18 Aug August in New England

It’s green in New England — greener than anywhere I’ve been on my From Animal House to Our House book tour. It’s rain forest green. And damp. In the New England countryside, it seems the forest is too close, almost eager to get at you. Gesturing to a nearby asphalt intersection, my New Hampshire friend, Tim, said, “It wouldn’t take much time for all of this to get grown over again.” You accept that in New England.

New England begins on the misty coast of Connecticut. If you think of CT as only a Manhattan suburb, you need to think again because it has a long maritime history and, once you get east of New Haven, you’re more likely to meet a sailor than a stockbroker. My new friend Bill is a sailor who restores amazing vintage boats in Stonington, CT. He and his wife, the poet Leslie McGrath, live in a 1749 farm house. That’s the other thing about New England: if you don’t like old houses — I mean really old houses — you might consider living elsewhere.

As in California, there are two cultures here: the coastal and the inland. The well-off live on the coast. The closer you get to the water, the richer it gets. The coastal towns are as quaint as one would expect. Some are so quaint they look like theme parks. Others are long-established vacation spots for the summertime hordes. I don’t know that I can complain too heartily because money brings in good food, as demonstrated by the When Pigs Fly bakery and pizzeria in Kittery, Maine. Thank you, Tim, for taking me there.

I was surprised to learn that Marblehead, MA, is not a tourist destination because it’s too far out on the peninsula. As a result, this quaint, very old village remains fairly untouched and enjoys a stable population (and good schools). My friend Julia showed me all kinds of cool sights — and got me into some cool places, like the Chinn house, built in 1680. Established in 1649, Marblehead early on steeled itself against the recurring tragedy of lives lost at sea. Most men fished for cod and the sea took them frequently, one time claiming the entire fleet. The town’s symbol is a golden cod, a fish once so common that it fed the western world for two centuries. Atlantic cod is now an endangered species.

Because Marblehead is so old and picturesque, it struck me as an ideal place for Halloween and, indeed, says Julie, “Halloween is our Christmas.” One of her neighbor turns her house into a haunted mansion and so terrifies the children that, at least once a year, one poor lad or lass runs screaming into the street. I would have loved this town as a child — and I envied Julia’s two children growing up here.

I had the pleasure of taking my show to the historic Otis House in downtown Boston. The Otis House was saved from demolition in the 1960s, after this massive mansion was moved six feet back when the city widened Connecticut Avenue. I met a man at the event who manages one of the MIT fraternity houses. I didn’t know MIT had fraternities and I didn’t know that anybody managed them. Apparently, these are historic properties (one built by McKim, Mead, and White) and a source of considerable pride. The next time I’m in Boston, I’m going to visit them.

I ended my tour in Worcester, MA, an old mill town that is finding its way back from the brink, like so many American cities of its kind (e.g., Baltimore). I don’t know anybody in Worcester (pronounced “Wuss-tur”), but got a great turn-out thanks to the friendly people at Preservation Worcester. They’re doing great work, having won an award recently for restoration of the historic Hanover theater. But they couldn’t save the old state hospital, which will fall to make way for a new, quite hideous hospital that looks very much like a minimum security prison. A sad story I have heard in many cities on this tour.

While in Worcester, I happened upon Miss Worcester, a fabulous diner that is on the National Register of Historic Places. It first opened in 1948 and has earned a reputation as one of the best chow houses of its kind. I stopped and ordered a piece of homemade lemon cake. It was exceptional — moist but firm, not too sweet, with a buttery-creme frosting. Good Lord. Cost $3. A road food triumph. Take that, you snooty, overpriced, would-be Parisian bakeries!