Tag Archives: Hudson Valley

Whales in the Mountains

My first clue was this goofy-looking, very dated, blue-and-white parking sign showing a smiling whale with wheels. We were figuring out where we could legally park and my initial thought was “What the hell is there a whale sign doing in the Catskills???”

Goes to show what I know. Turns out Hudson, New York, was an old whaling town. And I call myself a New Yorker.

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There are dozens of towns dotting the Hudson Valley, that fuzzy green space north of the Big Apple that has some of upstate New York’s rust beltness with a touch New Englandy pastoral independence. I’d never heard of Hudson, New York, until we wanted some custom-made furniture and after Googling “Hudson Valley cabinet makers” I found Jason, a tree-to-table artisan who maintains a shop called Fern Handcrafted on Warren Street in Hudson.

“What’s with the whale signs?” I asked him after drooling over all the beautiful stuff he makes from trees.

“This was an old whaling town,” he replied.

And I wondered, but didn’t want to say aloud, “Shouldn’t the Atlantic Ocean be involved?” Mystic, Connecticut, was an old whaling town. Nantucket was an old whaling town. But a riverside community a hundred miles from open ocean and just 30 miles from skiing? I had to know more.

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Long before Brooklyn hipsters moved north and the farm-to-fork scene became a scene, Hudson was the first Hudson Valley whaling town in the late 18th century, later followed by Poughkeepsie and Newburgh, all towns that hug the Hudson River and now siphon commuters south by train to offices in Manhattan. In 1774, when the Continental Congress decided to break off trade with Britain, Britain retaliated by taking over the colonies’ primary seaports, New York and Boston. That choked off whaling, which was in full swing after someone off the coast of Nantucket harpooned a sperm whale in 1712 and realized the commercial potential of what he just did.

Fast forward to 1783; two Nantucket brothers—one being an experienced whaler—went property-shopping around the Northeast for a place to keep the whale business afloat, perhaps not confident that the Revolutionary War would actually end that same year after eight long years. The two men, with the stout New England names Seth and Thomas Jenkins, went upriver about 120 miles from Manhattan, and stopped at what was then called Claverack Landing, a farming town of about 150 people. What caught the Brothers Jenkins’ eyes were two bays deep enough to accommodate whaling ships. Two years later, the brothers literally drew out a planned city that could support the whaling industry, and renamed Claverack Landing, Hudson. By 1790, Hudson boasted a population of about 2,500.

Around this time, Boston and New York were beginning to recover from the Revolutionary War and ports hummed with merchant ships again. Hudson continued to contribute, dragging dead whales upriver that had bled out along the way, and processing them in the valley refineries for oil, blubber, meat and bones for corsets. Whaling remained a vibrant industry for those first few decades of the nineteenth century and then kerosene began to take over in the 1840s, which is about when the Hudson Valley whaling companies stopped sending out ships. So now there was a town, and no industry, a story that would hit upstate New York farm towns over and over again for decades to come.

Two hundred thirty years after taking its current name, what is the city of Hudson doing now? It has a population of just under 7,000, which was its population at around 1850 when whaling was sputtering out. But its population is now more urban refugees with a fair share of Brooklyn hipster transplants, including my furniture guy, who decided he needed more space to carve sixteen-foot conference tables that he ships off to places like Miami and Japan, not to mention an easier time sourcing the trees that make the furniture that appears in Elle Decor and The New York Times.

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Guys like Jason restore my faith in small town America. And walking Hudson, I could see it. Outside, a thriving downtown lined with independent businesses, some painted a bright tangerine or a soft, buttery yellow or a deep hue of claret. Everything was old yet still full of purpose; one faded brick building in need of a paint job dated from 1805 and had served as a jail, a meeting house and a printing shop. Also outside: people not beeping at me to get the hell out of the way, which happens in suburban New Jersey, a vortex of patience and civility.

