Catskill Culture: Wine, Hippies And Swamp Gumbo In Woodstock, New York

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Image via davidlat

Woodstock is a fascinating place. Not only is it world famous for a festival that didn’t even happen there — when town residents opposed the concert organizers moved the location to Bethel, New York — but it’s also home to America’s first arts colony. Strolling around the walkable town, you’ll pass a mix of charming antique shops and bed and breakfasts, as well as head shops and hippie stores blasting the Grateful Dead and selling pipes, tie-dyed shirts and alternative records. Additionally, the sidewalks are littered with art galleries showcasing local works. In fact, in Woodstock you don’t ask people what they do for a living, you ask them where they show their art.

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Peter Bynum’s contemporary glass pieces at WAAM

An Immersive Arts Culture

Walking in to the Woodstock Artists Association & Museum (WAAM), it’s hard to deny this is the first art space I’ve ever been in where I actually enjoy all of the pieces. Peter Bynum’s contemporary glass pieces leave my jaw hanging open as I try to figure out how he plates the glass in such a way that the branch-like depictions and patches of color create multidimensional worlds, looking like both a woodland retreat and the inner network of the central nervous system. One minute I’m frolicking through wheat grass, the sun shining down on my face, the next I’m swimming through the human blood stream bouncing off cells, all while looking at the same piece of art.

“WAAM offers a unique blend of historical and contemporary art practice in our region,” explains Josephine Bloodgood, the museum’s Executive Director and Curator of the Permanent Collection. “The Towbin Museum Wing offers exhibitions of important artists from our collective past, framed in terms of issues of interest to today’s art audiences. The Main Gallery mounts monthly exhibitions juried by prestigious art professionals of contemporary work by WAAM artist members who currently live and work within a 50 mile radius of Woodstock.”

Embracing the New: Modernism's Impact on the Armory Show

Embracing the New: Modernism’s Impact on the Armory Show at WAAM

The sensory manipulation continues as I browse the two floors of permanent collections, paintings of ordinary objects like coat closets and bicycles somehow made to appear interesting, abstract shapes coming together in a cohesive manner and a sketch of man naked man who appears to have drawn on his own head. Nearby, BYRDCLIFFE Kleinert/James Center for the Arts allows me to continue exploring local art, as well as browse artisanal handicrafts for purchase and learn about their live performance offerings. And across the street, Gallery Row on Tannery Brook Road houses five exceptional galleries located one next to the other.

What’s really amazing is this creative culture all blossomed from a small but thriving arts colony that’s still in existence today, the Byrdcliffe Arts Colony. Founded in 1902, the site, which is listed on the National Register of Historic Places, features 300 wooded acres with 30 Arts and Crafts-style buildings that today act as artist studios and residences. These can be self-toured by visitors via a one-mile self-guided loop. A quintessential example of the Arts and Crafts-style architecture is White Pines, as it blends seamlessly into the environment, living in harmony with nature. Other point of interest includes The Barns, which functioned as the center of Byrdcliffe Farming Operations supplying food to the colony and is today used for concerts, classes and events as well as the Byrdcliffe Ceramics Studio.

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Diamond Mills guest room. Image via Michael Nelson.

Diamond Mills

While Woodstock and its surroundings are full of cozy bed and breakfast accommodations and boutique hotels with a Currier and Ives feel, the nearby Diamond Mills emits a laid-back opulence rarely found in the Catskills, or anywhere for that matter. The atmosphere is relaxed and unpretentious, while the amenities and service are world-class.

“Diamond Mills offers a truly luxurious experience from the moment a guest arrives,” explains Emily Glass, the hotel’s public relations representative. “Unique to the region, Diamond Mills is a boutique style hotel offering well appointed accommodations, world class service and gourmet cuisine and personalized attention to guests.”

In the morning, guests are brought fresh cream and the paper, while downstairs a buffet of fresh fruits, cereals, yogurt and homemade pastries prepared by the hotel’s Master Baker are laid out in an aesthetically pleasing spread. The meal, along with refreshing juices, coffees and artisanal teas are enjoyed in a bright white living room with big windows to let in the natural sunlight.

diamond mills

View of Esopus Falls from guest room. Image via Kelly Merchant.

At 5pm each day, their onsite restaurant, The Tavern, hosts a decadent wine and cheese social featuring Hudson Valley, local and internationally celebrated selections. Cheeses like Rogue River Bleu, Sprout Creek Ouray and Old Chatham Camembert pair perfectly with a rustic 2011 Montepulciano d’Abruzzo from Abruzzo, Italy, or a floral and fruity 2010 Xarel-lo, Bohigas, “Blanc de Blancs” from Catalunya, Spain. Additionally, sipping a glass of local wine on your balcony while viewing the roaring Esopus Falls is an excellent way to explore local agriculture.

