The Grossly Biased Guide to the Berkshires

An opinionated guide to the wonders of Berkshire County, MA

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Circle Museum and sculpture garden

May 7th, 2009 by Ethan Zuckerman · 9 Comments

By the side of the road in Austerlitz, New York, there’s a disused body shop. Years ago, strange and wonderful things started appearing on the lawn of the shop: soaring, abstract swirls of rusted metal; primary-colored shapes framed by trees in the background; giant eagles feathered with individual pieces of iron.


The field behind the Circle Museum

I drive past the yard once or twice a month, glancing out my window as I speed down Route 22 to catch a train in Wassaic or Southeast. I assumed that the works were a hobby, the side project of a welder who otherwise worked mending car frames or fences.

But the field got more crowded, year after year, and eventually a sign identified the field as a museum: the Circle Museum. Surrounded by a low stone wall and a fence made from a single steel cable, the yard contains over a hundred installations, jockeying for space around the studio, colonizing the slope behind the old shop up to a shed so disused and precarious, it could be its own sculpture.

Coming back home from New York, I stopped at the museum on a recent Sunday morning. The gate was closed and Suzie explained that the artist, her partner Bijan Mahmoodi, was off in Albany working as a driver for a film produced there. As a result, the museum wasn’t officially open, but I was welcome to explore, as half a dozen others were doing.

Part of the joy of the Circle Museum is that it’s hard to tell what’s art and what’s not. Mahmoodi is fascinated by industrial metalcasting, and some of the exhibits in the garden are nothing more (or perhaps nothing less) than giant brake drums, gears and the stark, lovely insides of industrial machinery. The pieces Bijan has welded look remarkably organic. My favorites include a tall post, surrounded by a cascade of thick, rusted chains, looking like grape vines hanging from a tree. Long twists of rebar nestle in a length of pipe, like pussy-willows in a vase.

Not everything can be welded, and Bijan’s work has expanded to include assemblages of metals and plastics as well as welded, painted steel and iron. One creation is a metal can, stuffed with sheets of plastic, opaque and translucent and textured aluminum - it looks like the scrap bin in an art class for giants. The paint on other pieces adds a sense of currency to pieces - while the steel works could be from any time in the 20th century, a set of pipes, crossed like pickup sticks, topped with a metal sign for Harvard Vanguard Medical Associates, looks like the artist raided a scrapyard yesterday.

ravensky23 has produced a lovely video of a stroll through the gardens. She reports that the museum’s circle theme becomes more apparent looking at Bijan’s paintings, exhibited in the garage, turned gallery. I’m looking forward to coming back to the museum, meeting the creator and seeing the rest of his work.

Where: Route 22, in Austerlitz, NY
Open: Indeed, to the elements.
Admission: Donations requested to support the work.

→ 9 CommentsTags: art · outdoors

Favorite fish fry

April 20th, 2009 by Rachel Barenblat · No Comments

 Pedrin’s Dairy Bar, Curran Highway, North Adams

It’s a sign of spring in Northern Berkshire. Word gets around that Pedrin’s is open for the season, and cars line up along route 8, though in April it’s generally too cold to sit at one of the painted picnic tables; instead everyone carries their food back to their cars and eats sheltered from the wind, listening to the Red Sox Radio Network on some AM station I can’t name.

Although Pedrin’s recently re-opened with an expanded menu (they do offer a garden salad now; they’ve added sweet potato fries to the slate alongside regular fries, onion rings, battered mushrooms, and of course fried zucchini in season) this is not a health food joint. You go to Pedrin’s for the fried foods and for the fish.

You can get whole fried clams, or belly strips, as a dinner or on a roll with tartar sauce or cocktail sauce; and you can get fried fish, again as a sandwich or as a “meal” (with fries and homemade cole slaw.) Everything is made to order, so there’s usually a bit of a wait; take your token and mill around until they call your number.

There are burgers on the menu, but I can’t imagine why you would order one. (Burgers in the Berks agrees; for my money, if you want a great burger, go to the Old Forge in Lanesboro. More on that in a future blog post, maybe.) The Forge does a good fish & chips; so does the Freightyard in North Adams. But for the classic fish fry experience, Pedrin’s is top of the line.

