Posts Tagged ‘Green Emporium’

My Huckleberry Friend

Friday, November 6th, 2009
Lyricist Johnny Mercer (Savannah Morning News)

Lyricist Johnny Mercer (Savannah Morning News)

A Johnny Mercer lyric is all the wit you wish you had and all the love you ever lost.
So said Frank Sinatra, one of the great interpreters of American song.
The lyricist John Herndon Mercer (1909-1976) would have turned 100 on November 18. His centennial is being celebrated with tributes all over the world and particularly in his hometown of Savannah, Georgia.
Naturally, I have to get in the act!
Composer/pianist Alice Parker and I will perform a local tribute to Mercer’s music on Friday, November 20, in Colrain, Massachusetts.
Mercer wrote the words to hundreds of memorable songs, including “That Old Black Magic,” “Something’s Gotta Give,” “Jeepers Creepers,” “Days of Wine and Roses,” and “The Autumn Leaves.”
Perhaps because he worked with many different composers, Mercer’s legacy is a little dimmer in the popular mind than those of lyricists such as Cole Porter, Ira Gershwin, and Oscar Hammerstein II. Singers like me love to perform his songs, however.
The Sinatra quotation says it all. Mercer produced brilliant, lively numbers like “Accentuate the Positive” and funny ones like “Lonesome Polecat” from the film Seven Brides for Seven Brothers. Sung by lonely woodchoppers, it offers one of my all-time favorite lines: “A man can’t sleep when he sleeps with sheep.”
And then Mercer hit the ear with a lyric of love and longing like “Blues in the Night” or “Come Rain or Come Shine.” Sometimes it’s all a singer can do to get through these songs without crying.
A couple of my favorite Mercer lyrics are among his more obscure works. I’m a sucker for a sweet tune called “Lullaby” from the short-lived Broadway show Saint Louis Woman, which he wrote with composer Harold Arlen in 1946.
It tenderly evokes memories of early childhood and laments our collective inability to recreate the feelings we had in our parents’ arms.
I also relish one of Mercer’s earliest songs, “Satan’s Li’l Lamb,” a collaboration with Arlen and lyricist Yip Harburg. The three threw it together for an African-American review in New York in 1932.
As soon as the great Broadway belter Ethel Merman heard it she ran out and recorded it. The music and lyrics are bluesy and sad but also funny and self-deprecatory, full of jazz rhythms and chords.
“Satan’s L’il Lamb” also winds up with a high, dramatic passage. High, dramatic passages are better than candy to us sopranos!
In addition to writing songs, Johnny Mercer was an influential performer and a pioneer in the recording industry.
He began his career as an actor and singer; he sang with both the Paul Whiteman and Benny Goodman Orchestras. In his prime he hosted regular radio shows in which he performed and promoted his own songs and those of his peers.
Savannah Morning News

(Savannah Morning News)

In the 1940s he founded Capitol Records, the first major record company on the west coast and a music institution for years to come. It emphasized quality recordings, fairness to composers and musicians in paying royalties, and the development of new talent.
As both a writer and a performer Mercer had a knack for the vernacular that charmed his audience and knocked down doors. Savannah justly claims him as its favorite son; his temperament and artistic sensibility were authentically Southern.
His Southern streak carried disadvantages. Like his fellow sons of the South Tennessee Williams and William Faulkner, Mercer was an alcoholic.
Overall, however, his background stood him in good stead. It enabled him to blend much of the South’s character into his music: its slow pace, the African-American songs he sought out in his youth, the folk music of his Scottish-American heritage.
He wove the landscapes and the sounds of his childhood into his lyrics—the huckleberries he picked as a child, the meadows and the rivers in which he played, the “whoo, whoo” of the trains that passed through town, the lilt of his mother’s Southern accent.
I champion American popular music of all eras. I’m conscious, however that we don’t have lyricists like Johnny Mercer today—versatile poets with an ear for the rhythms of American life and the verve to promote their songs with humor and intelligence. As a historian, singer, and member of the public I’m enjoying getting to know his music better. 

