Welcome to our new Bite-Sized Guides, your guide to destinations near and far for cooks who love food and love to explore the world. Your companion for our first guide, to the Catskills in upstate New York, is Sarah Copeland, cookbook author and mama to two little ones. Here's why she and her family love their life in the Catskills, and why we think you may enjoy a visit too.
I first came to the Catskills in 2001. I'll never forget the effect of the landscape as we sped up the Hudson on the Metro North: Everyone seemed to shed their city agenda for a warmer, more relaxed stance.
I was a brand-new New Yorker and, as it was Thanksgiving and I was far from home, I had been invited to spend the holidays with a friend, near his family home in Rhinebeck. We stayed in a big open barn, in a bed laid thick with pillows and quilts. Where I come from, barns were for hay and animals; here, they housed art, treasures, holiday feasts — and me.
That weekend, we gathered and cleaned dozens of wild mushrooms, sweated them with butter and shallots, and tossed them with simmering stock and breadcrumbs (the kind that didn't come from a bag). We sat by the fire. We played games. We told stories.
There were stories connected to most of the foods we ate, the bowls we ate out of, the land we hiked, the people we met. And there was space, the feeling of room above, beside, and beyond in all directions. Here, there was room to grow, the possibility of new.
For years after, I longed for this feeling, this simple, but magical life. And I wondered, Why weren't more people living it?
America's Forgotten Vacation Spot
I'm certainly not the first to feel this way: At the turn of the century, the area's arresting views worked in sync with newfound prosperity, turning the Catskills into one of America's premiere vacation destinations. Regal inns with pitched roofs, gabled dormers, and sweeping porches sat atop mountains, grabbing the attention of presidents, painters, and celebrity clientele.
But by the time most of us reading this were born, the area had been largely forgotten; the fabled hotels, boarding houses, and bungalows shuttered as the region slid into economic decline.
Still, thousands of acres of stunning farmland remained. Fourth-, fifth- and sixth-generation farmers persevered. Wine continued to be made here as it had been for three centuries. The valley stood, a quiet but unshakable treasure, a fallow season for a fertile land.
Tiny Village, Spacious Life
It was waiting for me when, fast forward a dozen or so years of living in New York City, that expansiveness and feeling of possibility won out. I found a home (with its own barn!), which I now share with my husband and our two children, in a tiny, 300-year-old village.
Here, in this village, at the foothills of the Catskills, we have no corner store, no bakery, and no restaurant, save a wings-and-beer kind of place (where Tootsie was filmed). There's not a single boutique or cafe, and the only gleaming marble counter to order coffee at is the one in my own kitchen.
But from that counter I can see the door to my husband's workshop in our barn out back, watch my kids play in the yard, and soak in the promise to come in the sun beating down on my raspberry plants right outside the doors. And here, while we might not have the luxuries I once enjoyed as a city dweller, there is space enough to have friends over, neighbors we actually want to host, and time — theirs and ours — to do it.
Building community is higher on the to-do list here than almost anything. Families and friends relish in gathering together, devouring local cheeses and breads around roaring bonfires. Fireside, we discuss life, politics, family, business and, always on the docket — every detail about where our food comes from: Who has a good raw milk source? Where are you guys getting your sausages from these days?
The best table in town on most nights is our own (or that of a dear friend), which isn't to say that there isn't plenty of food talent here. We're not the only ones who were lured by the magic of this place.
Exploring the Catskills' Food Scene
Hudson has the most concentrated selection, but there's also Gaskins in Germantown, Boitson's and Brunette in Kingston, and the Hasbrouck House in Stone Ridge. Further afield you can find Brushland Eating House in Bovina and the The Heron in Narrowsburg.
There's never been a more exciting time to dine out in the Catskills. And, unlike in the city, where an opening is an unremarkable occurrence, here the sense of gratitude and excitement over each new cafe or restaurant is audible.
There's never been a more exciting time to dine out in the Catskills. The sense of gratitude and excitement over each new cafe or restaurant is audible.
In addition to the restaurant scene, there's a food-centric festival or fair almost any summer or fall weekend — Smorgasborg, Phoenicia Flea, Field and Supply, and the Dutchess County Fair, to name just a few — with a draw so much richer than just food. These are our gathering spots; the places we watch our friend's baby take his first steps, where we celebrate birthdays and toast to new houses and business ideas.
When you can take your kids for wood-fired pizza and an open-air movie not just once a summer, but every Saturday night for a season at Westwind Orchard, you feel like you've landed in a fantasy, one dreamed up by visionaries eager to create something that was lacking: a greater sense of community; a closer proximity to food sources; a deeper connection to nature; an opportunity to create something, build something, or grow something.
If it sounds too good to be true (believe me, I pinch myself weekly), come see for yourself. Sure, we have struggles — creaky floors, old plumbing, challenging school districts, not to mention feet upon feet of snow in some months — but local maple syrup can take the edge off even the harshest winter.
As a cook, a host, and an eater, my life has never been richer.
5 Things to Know Before You Visit the Catskills
This is the first in our new Bite-Sized Guide series, your guide to destinations near and far for cooks who love food and love to explore the world. See the whole guide to the Catskills here, including recipes, a walking tour of downtown Hudson, and visits with local cooks who guide you to their favorites. Happy travels!