Mary Nelen Photo
Elmer's General Store in Ashfield is all things to some people. Last week, Senator Kerry's staff saw fit to cross the worn threshold of the combination store/restaurant to find out "what the people want," according to an in-store announcement.
If Kerry's team had shown up early in their shiny black cars, what they would have found was a couple of regulars discussing the day's one-car traffic jam, tourists having the pancakes as depicted in Yankee Magazine and a woman writing either a novel or a very long letter. An active bulletin board does a lot of the talking for the town's population of around 1,900: "Wanted, a home for two fuzzy brothers: 11-month old kittens," "Pet Portraits Painted," "Yoga at the Ashfield Library," "Yoga at Kripalu Center," "Massage Therapy for Women," "Drum Lessons," "Drum Repair" and "Elmer's First Annual Grateful Harvest, 100-Mile Thanksgiving. Reservations only."
ValleyLocavore: So why the local Thanksgiving dinner?
Nan Parati: The whole country is trying to claw its way back to something authentic, and we live it every day right here in Western Massachusetts! That's why I decided to call it "Grateful Harvest"—because I am so grateful and happy that we have the means to grow all this food and can harvest it and appreciate it actually quite easily. Easy for me to say because I have a restaurant with a chef!
Why are you hosting Grateful Harvest November 7, two weeks before the actual date of Thanksgiving? Catering to folks who want to beat the traffic?
One of the things I'm grateful for is that we close on Thanksgiving Day. Running a restaurant, even one the size of Elmer's, takes about 100 hours a week and so we did not want to do this on Thanksgiving Day itself. We also wanted to do this to give people ideas about local foods they can cook for their own Thanksgiving dinners. We do it early so that they will be excited about their own Thanksgiving dinners later on in the month. Jim will be offering the recipes for the dishes he's making, and so for all those cooks out there, there will be a double reason to come! I think we should all wear big hats with buckles on them during the dinner.
You should. You moved to the area and bought both the general store and an old inn?
Boy, do you make that sound easy! I just happened to be here on vacation when Katrina hit my house in New Orleans and so, having no other home to go back to, I ended up staying here. Elmer's was for sale and I had just sold some property and had some reinvestment money. Since I was out of my mind with losing almost everything I had, I decided that running a restaurant would be really, really fun and easy! It is not at all easy, especially when the most experience you've had in the food world is to be fired twice from Whole Foods, but because of the kind of restaurant it is, Elmer's is community-oriented, more about the experience than the business. The inn came about because my New Orleans friend Tracy came up directly after Katrina, too. We lived on the same street down there, and she had no place to go, either.
Because I had enough money to—and because I knew that if I didn't put some money some place besides Elmer's I was going to end up dead broke—I lent Tracy some of the funds to buy the house across the street from Elmer's. We thought she would either buy me out or we would sell it if she and her family decided to move back to New Orleans. They decided to move, but by that time no house in the world was selling, especially not a large, drafty house built in 1795. Since I had almost figured out what I was doing with Elmer's, it seemed time to plunge into a new venture that I didn't know how to do, so I decided to see if I could turn the house into a successful inn: beds on one side of the street and breakfast on the other at Elmer's! We've been working on the house and it is actually quite nice, pretty and warm now! So, yes, I did do what you said, but it has been a long and sort of financially scary journey.
Where are you from originally?
I was born and grew up in Charlotte, N.C., which is nothing in the world like Ashfield. My dad was telling me tonight that he remembers counting the hand-written votes there when Eisenhower was elected president, but other than the fact that they did that then and we still have hand-written votes in Ashfield to this day, that would be about the only link. Directly after college I went to New Orleans for a two-week vacation and ended up staying 25 years. (I have to be careful when I go on vacation; I rarely know when to go home.) Ashfield is like New Orleans in that . . . it's old.
How might noted Ashfield residents have spent Thanksgiving in the old days?
I think that all of those notable nineteenth-century scholars who came to Ashfield for their recreation time would have sat around by the fire philosophizing while their womenfolk were outside wringing the necks of their pet turkeys and being not as grateful that they had to cook the food from absolute scratch by themselves. In the un-insulated house.
What are some of the farms that contribute food to your locavore menu?
We get a lot of our dinner food (and what we sell in our retail section) from Paddy Flat Farm, Sangha Farm, Springwater Farm, Sidehill Farm, Williams Farm, Manda and Steady Lane farms. Then there are a number of people like Tom and Sandy Carter whose farms I can't remember the names of, but we get food from them, too.
What is your favorite dish on the locavore Thanksgiving menu?
Jim could cook local truck tires and they would be good. I am serious! That boy can cook! So I look through the list and, not even knowing how he's going to prepare these things, I am all warm and happy just anticipating what he might do. The only thing on that list that I don't care for in the real, non-Jim world is mushrooms—but just a couple of weeks ago he did a whole dinner out of various mushrooms, specifically hen and chicken of the woods, and I could not believe that was how mushrooms actually tasted! So I don't care what he cooks. I'm going to eat it and dream about it later on.
Farmers' Market News
For many farmers' markets this coming weekend will be the last for this year. Saturday is a good day to stock up for Thanksgiving. At the Amherst Farmers' Market you will find local chestnuts from Sunset Farms and local ginger (that can be frozen) from Old Friends' Farm. This time of year, most farmers' markets will be selling Brussels sprouts, fingerling and regular potatoes, leeks, mushrooms and lots of other Thanksgiving fare. Some things can be bought in bulk for winter, such as goat cheese (freezes well) and root vegetables (store in a cool, dry, dark place).