Rumor has it they changed their fish this year — from cod to haddock, or the other way around, I can’t recall. Whatever they’re serving, we had some on Saturday night, and it was fantastic: succulent and flavorful, the batter adhering to each slab of fish as though it was meant to be there.

I was too full for my customary Pedrin’s dessert — a vanilla milkshake. I’ll have to return this summer just for one of those; my memory tells me that they are thick and frosty and redolent with vanilla. But not until the weather warms up a bit. (If you look to your dairy bar for soft-serve, you’re also in luck: the newly-expanded Pedrin’s also features a soft-serve window.)

I’m glad that spring has come to the Berkshires at last.

→ No CommentsTags: outdoors · food

Manna from Greenfield

June 16th, 2008 by Rachel Barenblat · 1 Comment

Manna House, 205 Main, Greenfield MA

The restaurant only seats fifteen. From Greenfield’s main street it looks twice as big as it is, but a closer inspection reveals that only one of the two windowed storefronts is actually seating. (The other one is the restaurant’s small kitchen, which connects with the seating area through a curtain.)We ate rice cakes (white sticks of pounded rice, the size and shape of hearts of palm but with a glutinous rice consistency) drenched in bright red-orange sweet-spicy sauce. And a scallion pancake with squid in it, which was enormous, light and crisp, somehow not-oily despite being a round fried thing the size of a large dinner plate. And dumplings, little flat half-moons both chewy and crispy. And job chae, glass noodles adorned with pickled onions and long stripes of thin sweet potato, atop a bed of rice. And two kinds of kim chee: mild and crispy bean sprouts, and cabbage that had the unmistakeable sparkly fermented taste of a pickle that’s homemade.

We barely talked at all through dinner, too busy making ecstatic noises. Ethan told our waiter — also one of the two proprietors; his mother was through the curtain, cooking for us — that the rice stick was as good as any he’s had in Korea.

Manna House has a beautiful huge picture window, above the small dining counter, and as we ate we watched twilight fall over Greenfield. The place is small and spare: no liquor license, not even a bathroom (at least, not as far as we could tell.) But it’s clean and sweet and the food is phenomenal. I’m already jonesing to return.


→ 1 CommentTags: food

New Flavors

October 16th, 2007 by Kate · 1 Comment

Econo Lodge, route 7, Lenox/Lee border

On a warm September night, we set off on an expedition. We wanted dinner in a place neither of us knew, a dinner we would remember. Ethan has lived here for more than a decade, and I spent four years here as a reporter — finding a wholly new place wouldn’t be easy. But we found it.

In an Econo Lodge on the border of Pittsfield, between a karaoke DJ and two kids dancing, we found a Malaysian chef who makes even her rice crackers fresh.

Of course, we didn’t set off to find her. In the way of expeditions, we set of looking for a farm stand in Monterey that takes all its ingredients from the farm across the road. We left at dusk and spun down Route 7, talking about its new neighborhoods, the South American market where we had beans and plantain and pork rind this summer, the liquor store that sells strawberry-flavored cigars.

South into Great Barrington, I kept realigning the map. I left only three years ago, and the town projects I followed have grown or died, the officials have changed over, the farmers’ markets have moved. I can’t remember without thinking, anymore, which turn by the memorial will take you to the Rose Theatre.

But we could find the road to Monterey, between us. We passed the congregation of Hevreh, as they came to Yom Kippur services. They were so many, they overflowed down the road and into the fields, and they walked quietly past, moonlight touching skirts and sleeves, sombre and joyful. Rachel was celebrating too, in her own place.

Route 23 through Monterey has no lights. We looked out of the truck cab at what would have been a broad river at the foot of the mountain, if we could have seen it. We passed nothing open. Ethan remembered the road from Geek Corps trips and knew how little there was to pass. We settled in to talk until it brought us to Route 8 again.

It surprised us into stopping once. After rolling dark road and open dark fields, broadly open and barely lit by the headlights, we flashed by the Grouse House and put our heads in. It has a stone walkway over stone and running water, and skiing stories in the doorway, and the kind of menu that goes with skiing stories and five locals in the bar — shepherd’s pie, meat-loaf, liver and onions.