Inside these historic Hudson buildings, decorated tin ceilings, which were popular during the Victorian era, and countless shelves of fair trade goods or homemade goods or things designed to make you feel good, to reassure you that not everything was manufactured in China or assembled in the cheapest way possible. Hudson epitomized the shop local movement. There were tea shops, ice cream parlors, Jason, restaurants, books and tons of antiques—a word losing its shape. When I was a kid going on family vacations across New England, including Mystic, Conn., “antique” meant something fancy made in the 1800s; now it seems to mean anything not recently bought on Amazon. Hudson had several of these shops pushing “vintage” and “antique” wares, objects that too often looked like the same things your aunt wasn’t able to unload at a garage sale, such as a giant papier-mâché taxi. Yet even Hudson proprietors organized their junk in thoughtful, visually alluring ways, and Mike and I were both charmed.

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We didn’t have time to walk down to the river front or explore further because we had to get back on the road, but we’ll be back to pick up our bathroom vanity from Jason, and, likely place another order with him. And maybe I’ll snap a photo of that whale sign that sparked it all, an item that truly looked like it came from an “antique” store. Our relationship with Hudson is just beginning.

But what does all this mean? Ok, so I learned that a rustic town with urban flair had a brief, but colorful past in the whaling industry that came to be because of the Revolutionary War. So what? Well, this day trip got me thinking again about America, because America is a strange place, really several mini-nations recognizing the same flag. Before our drive to Hudson, what it means to be an American when America was pretty new had weighed on me, because it seems very different than what it means to be American now. The Northeast feels completely different from Texas. The West Coast feels completely from the Midwest. And then there’s Hawaii and Alaska. Different is good. National identities should evolve with the times, but there’s an undercurrent of anger and narcissism that’s palpable across America that troubles me. Racism, rampant obesity and sedentary living, the have-and-have-not socioeconomic subcultures, constant legal challenges against Obamacare, chronic political bipolarity, incessant consumerism, an inflammatory American media allowing no room for more nuanced points of view or discussions because it just doesn’t make for good TV (CNN and FOX are equally guilty here). All have me thinking what it would be like to perch somewhere else for a while.

I’ve been reading up about the Revolutionary War lately, and it wasn’t a picnic then either—obviously racism, poverty, starvation. Infections we consider innocuous today, such as flu and strep, sent families to their graves. I also read that George Washington had dysentery so frequently that he sat on a pillow when on horseback, something that freaked out his subordinates because it heightened their leader when he sat on the saddle—and he was already a tall guy—making him an easier target for anyone armed who disagreed with him.

But was there this anger and narcissism I sense now? Ambiguity, yes. History books teach American kids that everyone grabbed the flag and told Britain where to stick it, but we all know it’s more complicated than that, that people struggled with their choices, that many felt terrified of losing Britain, that many questioned colonial leadership. Yet, that entrepreneurial American attitude persisted even when choices remained unclear. You don’t get on a boat and strike out for the unknown unless you have an entrepreneurial spirit; it’s in America’s DNA. This can-do attitude has weathered wars and economic setbacks, and was on full display in Hudson this past weekend. What got lost along the way over the centuries, I could not say, but walking Hudson and reading about the formation of this community, I discovered that the best of what it meant to be American flourished there and still does. All that promise, not just capital potential in whaling, but in developing an identity, influenced the greater good and influenced a community and a culture. It was there in Hudson and remains there, though as I roadtrip the United States more and more, I question whether it’s everywhere.

A Chocolate Cake Attempt Inspired by Travel

Yesterday, I attempted vegan baking for the first time. It was an epic failure. It doesn’t look like a failure in this photo, but the cake was a sweetened brick smothered in rich, fabulously delicious avocado icing, a yummy way to enjoy antioxidants, fiber and unsaturated fat. So yes, the icing was a big success; the cake was not. However, just licking icing off a cake is what kids do at birthday parties; I’d like to think I’ve evolved beyond that, so the entire dessert got tossed into the garbage (that felt heartbreaking). I will try again so that both cake and frosting are edible…at the same time.

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The recipe comes from Joy the Baker, who is a non-vegan Californian foodie willing to take chances with avocado. Only Californians get so creative with avocados. I mean, they make avocado cocktails, avocado beer, even avocado ice cream! Mention combining chocolate with avocado in my neck of the woods, and you get some raised eyebrows. Not surprising, given the East Coast caught on to the chocolate and bacon craze about a decade after we had been eating that on the West Coast. We’re uptight here in the Northeast, and not as trendy as we think we are.