His song poems can tell stories as they do in “One for My Baby,” in which the narrator talks about his lost love to a bartender. They can act as traditional love ballads as in “I’m Old Fashioned.” Or they can string together images and sounds to convey a patchwork of emotions as in “Moon River”:
 Two drifters, off to see the world.
There’s such a lot of world to see.
We’re after the same rainbow’s end.
Waiting ‘round the bed.
My Huckleberry friend,
Moon River and me.
All of us should take time on November 18 to sing a Mercer tune and or/listen to some of the music of America’s Huckleberry Friend.
The Johnny Mercer Foundation’s web site has a “Johnny Mercer Jukebox” listeners can play. And Turner Classic Movies is featuring his film music every Wednesday during November.
“Blues in the Night,” my program with Alice Parker, will take place at the Green Emporium on Friday, November 20, beginning at 8:30 pm. Pizza, cocktails, and dessert will be served. Reservations are suggested; the restaurant’s number is 413-624-5122.
If you’d like a huckleberry recipe (one of my readers wanted one after looking at this post!), please see my post on Huckleberry Friendship Bars. Mercer lovers might also like to try the “Blues in the Night” barbecue sauce…….

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Eternal Spring in Colrain

Wednesday, July 22nd, 2009
Michael Collins is ready to start making pizza.

Michael Collins is ready to start making pizza.


The Green Emporium in Colrain, Massachusetts, is a happy, busy place these days. Chef Michael Collins and his partner, manager Pacifico “Tony” Palumbo, have achieved something few restaurateurs (or even non-restaurateurs) have managed. They have successfully reinvented themselves—or at any rate their restaurant.


More than a decade ago the pair opened the Green Emporium as a high-end eatery. Michael used his culinary training and imagination to transform as many local ingredients as possible into “country fusion” cuisine. Tony, who is an artist, decorated the restaurant (a former church) with colorful neon art and paintings. The pair acted like true hosts rather than just proprietors of the restaurant.


To make the place more fun they offered jazz on many weekends. (In the interest of full disclosure I should add that they frequently featured a chanteuse named Tinky Weisblat.) The Green Emporium began to attract diners from all over New England.


The menu and ambiance drew notice from the Boston Globe and Yankee, not to mention local papers. Nevertheless, keeping the place going proved a challenge—particularly in the winter, when even lovers of great food were reluctant to navigate the steep hill from Greenfield, our county seat, to quiet Colrain.


Michael and Tony, both in their 60s, longed for a simpler life. “I got burned out being behind the line and doing everything,” Michael told me recently.


They put the lovely old church on the market but ran straight into the real-estate crisis. For a couple of years the building sat empty, and its owners suffered financially.


According to Michael, it was Tony who came up with the idea of reopening the restaurant as a pizzeria. “With the new economy,” the chef said wryly, “the only thing I could do was try.”


He visited myriad pizza parlors to determine which features he liked best in a pizza. He decided he wanted a hand-stretched crust, “because that’s what gives you the chewy and the crispy.”


Michael worked at creating his own crust for quite a while. “I think it was six months,” he told me with a smile. “We were constantly having pizza.” Using tiles in his oven at home, he finally came up with a crust that satisfied his palate.


Michael is not giving out the recipe for his crust. He advises home cooks to purchase pre-made pizza dough from a grocery store but cautions them to let it rest a bit before stretching it. He did reveal that his crust includes extra-virgin olive oil, a touch of organic raw sugar, baker’s yeast, and sea salt. He emphasized the importance of good Colrain spring water to the final product.


“Toppings were not a problem,” he added with a laugh, explaining that ideas for novel pizza toppings come to him all the time.


Past and current favorites have included an apple and cider pizza; pizzas featuring local mushrooms from New England Wild Edibles and goat cheese from Hillman Farm; and now that summer is here a classic Pizza Margarita with fresh tomatoes and mozzarella. When new potatoes come in Michael intends to pair them in pizza with extra virgin olive oil, rosemary, and gorgonzola.


The restaurant reopened in the fall of 2008 as Mike and Tony’s Pizzeria at the Green Emporium and became an immediate success. Michael leaves the manning of the giant pizza oven (which takes three hours to preheat) to young assistants. This leaves him free to work on soups, salads, his signature “Mussels Emporium,” and new pizza toppings.


“People know it’s still the Green Emporium so they expect a little something extra,” Michael Collins said with a twinkle in his eye.


The Green Emporium is open Thursday through Sunday evenings for diners or those who wish to take food home. If customers give him notice, Michael can prepare a gluten-free pizza.


Here is a recipe for one of his signature pizzas, one that represents the extended spring diners in New England enjoyed this year—and also the spring that the restaurant has enjoyed in its rebirth. It features my favorite vegetable!