But it was not a summer menu, and our shoulders didn’t prick, and we went on. The road went on, and we had been gliding down it an hour since we left, circling back in a wide arc into Lee, and we were hungry. We came back to a place Ethan had pointed at as we went by, not long after we left, when going on appealed more than staying still. It was light and pointed and set back from the road: Flavors Restaurant, in a motel that advertises its Friday karaoke nights on local radio.

The dining-room was classic — tables set wide apart, booths along the wall, durable colors. A boy and a girl, about eight, were dancing on a stage in front of a cardboard skyscraper, and falling off, and turning cartwheels.

Ethan told me that Malaysian food combines Chinese, Korean, Thai, Indian and other Asian traditions, and we traced them on the menu. We began with pickled salad. The waitress warned us that it would not taste like an American salad.

“I bet I’ll love it,” Ethan said.

He did. I treat spices with great respect, and so did I. The cabbage, vegetables and chopped peanuts had a kick and a sure, subtle blend of sweet and sharp and sour. Get an extra glass of water if need be, but trust me, dare it. It’s worth it.

We shared dumplings with peas, and a mild curry with naan. The flat bread had scallions and a hint of sweetness. For a main course, we split a wide, heaping bowl of noodles and bean sprouts and vegetables and peanuts, with plenty of salt tang for me, though I can tell that the tradition encompasses many more robust flavors. The waitress offered Ethan a bottle of hot sauce.

We looked at each other and laughed. Not because of the red chairs and the DJ singing country music, not because of the free energy of the children dancing, not because of ourselves — we laughed because the food was so simply amazing. The rice crackers had the unmistakable crisp lightness of fried food straight out of the pan. The spicing was deft, the vegetables just cooked and full of flavor, the sauces smooth and intense. Fresh food freshly cooked has no substitute.

We laughed because this was what we wanted — the skill of the chef, the dumplings rolled by hand, the frank family on a Friday feeling, the Sox game playing in the bar. This place mixes cultures as easily and irresistibly as live music.

The waitress brought the chef out to meet us, because we told her so often how good it all was, and Ethan talked with her about local Asian markets. She told us she could order what she could not find locally. All that limits her cooking, now, is that she takes care smells from the kitchen will not disturb guests at the hotel.

We hope she will expand and grow confident as the restaurant catches on. We hope, as the weather grows colder, that more people will come in for curry and fried rice. I would stay at her hotel just to hang out in the kitchen.

→ 1 CommentTags: food

Observing Spring Street

August 2nd, 2007 by Timothy Jay · 1 Comment

Spring Street, Williamstown

Written in 2003, for the original iteration of the GBGB. The bakery no longer exists; the Subway closed after a fire earlier this year; and the Coffee Roaster’s has moved down the street. But the flavor of Spring Street remains.

Forget TV. Williamstown’s Spring Street provides a much better show. My perch is nestled between Zanna’s and the Coffee Roasters, the nexus of important activity. Impatient husbands, sons and boyfriends wait on Zanna’s steps. Their wives, daughters, and girlfriends browse. Walking in front of me, a college student tears off the heel of a fresh loaf of bread from the bakery and stuffs it in his girlfriend’s mouth. Teenagers examine their tee shirts from Goff’s. Women have hair cut and styled in the Clip Shop; half of them will give a final glance at themselves in the big windows as they leave the shop. A bride-to-be and her maids run across the street to a white stretch limo.

Meantime, in the coffee shop people of all ages and backgrounds chit chat as they await coffee, chai and sweet things. Outside on the sidewalk crumbs drop from pastries and croissants. Sparrows jostle each other for a taste. A fledgling wants mom to feed him. Williamstown Theater actors are frequently observed before noon on Sunday; they’re always the pale ones. Olympia Dukakis, on more than one occasion, offers a friendly smile and hello. Others blab away on cell phones to their New York agents. Sounds like a new deal for the aging soap opera star.

Up the street a young blonde adjusts a strap in the art gallery window. Her parents are off to buy the New York Times. A family from Vermont argues about whether to eat Thai or Indian. A retired professor whizzes by on his scooter with his newspaper and coffee. Tennis camp brats rifle through bags of candy from the drug store. Local high school students noisily gather around Papa Charlie’s and the Subway. Bikes carry helmeted parents and children down the road; their terrier sits in her wicker bike basket.