I wanted to explore vegan eating because I have been inspired by our trips to the Woodstock Animal Farm Sanctuary in the Catskills north of the Hudson Valley. We’ve stayed and volunteered there three times now, and it’s been an enriching experience for the entire family. Shoveling poop can be a mentally calming activity. The more we head north to the Hudson Valley and Catskills, the more we learn it’s farm-to-table food country, a place filled with people who care about sustainable, clean, green living, as annoying as that string of buzzwords can be, and where there’s a level of playfulness toward what goes on the plate. The New York City dining scene takes itself way too seriously; a little further north, you can find equally innovative, fresh, organic cuisine without all the fuss. And you can eat out in jeans!

I can’t go upstate every weekend, so yesterday I tried to bring a little bit of bucolic upstate New York and cool California into my kitchen. I had never prepared anything like vegan chocolate avocado cake before (there’s also avocado in the cake batter holding things together), and doing so reminded me of trying wonderful new restaurants along the two coasts. A new restaurant on our horizon is Henry’s At the Farm, which is at Buttermilk Inn in Milton, New York, not far from the Woodstock Animal Farm Sanctuary. Henry’s specializes in local cuisine. In February, we’re spending a few days cleaning up peed-on hay at the animal sanctuary followed by a few days of pampering at Buttermilk Inn. I hope to come back to my kitchen with some confidence and new ideas. And yes, I’ll give the vegan chocolate avocado cake another go. That amazing icing deserves to sit on moist, decadent chocolate cake. Oh, and that butternut squash standing proudly behind the cake in my photo? That’s next on the chopping block; thankfully I already know how to make a tasty butternut squash soup.

The Other O.C.

There’s Orange County, the Southern California beachside haven of three million tawny, manicured people, and then there’s Orange County, a bucolic sanctuary about 60 miles north of Manhattan and home to approximately 372,000 people, many of them pale and wearing ripped jeans and cowboy boots or whatever was on sale at REI.

New York’s Orange County is an ideal fall getaway, even if that getaway is only seven hours. Wineries. Farmers markets. Hiking trails. Quaint rolling farmland speckled with charming villages and 19th century white-steeple churches and antique stores and cafes. Cows grazing. Horses grazing. Families grazing on flatbread pizza. You get the idea.

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Plenty of urban folks covet rural escape, fantasies that more green and less concrete will make everything okay, and Mike and I are among them. Yesterday was one of those Sunday afternoons in the country that resulted in us perusing real estate websites. But enough about what we might do. Here’s what we did do.

Sunday morning hike

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What’s cheaper and more enjoyable than hiking? It’s also an ideal activity after gulping down a large cup of dark French roast. A 45-minute drive from Casa Martinez-Woznicki is New York’s Sterling Forest State Park, nearly 22,000 acres of woods and lake. We caught autumnal foliage towards the tail end of peak season; golden leaves blew and fell along the path, reminding me of our springtime stroll through floating cherry blossoms along the famous Philosospher’s Walk in Kyoto, Japan. My only regret is that our tween pooped out after just two miles of walking, whereas Mike and I would’ve gladly circled Sterling Lake, and sat and listened to the trees rustle until we grew numb with cold. Sterling Forest State Park is kid-friendly, dog-friendly, and elderly-friendly. The visitors’ center is very clean with tons of information, including a giant replica of the park with trail markers that light up. There are a variety of trails to choose from that offer a range of distance and scale. Joggers, dog walkers, folks with walking sticks and little kids were on the trail with us.

$2 Kale and Pie!