Colrain Spring Pizza




1/2 to 1 pound asparagus (to taste)
1/2 cup extra-virgin olive oil plus 1/4 cup later
1/4 teaspoon red pepper flakes
1/2 cup grated Parmesan or Romano cheese (plus 3 to 4 tablespoons later)
1 teaspoon lime or lemon zest
1 teaspoon lime or lemon juice
1/4 teaspoon sea salt
1-1/2 pounds pizza dough
1 heaping cup shredded mozzarella cheese, plus 1/4 cup later
a sprinkling of cornmeal
small pieces of cooked chicken to taste (optional)




Trim the bottoms off the asparagus spears, and cut them in thirds. Combine the 1/2 cup oil, red pepper flakes, 1/2 cup grated cheese, zest, juice, and sea salt. Toss in the cut asparagus spears, and let the mixture sit overnight.


The next day bring the pizza dough to room temperature and preheat the oven to 500 degrees. Place the dough on a round pan on which you have sprinkled cornmeal. Gently stretch the dough to a 16-inch diameter.


Using a brush or spatula, brush oil around the outer edge of the circle of dough; it should go from the very edge in about 1-1/2 to 2 inches. Sprinkle the heaping cup of mozzarella cheese evenly over the dough.


Place the marinated asparagus spears around the circle to resemble spokes of a wheel or a pinwheel design. The idea, according to Michael Collins, is that “each piece [of pizza] will get more than its share of asparagus. You want it a little bit rustique.”


Sprinkle the remaining mozzarella on top, “cementing the asparagus in.” Follow with the remaining grated cheese.


“You want to add chicken? You can add chicken,” Michael says of this stage.


Bake the pizza for 10 to 12 minutes, or until it is crispy and bubbly. (Readers who have made pizza with tomato sauce will be surprised at how quickly this dryer pizza bakes, Michael notes.)


Let the pizza rest for a few minutes before eating and slicing. Serves 8 as a main course or 16 as a first course.

Colrain Spring Pizzaweb

Michael’s Potato Cheese Soup

Wednesday, March 11th, 2009
Michael (left) and his partner Tony (Courtesy of Carolyn Halloran, West County Independent)

Michael (left) and his partner Tony (Courtesy of Carolyn Halloran, West County Independent)


Potatoes are central to Irish cuisine and have brought both joy and tragedy to the Irish people. This recipe comes from Michael Collins, the chef at the Green Emporium in Colrain, Massachusetts, now a pizzeria. Michael likes to serve hearty soups along with his pizza. This one reflects his Irish heritage and therefore serves as an appropriate addition to a Saint Patrick’s Day (or week!) menu.


He warns that the soup is quite heavy; if you look at it closely, you’ll see that it’s definitely NOT low in fat. Serve it in small quantities as part of a balanced lunch, however, and you’ll enjoy it without feeling too guilty.


We tend to think of potatoes as not terribly full of flavor, but this recipe shows that they can star in a dish. It occurs to me that chives might be nice as a garnish instead of the suggested herbs……..




2 tablespoons canola oil

1 tablespoon minced garlic

1 cup chopped leeks or green onions

3-1/2 cups diced potatoes

3 cups vegetable or chicken stock

1 cup grated cheddar cheese (a little more if you must, but don’t go overboard)

1/2 cup milk or half and half

1/4 cup chopped fresh dill or parsley

crumbled bacon for garnish (optional)




Heat the oil in a saucepan over medium heat. Add the garlic and leeks or onions. Sauté for 5 minutes.


Add the potatoes and stock. Bring the soup to a boil, cover it, and simmer it for about 15 to 20 minutes or until the potatoes are cooked through. Mash the potatoes a little if you see large chunks, but don’t get rid of them entirely.


Stir in the remaining ingredients (save a little of the herb for garnish), and cook for 1 minute more, stirring. Crumble a little bacon on top if you like for extra flavor (and calories, I fear). The leftover parsley or dill also looks nice on top.


Serves 4 to 6.



November in the Hills: Embracing the Darkness (Part II)

Thursday, November 13th, 2008
Judith Maloney (Courtesy of West County Cider/CISA)

Judith Maloney (Courtesy of West County Cider/CISA)

          A strong proponent of November in our western Massachusetts hilltowns is Judith Maloney of West County Cider in Shelburne. Along with her husband Terry and a group of sweet- and hard-cider enthusiasts, Judith founded Cider Days in 1994. This tradition of celebrating the apple harvest and sharing cider, which takes place the first weekend in November, is now a highlight of autumn in Franklin County.

          To Judith, Cider Days don’t just honor the harvest. They also keep a way of life alive. She told me last week that early on she saw this festival as “something that would keep the apple trees in the ground—because the economics of apples have changed very much over the last 20 years. No longer do people buy apples to store over the winter. They buy them at the supermarket, and [the apples] come from Australia and New Zealand.”