After the sun has set, guests can slip on a freshly laundered robe and take in Esopus Falls as it’s illuminated in a rainbow of colors, plunging into the river below. A turn down service including fresh berries, caramels and a dessert created by their Master Baker will ensure sweet dreams all night, especially since you’ll be drifting off to sleep enveloped in Egyptian cotton sheets and a plush comforter.

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New World Home Cooking panorama

Global Cuisine Gone Local

Before going to sleep, however, you’ll want to sample some of Woodstock’s innovative food fare. While there are many excellent options, there is one venue that is unquestionably the best in town, New World Home Cooking. Owned and operated by two-time Chopped winner Chef Ric Orlando, the restaurant is changing the way people eat as well as the way they think about food.

“I believe in making every effort to prepare food that is regionally available, minimally processed, and sustainably-raised,  because it is better for you and socially responsible,” explains Chef Ric. “I admire the culture of peasant food the most. From Asia, Mediterranean, Caribbean, Latin America or America, peasant food has the deepest roots and is presented with the most pride. I work to market the flavors of those people with a skilled chef’s technique and a commitment to supporting local and regional and artisan producers.”

The menu features dishes from all over the world –Pan Roasted Organic Salmon made Sardinia-style with blood orange sauce, Gaeta olives, fregola and arugula, Wild Shrimp and Local Wild Hive Grits with creamy “jambalaya” sauce, and a Thai Italian Love Twisted Panang Bolognese with local ground beef and fat noodles — all created using local ingredients as much as possible. As Chef Ric says, it’s “Global Flavor – Local Pride.”

New World Home Cooking string beans

New World Home Cooking pan roasted string beans

On the night I am there, the venue is booming. There is a Mardi Gras party going on, and despite the fact it’s only 8pm the fun loving locals and smiling hippies dressed in masks and flapper attire are dancing without a care. My focus, however, is on the meal I am about to enjoy. I am told for an appetizer the pan roasted string beans are out of this world. The crispy brussel sprout chips also sound interesting, so I order both. And while I’m informed the classic jerk chicken is a must, I can’t resist ordering the “Swamp Gumbo,” a spicy blend of gator, duck confit, blue crab, crawfish, dark roux and okra.

My drink of choice for the evening is a “Giligan’s Mojito,” a carefully blended libation of muddled basil, pina, coconut, ginger and soda that is both sweet and spicy. It was hard to choose with the diverse selection of handcrafted cocktails and international wines and beers. it’s not surprising they serve a “Habsolute Martini” made with habenaro-infused vodka, as it’s clear on the menu that Orlando loves spice! In fact, he rates his dishes by the “Ric-Ter Scale,” a number that can be seen found next to each dish.

  • 0-3 Simply and brightly seasoned
  • 4-6 Assertively spiced, not too hot
  • 7-8 Authentically and honorably spicy
  • 9-10 for Aficionados and thrill seekers only
New World Home Cooking "Swamp Gumbo"

New World Home Cooking “Swamp Gumbo”

I am reminded of his affinity for hot foods when the appetizers come. The green beans are crispy and seasoned with cajun spices, perfect for dipping in an ambrosial creole remoulade. Additionally, the brussel sprout chips are addicting, sprinkled with Pecorino Romano adding a tangy element to the salty and savoy vegetable. That being said, the main attraction is the “Swamp Gumbo,” which transports me to Louisiana, especially with the Mardi Gras atmosphere. Despite the fact I have promised myself I would only eat half of the hearty meal, my spoon will not stop scooping up the savory chunks of crawfish and gator mixed with creamy rice and bursting with dark roux spice. Before I know what has happened, my empty plate is being cleared and a dessert menu put in my hand.

“Coffee, tea of dessert?” the waitress asked.

New World Home Cooking ice cream sandwich

New World Home Cooking ice cream sandwich

While my stomach is begging me to say no, I hear myself order the ice cream sandwich. When the indulgent dish is served, I gasp. I actually need a knife to cut it, as the sandwich is so thick and decadent it would be impossible to bite. It’s more like a brownie sundae, complete with chocolate chips and a layer of creamy fudge. I eat every last bite, never feeling so fulfilled by food in my life.

Luckily it’s Saturday, and the Midnight Ramble is going on. Jumping around to energetic jam bands is just what I need to burn off some calories while continuing my exploration of local culture. There really is always something interesting to do in Woodstock.

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Jessica Festa

Jessica Festa is the editor of Epicure & Culture as well as Jessie on a Journey. She enjoys getting lost in new cities and having experiences you don’t read about in guidebooks. Some of her favorite travel experiences have been teaching English in Thailand, trekking her way through South America, backpacking Europe solo, road tripping through Australia, agritouring through Tuscany, and volunteering in Ghana.

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