North Adams Winterfest

Nathaniel Stern at Greylock Arts

By: - Feb 28, 2010

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Several days of snow, after a barren season so far, laid down a nice frosting  just in time for the annual Winterfest  in North Adams. Our friends on a mountain in Washington, next to Becket, got slammed by thirty inches.

For us, like Baby Bear, it was just right to set a festive tone. The layer of snow along Main Street was just enough to provide a seasonal touch. There was even a wannabe snow man hunkered down in a doorway.

There were blocks of ice that local artists were hacking away at. The forms were rather basic.

The block just in front of Gallery 51 recalled Brancusi and I said so. Melanie Mowinski, who overheard the remark was delighted. "Did you hear me say that" she asked? "Yes this is my homage to Brancusi, how did you know that?"

"The Kiss" I responded. She was impressed.

But Brian Handspicker was not a happy camper. His block of ice had crapped out. For his piece he had concocted a conceptual approach combing fire and ice. A butane torch was supposed to melt the block but ran out of gas. This is too often the case with conceptual art.

It recalls the motto of the volunteer fire fighters in Maine. Your house burned down but we saved the cellar hole.

Further along Main Street we found Gail and Phil Sellers of River Hill Pottery hacking away at their block. They had even purchased a number of ice sculpting tools for the task. Phil tends to get a bit obsessed by projects. But the subtractive process of sculpting ice is different from the additive technique of working with clay. Judging from their upbeat mood they were enjoying the challenge.

We all gathered around Dan Field a veteran ice carver. He was suitably attired in storm gear and was hoping for a dip in the temperature allowing for time to complete the task. What emerged from the block was a headless, nude, female torso. He was working on the curves. I commented  that while attractive  the ice goddess was  a bit frigid. Warming her up was not an option.

Two workers were standing out in front of the former Cup and Saucer. They were sanding floors for a new restaurant.

Even with the stormy weather it was balmy for February. There were a lot of options for warming up. We dropped in on Tangiers where shop owner Barbara May served a nice cup of hot chocolate. She advised us to check out the chowder contest next door and up the street.

In the former North Adams Antiques several restaurants were serving their steamy concoctions. I managed to get the last bit of one created by The Hub. It was more or less down to a few large chunks of potato.

There were ten versions of chowder including restaurants as well as the café of North Adams Regional Hospital and even food services of MCLA.

City Councilor Lisa Blackmer was tallying the votes. While Mayor Dick Alcombright was out and about greeting his constituents.

There was a lively debate about the quality of the chowder. Most folks commented that they liked them all.

Truth be told, I didn't like any of them. They don't come close to my Mom's or the classic recipe of Woodman's in Ipswich. I was raised on chowder summers up in Gloucester. These were, good grief, landlocked recipes. Way too thick and starchy. Heavy on the potatoes but too light on fish stock and clams.

When I was a teenager one of the highlights of the summer was the Chowder Race hosted by the Annisquam Yacht Club. Anything that floated and had a sail was allowed to compete for the cup. Some really odd vessels lined up. Once a year we would see the old Hodgkins brothers in their sleek sloop. With their straw hats and suspenders they looked like characters from a 19th century Winslow Homer painting. But with a good wind their sleek vessel, which they built on their own Yankee design, would just fly. It zipped by all those fancy dancy store bought yachts.

Round noon on the deck of the yacht club they served the chowder. It was catered by Woodman's which is to say the best this side of heaven. But no seconds. Just one pass through the line. It was served in enamel tin sauce pans. With a home made donut stuck on the handle. We're talking a real donut. Nice and crispy. And that chowder was milky not all stuck up with library paste like nowadays. With lots of hunks of cod and haddock.

Just like Mom used to make. It was her grandmother's recipe from Nugent Farms in Rockport. Back then fish was cheap and you went down to the docks to get some. You asked for the scraps left from the filets. That was your stock. You cooked up a mess of bones and heads then strained it out.

Meantime, in a big iron skillet, you fried up diced salt pork or fat back. For you landlubbers bacon will do. Into that you added diced onion until it caramelized. Then set that aside.

When the stock is ready add your seafood. Just about anything will do. Used to be catch of the day off the pier. Fish was cheap and for good Catholics served every Friday. Otherwise you don't get into Heaven. We ate a lot of mackerel which I never cared for.

Nowadays, great chowder is expensive. Themdays it was a regular cheap meal. Back before frozen food and microwaves. Mom made it all from scratch.

Add your potatoes, just enough to give some substance. Simmer until they are soft. Just before you are ready to serve you add the fish and seafood. As well as the onions and bacon.  You don't want to overcook it. At the last minute add whole milk, a pint of cream, and a can of Borden's condensed milk. That thickens it. Just before you serve add a stick of butter which floats on the top. Mom sprinkled on a bit of paprika which gives the top a nice enticing color.

Sorry folks, but there was nothing in Winterfest that came even close to an authentic Down East Chowdah. There was even talk that one restaurant added fake crab. Good grief. Phil liked their chowder which also had scallops and shrimp. But, what the heck, he's from the Midwest. Ohio for cripes sake.

Having sampled the various chowders we popped into the galleries. There were families playing with toddlers in Kidspace.  Everyone seemed to be having fun. We also checked out Gallery 51which had some kind of techie show which escaped me.

Then we moved on the North Adams Cooperative Gallery  which offers a lively cross section of work by a wide range of artists. We greeted Kelly Lee who was gallery sitting. He reported that it had been a busy  day. In general, the space which is located on the corner of Maine and Route 8 is highly visible. It gets great traffic and sales. It started with Down Street and has stayed on after the other seasonal galleries shut down in October.

We drove to Adams to visit Marianne Petit and Matt Belanger of Greylock Arts  at 93 Summer Street. They were setting up for an opening that night. Marianne was washing the windows of their storefront. She seemed surprised to see us and asked for the time? It was too early for visitors to be arriving.

Coming early we had hoped for a preview as we planned to have guests for dinner. Our friends from Washington were going on to see Laurie Anderson. But they called and canceled because they couldn't get off their mountain. With an evening planned we called neighbors. It was great fun and no we didn't serve chowder. Next time. But we are planning a chili bake off.

In the gallery window we found Nathaniel Stern installing. We really enjoyed the work which combined flat screen video and a landscape painted over it. These were the kind of devices where folks program a video or slide show. The engaging and clever pieces were a collaboration between Stern and Jessica Mennick Ganger. It was satisfying to encounter work which is inventive and clever, using new technologies, but in a manner that is accessible and engaging.

After a wonderful Winterfest afternoon we hunkered down for Saturday night dinner with friends. Girl Scout Cookies which we bought on Main Street as desert. Sweet dreams last night with thoughts of spring.