A tour bus ejects its contents at the foot of the street and dozens of couples traipse up one side of the street and down the other. I love answering questions. Where is the museum? You are looking for the Clark or the Williams College museum? Where is a good place to eat? What do you like to eat and how much do you want to spend? After I’ve carefully described the finer restaurant alternatives in town, the golden girls pick Subway.

I like watching people eat ice cream on a hot summer day. Vanilla with sprinkles running down a three-year-old’s forearm. A Bostonian wedges her car into a parallel parking spot after others have tried and gave up. City drivers know how to park. Mr. New York sneaks into the No Parking Anytime spot and skitters off to the post office before it closes. He thinks the sign doesn’t apply to tourists in a hurry. A Williamstown Police officer awaits, then kindly urges him to move. I hop on my bike and pedal home.

→ 1 CommentTags: outdoors

Fresh air, fresh films

August 1st, 2007 by Ethan Zuckerman · No Comments

Hathaway’s Drive-In, 4762 Route 67, North Hoosick, NY

I always thought that Simeon’s pickup truck got him elected student body president at Williams College. Everyone needs a pickup truck now and again, and Simeon was uncommonly good about lending out his dirt-brown Mazda. On weekend nights, late in the spring, Simeon would put a mattress in the back of the truck and invite a dozen students to come with him to Coury’s Drive-In in North Adams, splitting the cost of admission so that it was a dollar apiece for a double feature. A few spring nights generated a lot of happy voters.

Coury’s is a WalMart now, the last of Berkshire County’s drive-in theatres to fall. I always assumed that Coury’s would survive - it shared a parking lot with Coury’s Auto Parts, and I imagined a business model in which parts from the cars of distracted drivers made it into the store’s inventory. Even if you could go to the drive-ins that used to be in Lanesboro, Pittsfield, Adams or Shelburne, you can’t ride in the back of a pickup anymore, and owners have wised up and now charge per head, not by the carload.

Despite this innovation in pricing, it’s not easy to make a living running a drive-in movie theatre. Karl and Liz Pingree, owners of Hathaway’s Drive-In in North Hoosick, NY, explain the economics of their business on their website. To cut to the chase, they make about $2 on each movie ticket, and make the rest on the concessions.

Perhaps to remind you of the economics, Karl makes change at the ticket booth in $2 bills - he tells me that he gets them from the bank in bundles. I guess it’s hard to run a drive-in movie theatre in 2007 without developing a certain sense of whimsy.

With movies in most mall cinemas at $9 a ticket, Hathaway’s is still a heck of a deal - it’s $7 for a double feature of first-run movies. We caught the new Harry Potter film last week and ducked out during the 1950s concession ads that preceded the second feature, Die Hard 27. During the film, we turned the radio to 88.1 to hear the soundtrack and sat on pillows in the truck bed, complementing our picnic with fries and onion rings from the snack bar. (Real fries. With potato skin on them and everything.)

Around us, families sat on lawn chairs, kids raced between cars, and, I assume, couples made out. (We did our best to keep our eyes on the screen.) A drive-in’s not the right place to watch a movie if you’re looking for silence, perfect sound or the solitary viewing experience. But if you’re looking for a little fresh air and a picnic with your new films, you’re hard pressed to do better than Hathaways.

Hathaways is open from late April through September, every night but Wednesdays. The first show begins shortly after dark, around 8:30pm most of the summer. If you need an excuse to make a trip, consider the all-night marathon on September 2nd, where the theatre will show four films back to back for one admission.

According to drive-ins.com, there are other open drive-ins to explore in Averill Park, Glenmont, Coxackie and Greenville, all over the border in New York. If you’ve got insights on why the drive-in has died out in Western Mass and survives to our west, I’d love to hear them.

→ No CommentsTags: outdoors · culture

When the King Comes to Town

August 1st, 2007 by Rachel Barenblat · No Comments

Jack’s Hot Dog Stand, 12 Eagle St., North Adams

Written in 2003, for the original iteration of the GBGB. Joga Café no longer exists; Jack’s Hot Dogs is going strong.

My father is one of those men who’s basically impervious to cold. During the average winter he rarely dons a heavy sweater, and never a hat; he owns gloves, but they’re travel accoutrements, not something he wears at home. Admittedly, “home” is south Texas, not known for its wintery bluster, but Dad likes the cold. He considers snow a rare pleasure.

