Where in world...?

An old friend phoned the other day. He never phones. But this time he just had to know: "What are you doing living in Florence?"
He thought I was in Florence, Italy. I told him it was Florence, Massachusetts.
Here are some answers -- my occasional wanderings through Florence, MA and the surrounding Pioneer Valley.

Friday, March 30, 2012

Sugar Shack in the Hills

Last Sunday, I went with my yoga buddy, Jeff, and his wife (my sushi buddy), Lori, up to Ashfield, Massachusetts to go swimming in maple syrup. I am only slightly exaggerating. South Face Farm has been a farm for about 150 years, and the maple sugaring has been going on since 1952. Jeff and Lori come up here frequently from Northampton, with only a 25 mile drive through the hills. I was really excited to be asked along on this trip, as I had been wanting to go to a sugarhouse since moving to Massachusetts. I had grown up in a part of New England that is closer to New York City, without such attractions nearby. The main objective on this visit was to eat a meal dripping with maple syrup. Jeff had refrained from eating anything that morning, except for a yogurt, in order to have enough room for the maple sugar-covered brunch he was envisioning.

The maple sugaring season has started early this year, as have other natural processes related to springtime. Usually the sugaring happens when it's still really cold, but the days have grown longer and the longer hours of sunshine provoke the sugar maple sap to start running. The photos below show the typical wintry look of maple sugar season from previous years.
Sap drips into these pails, to be boiled down later.
Inside is maple syrup mecca. (http://www.southfacefarm.com)
While I am not the greatest connoisseur of maple syrup, I did appreciate being able to pour it on everything without guilt or paying extra. To have this privilege so close to the source of the syrup made it very special and perhaps made each of us even more gluttonous.

We were so busy with eating and pouring maple syrup that I neglected to take pictures. (I would have ended up with a sticky phone, if I had tried.) But here is a quick rundown of how we tried hard to replace our red blood cells with maple syrup:
  • Three coffees with maple syrup (at least two tablespoons per cup)
  • One waffle with maple syrup ice cream and blueberries
  • Short stack of French Toast made with cinnamon bread, covered with blueberries and maple syrup (at least one cup)
  • One combo plate with 1 pancake, 1 French Toast, 1 corn fritter, covered with two cups of syrup
  • One plate of corn fritters (four), each to be covered with maple syrup (1/4-1/2 cup) on individual plates
  • Small plate of pickles
Okay, so the pickles weren't dipped in syrup. They were meant to give us a palate cleanser, of sorts. And a disagreement arose around the waffle with ice cream, but I supported the notion that the ice cream would have had enough syrup, offsetting the need to pour additional syrup on top. I will admit it would have looked pretty, but would have caused the ice cream to start melting even faster than it already was trying to do. You can check out the menu yourself, and if you're coming to next year's maple syrup season, let me know! Many thanks to Jeff and Lori for showing me the way to maple syrup nirvana!

Wednesday, March 21, 2012

The Interfaith Emergency Cot Shelter and Brisket

Last night's excursion would not normally be considered a destination for most visitors, but the Interfaith Emergency Homeless Shelter (often referred to as the Cot Shelter) on 43 Center Street in downtown Northampton is one of a number of emergency shelters available to those in need. My visit last night was my second one where I helped provide the evening meal to the night's residents.

It's not a glamorous place, located in the basement of an office building next to the police station. Last night we had twenty diners for our meal of corned beef brisket, macaroni and cheese, fruit, cheese and crackers, salad, bread, dessert, accompanied by milk, water, or apple cider. The dinner can be a bit potluck because different individuals bring the different parts of the meal. To make things even more random for the diners, each night's meal is the responsibility of a different group's members. Last night I was working as part of the League of Women Voters-Northampton Area, responsible for one night out of the month. We'd be unable to add any more days because there are no more open nights for us to give a meal. The first time I looked at the sign-in cards, back in January, I was amazed to see how many people in the area are eager to help out.

This shelter takes in the overflow of clients who are seeking shelter and services at another local shelter, the Grove Street Inn. Those who cannot be accommodated at the Grove Street Inn, and then the Cot Shelter, are asked to stay at a  shelter in Easthampton, the next town over. With only twenty spaces available at the Cot Shelter, it is not unusual to have people asked to check another shelter nearby. The Cot Shelter is available from November to April, the colder months when most people will be seeking shelter and hot meals. The night's diners are also resident for the night. 

