Tuesday, April 22, 2014

I Make Fun of State Quarters: Connecticut

All right, back on track after that alphabetical snafu.

A long, long time from now, whenever I get up to the N states in the alphabet, I'm going to have to make fun of New Hampshire for choosing a state symbol that unexpectedly disappeared three years after the state's quarter was issued. For now, I'll have to content myself with making fun of Connecticut for selecting a symbol that vanished 143 years before the state quarter came into being.

Behold, a tree! It's about as exciting as Connecticut gets.

All right, full disclosure: I live in Connecticut, and I have for three-and-a-half years. Its politics are ridiculous, its mountains are hills, and of all the New England states it's the one with the most obvious identity crisis. Half the state roots for the New York Yankees, for God's sake. But I've still met some wonderful people here, there actually are quite a few lovely attractions, and I can't help but marvel at how devoted people are to local history.

So it's no surprise that Connecticut opted for the historic angle in choosing the Charter Oak for its state symbol. Though there's no denying that the fellow who designed the Connecticut quarter, one T. James Ferrell, did a bit of airbrushing when he etched out this portrayal of the Hartford tree. Take a look at the sexy flowing branches of the final design, then compare them to this alternate proposal:

Yeesh. Looks like the Charter Oak was grown from a scion of the Ugly Tree and replicated every branch on the way up.

Most portrayals of the oak show it as a scraggly runt, so apparently the above design is closer to the truth. But it's nothing that will win any beauty contests. They would run off more than a billion of these coins, so clearly they couldn't make it some gnarled old maid. They needed to make it the Summer Glau of trees.

Welcome back to my blog references, Ms. Glau! (Source)

So what's the story with the Charter Oak, anyway? Well, according to the lore, the 1662 charter granted to Connecticut by Charles II allowed it a great deal of autonomy within the British empire. When James II took over the throne, he looked to put an end to such tomfoolery and sent an emissary to demand the surrender of Connecticut's charter. Everyone sat together at the table when lo, the candles were snuffed! Captain James Wadsworth spirited the charter away to hide in a nook in the one tree on a nearby Hartford hill. Somehow, the British failed to find it.

So there you have it. Connecticut's greatest accomplishment wasn't Mark Twain, it was a magic vanishing act. Granted, the Charter Oak is a more interesting story than the one that led to the "Constitution State" nickname, namely that the Fundamental Orders of 1638-39 might be considered the first constitution in the American continent. There's also the "Nutmeg State" nickname, but Connecticut can't really be too proud of the idea that its citizens of yore were clever enough to sell counterfeit wooden nutmegs to gullible bumpkins.

I've learned a fair amount about New London history in my time here, namely that the city was burned down by both Benedict Arnold and a hurricane and that a harebrained scheme to steal a submarine included the possibility of obliterating the place with a nuclear weapon. If I'd arrived here way back before the quarter design was finalized, I might have argued for it to portray the story of how an early Revolutionary War mission raided a British armory in the Bahamas to obtain gunpowder and munitions for the colonials before taking the booty to New London. It's pretty awesome that part of the city's history is pretty much the same as one portion of the rebooted Battlestar Galactica.

Exactly like this, but in Nassau. (Source)

It would be nice if the Charter Oak was still standing but alas, it was blown over in an 1856 storm and survives only in a few pieces of furniture in the state legislature. But both the storm and the power outage of the original Charter Oak heist are still commemorated to this day. Whenever a storm is powerful enough to knock out electricity, Connecticut Light and Power takes a symbolic two weeks to restore it.

Sunday, April 13, 2014

Greatest Thing of Anything: Cafe Nomad

I credit - or blame - my love of coffee entirely on a corner shop in rural Maine.

Somehow, I made it through my late teens and early 20s without developing much of a taste for the stuff. I never needed it to get through a college all-nighter or hangover, or as a morning pick-me-up. It wasn't until Cafe Nomad opened its doors that I really got to appreciate a good brew and, perhaps more importantly, the coffeehouse atmosphere.

Part of the reason the cafe appealed to me so much was, quite simply, the lack of businesses in Norway, Maine, that really had any appeal. It's not to denigrate Books N Things, the excellent bookstore across the street from where I lived for three-and-a-half years, or the Maine Bookhouse, which was packed with used and rare volumes. But they were about it for local attractions at the time. The rest of the main drag seemed to be an odd mix of rooming houses, lawyers, accountants, and "baubles 'n crap" type thrift stores.

When I first moved to Maine, I lived a short walk away from a brightly colored corner building where Cafe Nomad would soon be located. Signs in the large picture windows fronting Main Street announced the imminent arrival of the business, though the predecessor in my job warned that the promise had been up for months. She warned me not to get my hopes up.

But as it turned out, the promise was genuine and the cafe would open its doors not long after. The owners had been taking a cautious approach, buying the building and taking their time to renovate the interior. By the time it was complete, it boasted a central kitchen space, a brightly lit sitting area overlooking a small stream, and a library of titles belying owner Scott Berk's adventurous and globetrotting lifestyle. It was well worth the wait.

Cafe Nomad soon became a regular Saturday destination for me, typically in the bitterly cold winters but occasionally in summer as well. I would bring along a good book, or take my laptop to be the typical (or, for rural Maine, atypical) coffeehouse writer. I wasn't the only one who found the cafe to be a welcoming spot. Business took off right away, and in its first year the Oxford Hills Chamber of Commerce gave them an award for a valuable newcomer business. And indeed, it was a tried and true model in a new market; before Cafe Nomad, the nearest place to get a coffee and relax was 25 miles away.

They have enormous mugs, and if you were sitting in you got one free refill. They get their joe from Carrabassett Coffee, which is based in northern Maine, and most of the blends are pretty strong. I joked that you needed to add cream and sugar to make it black.

And the food is pretty amazing, too. Soft, fluffy pancakes are a weekend treat that comes with real maple syrup. The chef always seemed to be experimenting with new sandwich specials, so there was usually some delicious option to tempt you.

A couple of years ago, I took a vacation to see some old friends in Maine. They're scattered in a few different places, but I spent the longest time in the Oxford Hills. Going back to Cafe Nomad was a sweet reunion. Quite literally. I got a maple oat scone with breakfast one day, and it was one of the best things I've ever tasted.

Cafe Nomad was starting to host a regular wine tasting by the time I left Maine, and it looks like the place has been successful enough to add more hours and a dinner menu. It deserves all the recognition it gets. The business provided a warm, inviting spot for visitors and locals alike. In some way, I think it helped kick off a wider transformation of Main Street in Norway. Other start-ups never caught on (I could never understand why someone would think their particular Baubles 'N Crap would take off when so many others had failed before) but the Cafe Nomad was followed with more innovative places like a bike and ski shop, games store, and fiber studio.

New London has three coffee houses and a few more cafes with delicious food and bottomless cups of coffee. But I'll always remember Cafe Nomad fondly, and they can count on a customer whenever I pay a visit to western Maine.