So the first year he and I talked about a wintertime visit to the Berkshires, I told him to come alone and let Mom save her trip for sometime when it was warm. The plan made sense at the time.

I didn’t bargain for the fact that his visit would turn out to be during one of the coldest weeks on record. I had envisioned him walking around downtown North Adams smoking his cigar, but the subzero windchill was so bitter that it blew tears right out of our eyes — he wound up smoking his cigar while driving around town, instead.

The day after he arrived we went to Joga Café for lunch, where he got a taste of the new North Adams. Like me, he ordered chai (given that he doesn’t even sweeten his coffee, I suspect it wasn’t what he was expecting), and together we ate panini while nattering with proprietor Dan Weissbrodt about smalltown politics, growing up in North Adams, and what it’s been like coming back to his hometown. Dad eyed the television screens broadcasting weird cartoons, the modern art on the walls, Dan’s bizarre sideburns. I think he liked the food and the ambiance, and I was proud to have shown him how hip my little city could be.

The second day I asked if there were anywhere in town he particularly wanted to eat, and it turned out that there was: he was curious about Jack’s Hot Dog Stand, which we’d walked past on our way down Marshall Street the day before. Who am I to turn down a request to eat at Jack’s?

So in we went, glasses fogging instantly from the hot steam. We spent a moment reading the menu on the wall. Dad nudged me. “Am I reading that right?” he asked. “Is it really that cheap?”

We ordered an assortment of cheeseburgers, chili dogs, onion rings and fries. We watched as people came in and picked up phone orders, as the cooks scurried around behind the counter, amazingly failing to collide with each other as they hustled buns into the steamer and rings into the fryer and meat onto the griddle. It reminded me of ballpark food, the cheeseburgers and hot sausages I devour in the summertime at Wahconah Park and Noel Field. It reminded Dad of Joe’s Diner in Lee. I was inordinately pleased that, over the years I’ve lived here, I’ve managed to introduce my father to two of the finest greasy spoons in the county.

When the waitress asked if we were all set, Dad asked what one other thing he ought to get, given that he wasn’t sure when he’d be returning. She thought for a second, then told him most people seem to like the hot sausage with cheese, peppers, and onions. So he ordered one of those, which we shared. She was right: it was excellent.

We walked out a few dollars poorer, our arteries no doubt slightly hardened, but feeling warm and full and content in the knowledge that we’d partaken of a Berkshire tradition. If Jack’s is, as their slogan says, “it for a King,” then it’s the perfect place to take my Dad.


(For more about Jack’s: Profile: Jeff Levanos / Jack’s Hot Dog)

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About the Grossly Biased Guide

August 1st, 2007 by Ethan Zuckerman · 4 Comments

I’ve lived in Berkshire County, Massachusetts for the past 18 years, but I often feel like I need a guidebook. Our county - like many, I’m sure - is filled with secret wonders, places you must be guided to before they can become your favorite places.

The Grossly Biased Guide is our attempt to build a guide to those favorite places, an incomplete, opinionated, non-authoritative guide to what’s worth discovering in and around Berkshire County, Massachusetts. Since the guide is a collection of favorites, it’s far from objective. Because it’s written by people who live and work in and around Western Massachusetts, it’s light on places to sleep and heavy on places to eat. If it’s not for you, that may be because it’s less for tourists and more for natives.

The Grossly Biased Guide to the Berkshires - colloquially known as “GBGB” - started to take shape in 2003, but was never “finished” to a point where it was posted online. The 2007 edition of the guide is a much less formal affair, a work in progress which we’ll try to produce before your eyes.

If you’ve got a suggestion for a destination we should visit, please send a note to ideas AT grosslybiased DOT com. Please do likewise if you’re interested in writing for the site - since we’re not making any money, there’s none to share, but there’s the pleasure of introducing your neighbors to your favorite places.

If you’re interested in building the Grossly Biased guide to somewhere else, feel free to contact us as well. This is an experiment in group blogging, and we’re likely to focus on our beautiful little corner of the world for a while… but please don’t let that stop you from collecting your favorite places and pitching us on hosting your grossly biased guide to Taiwan, Timbuktu or Toledo.

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