discovery. I have adored the Tyringham Steak Roast ever since I was a child, when it was known as “The Block Dance.” I love hiking the section of the Appalachian Trail from Fernside Road in Tyringham uphill into Beartown Mountain State Park. It took me until last summer to discover the walks on Mt. Greylock. I have celebrated my birthday every year for the past two decades at the Inn on the Green in New Marlborough and, more recently, have become addicted to the margaritas at the Southfield General Store. I enjoy listening to jazz at Mission in Pittsfield—especially when the incredible and gracious 13-year-old guitar phenom Nico Wohl is playing. It’s kind of obvious, but every time I go to MASS MoCA, I come away amazed by at least one thing I’ve seen — and there’s a great gift shop to boot! Finally, I find the events and lectures sponsored by the Bidwell House in Monterey to be fascinating and fun. My favorite event? The contest for best pie at the museum’s annual summer fair!

Rachel Urquhart will discuss and read from The Visionist at the Stockbridge Library on Sunday, March 30 at 4 p.m.

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Posted by Amy Krzanik on 03/25/14 at 10:24 AM • Permalink