For me, it was a chance to play restaurant again, as I once did on occasion back in the past. To be able to feed people is a great pleasure, and I will readily admit that when some of the diners came back for seconds, saying the meal was delicious, I was more than happy to help serve more to them. Not having to deal with the exchange of cash really helped, too, though replacing the choice attached to the financial power of paying is the lack of real choice in the meal.

Baked Corned Beef Brisket Ala Kevin the BBQguru
The lack of choice in the meal did not stop some diners from making requests. Some didn't want salad; some didn't want brisket; some wanted bread without butter; some only wanted one piece of brisket. One man who approached the server was unsure about brisket, claiming that because he had been raised in the South, his mother always told him that white meat was better than red meat. To me the requests were generally run-of-the-mill, not signifying finicky behavior but rather the assertion of individuality that was threatened with annihilation in their current circumstances. 

For another member of our team last night, however, this was not the same view. We cook the meals at home, serve the meals, and then clean up in the kitchen. As we bused the trays, many of which were heartily cleaned off by hungry diners, one tray came back nearly uneaten. The team member in question criticized the unknown diner, talking about him/her as if he/she had been a naughty child refusing to eat what he/she had requested, in this case, in a somewhat more generous portion. Two of us stopped to let her know that we cannot know if someone didn't feel well, or if the meal didn't agree with him/her for whatever reason. "Everyone has a different preference," I asserted, to this team member's silence. She was unwilling to let go of her motherly bias, that this person was asking for a lot and then wasting it. But she was also unwilling to acknowledge that we're dealing with grown adults who may have had corned beef a number of times in the last week, because we had just celebrated Saint Patrick's Day. In fact, today at the Stop and Shop Supermarket, I saw an abundance of these corned beef briskets for sale, and was terribly tempted. But I know that I don't want to eat it all the time, either.

Saturday, March 3, 2012

Best in Show: Not Your Typical Dog Show

I know it's been a while, but winter doldrums can mean the lack of snow to brighten the day, and a routine that becomes really routine. What this meant for Florentina is the uncertainty of what would spice up the not-so-sunny days out there. Well, Florentina and Joey found it today. Little Joey was not so sure, but he was a brave little man/cockapoo for a few minutes, as you will see.

Joey: Yikes! 

Well, today was the seventh annual Not Your Typical Dog Show at Northampton High School, Joey's Dad's alma mater. It is a benefit for the Volunteers In Northampton Schools, a non-profit organization providing volunteers for all the Northampton public schools. We decided to have a look without expectation of participating in any events, since it's not clear that Joey is capable of demonstrating ability, tailwagging, fetching, singing, agility, tricks, or conventional obedience in a school gym filled with dozens of dogs and approximately one hundred people. Never mind competing in the smooching category -- Joey is wary of PDA in front of other dogs and people as well as showing off his natural talents.

Joey can jump this high,
but only in private when
he's really excited.
Luckily, Joey has gotten a lot braver about meeting other dogs and people thanks to our daily walks. We ran into his trainer, Shannon, at Leading the Way in Florence, and met lots of people with their dogs. I wanted to stick around to see some of the events, which seemed to be about agility with the hurdles and cones set up in formation. It seemed like a lot for me and Joey to take in. He hasn't been training for the Doggie Olympics in the last few months, unfortunately.

Weaving in and out of cones
as a test of obedience?
Without expectations of competing in events, Joey and I were able to see who was getting ready to compete. Dogs and their humans were lined around the ring, ready to strut their stuff. The pressure was off and it was a good thing because Joey had it after about twenty minutes.  And it meant that I didn't have to try to trick him into staying any longer to show him in the ring, etc. I dodged the dog show bullet that Eugene Levy caught in his two left feet in Best in Show (2000). Below he plays the hapless husband to his wife, Candie, who was supposed to show Winky the Norwich Terrier at the Westminster Dog Show. (N.B.: the screen may tell you to watch it directly on YouTube and should let you click on the link that leads you there.)