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The Warwick Valley Farmers Market runs every Sunday from 9 am to 2 pm, and is a Hudson Valley favorite. We made the mistake of getting there an hour before closing when stalls were clearly picked over. Only four pies left? No mushroom pesto? What do you mean you sold out of aged gouda? That’s right; get there early, when the pies are still steaming and the stacks of pesto and cheeses remain high. There’s live music, and the community makes this a social, weekend thing, so pack some patience because you will need it when searching for a parking space. Vendors sell plenty of eggs, cheeses, produce, breads, meats and wine to fill your refrigerator and dinner plates. You can also buy flowers for a centerpiece to complete the picture of your fine, locally-sourced meal. I bought a bunch of kale for $2 that rivaled the size of our frontyard shrubs. I carried that kale around like a blushing bride. Mike bought an apple pie (because that’s what you do at farmers markets), though the pies are far more expensive than anything you’d get at a supermarket. We did grab some aged gouda and cider, and, damn! those two go really well together. The lady selling homemade mushroom pesto had sold out, but my favorite vendor, Buddha Pesto, had his $9 spreads for sale, so a container of his homemade pesto went straight into our eco-friendly canvas bag. I wish the produce vendors offered more organic fruits and veggies (my kale is not organic and I have mixed feelings about that), and while most of the vendors are very cheery and willing to answer questions, the curt lady selling mushroom pesto was not in the mood the day I swung by. I later looked up this vendor’s profile and learned she is from New Jersey (most of the others are from the Hudson Valley region). Ok. That explains a few things.

There’s a Party in the Apple Orchard

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Remember when someone first described Google to you? Or the concept behind the Internet? That’s what yesterday afternoon felt like when we pulled into the Warwick Valley Winery and Distillery and joined about four hundred-plus people rocking it out on the front lawn. Apparently, the Warwick cider house parties every weekend; we figured this out yesterday after living in the area almost a decade. Think Phish concert meets Woodstock meets the biggest picnic you’ve ever been to. We were so naive about this. Mike likes Doc’s Draft Hard Cider (ok, I do, too), and suggested after hiking and $2 kale and pie, we grab some lunch and cider at the Warwick winery, a great idea shared by just about everyone in southern New York and northern New Jersey. First of all, you pay $5 to park, which then makes it “an event.” Once you pull your SUV up the hill next to all the other SUVs, you can then join the party. Every weekend, weather-depending, the winery/cider house hosts live music in front of the cafe from 2 to 5 pm. And the Phish concert analogy wasn’t off the mark; five times a year, the winery also hosts weekend-long music festivals including homages to Bob Dylan, the Allman Brothers, blues, and Johnny Cash. Everyone was wearing cowboy boots or knee-high leather boots, so I was bummed I had worn sensible hiking footwear and had left my utterly impractical red cowboy boots at home. Who knew?

The cafe dishes up plates of cheese, fruit, charcuterie and flatbread pizzas to be washed down with pints of cider or glasses of wine. There was also a barbecue going on outside because the cafe just can’t keep up with demand. Mike stood in line for nearly an hour just to order food. We ate lunch at 3 pm. Everything was delicious and quickly made us forget about the long, annoying wait. Many folks passed the time standing in line while guzzling large, brown bottles of cider, so we’ll remember that tactic for next time. The musicians playing yesterday were a gritty, cowboy rock band called 4 Gun Ridge, and the bald lead singer with the ZZ Top beard and cowboy hat had a great voice. I wanted to take pictures of the band, the cider, the food, but then we would’ve lost the table we had scored. We hate crowds, and yet we had a blast! Alcohol spilling everywhere, loud music, and long lines made me feel 25 again. The hill was covered with people in lawn chairs, blankets, dogs tethered to leashes and picnic spreads that had been rolled out hours before we had arrived. Everyone was laughing. Even the dogs looked relaxed. Folks had clearly settled in that sunny Sunday afternoon. Pick apples, picnic with friends, drink cider, listen to music. What could be better? The sun was getting low, and we were getting cold, so we packed up, but the crowd was still going strong. I’m sure a few people had to be pried off the property after sunset (Doc’s hard cider is 5 percent alcohol by volume, and I doubt people drank just one bottle). Warwick Valley Winery and Distillery was upstate New York at its best; a swath of orchards on a hill facing rolling orange and green and gold countryside; fantastic cider with fantastic food; great music by a small, local band; a topaz sky on one of the last sixty-degree autumn days left when a sweater and scarf are just enough.