          In contrast, says Judith, Cider Days preserve local apples and cider–and the trees that produce them. “We’re so lucky to have these trees,” she said with passion. “A lot of them have great age on them. [And] there’s a lot of knowledge among the orchardists along the valley and in the hills. It’s great that we can go onto the next season with that knowledge still spreading.”

          One of this year’s Cider Days speakers enthusiastically takes his celebration on to that next season, when the trees have yielded all their fruit and the snow has settled in. Michael Phillips of Lost Nation Orchard in Groveton, New Hampshire, takes a group deep into the woods on a dark night once a year to mark “old” Epiphany (January 17, the 12th night after Christmas in the old Julian calendar). There the group sings, dances, salutes the apple trees that will blossom in spring, and shares warm refreshments, including wassail (spiced cider-y punch) and slices of wassail pie.

          Here are the lyrics to the song the wassailers sing, courtesy of Michael Phillips:

Oh apple tree, we’ll wassail thee in hope that thou will bear.

The Lord does know where we shall be to be merry another year.

To blow well and to bear well, and so merry let us be:

Let every man drink up his cup, here’s health to the old apple tree.

To blow well and to bear well, and so merry let us be:

Let every man drink up his cup, here’s health to the old apple tree.

(Repeat all twice more)

Apples now–

Hats full,

Caps full,

Barrels full,

Three bushel bags full,

Barn floors full,

                   And even a little heap under the stairs.

Hip, Hip, Hooray! Hip, Hip, Hooray! Hip, Hip, Hooray!

          In his book The Apple Grower, Michael explains that he likes to greet the season with gusto. He writes, “[O]ur gathering often occurs on the coldest night of the winter. There’s certainly an almost mystical power in sharing apple custom with forty dear friends as you dance around the chosen tree at thirty degrees below zero!”
          Now, there’s someone who knows how to embrace the season’s darkness.

          If you’d like more information about Cider Days, visit their web site, Meanwhile, here are a couple of recipes that take advantage of the season’s cider bounty. Be sure to bow to an apple tree as you get ready to eat them; then go indoors and enjoy the cozy warmth and light of your house.

The Green Emporium (Courtesy of the Green Emporium)

The Green Emporium (Courtesy of the Green Emporium)

Cider Mussels Emporium

          This recipe comes from the fertile culinary mind of Michael Collins, chef at the Green Emporium in Colrain and a longtime fan of Cider Days. The restaurant has just reopened as a pizza/pasta parlor. Michael may have simplified his menu, but he hasn’t lost his creativity: he has a terrific new apple pizza!


3 to 4 chopped shallots

3 tablespoons extra-virgin olive oil

1 clove garlic, minced

2 cups hard cider

3 pounds mussels, cleaned and de-bearded (discard opened or cracked mussels)

1/4 cup crumbled blue cheese (of your choice; Gorgonzola is nice here, or just plain blue cheese)

chopped parsley as needed for garnish


          Sauté the shallots in the olive oil until translucent, about 5 minutes. Just before the shallots become translucent, pop in the garlic pieces, but be careful not to burn the garlic.

          Add the hard cider, and simmer the mixture until the cider is reduced in half.

          Add the mussels, and cover to steam until the mussels open. (This will only take a couple of minutes so be sure to check frequently.)  Take the pan off the heat, crumble the cheese over all, and transfer to a serving dish. Garnish with parsley. Serves 6 to 8.  

Michael Phillips at Cider Days (Courtesy of Carolyn Halloran/West County Independent)
Michael Phillips at Cider Days (Courtesy of Carolyn Halloran/West County Independent)

 Lost Nation Traditional Cider Pie

Michael Phillips serves a slice of this pie (indoors!) to his guests each winter at the end of his orchard wassailing ceremony.  He also recommends it for Thanksgiving and other special occasions.

The cider jelly required is a reduction of sweet cider. Boil 3 cups of cider until you have only 1/2 cup left; what remains is what you will need for this recipe.


3/4 cup sugar

3 tablespoons cornstarch

1 pinch salt

1/2 cup cider jelly

1/2 cup boiling water

1 egg, beaten

1 tablespoon melted butter

2 cups sliced apples

pastry for a 2-crust, 9-inch pie


         Preheat the oven to 425 degrees. In a bowl, combine the sugar, cornstarch, and salt. Add the cider jelly and water, and blend. Stir in the egg and melted butter. Place the apple sices on the bottom pie crust in a pie plate, and top with the cider mixture. Put the top crust over all, cutting a few slashes in it. Bake for 40 minutes. Serves 6 to 8.