We drove south from Niagara Falls, skirting Buffalo, to Mt. Morris, New York, as we chased waterfalls. Although I have been a resident of New York for a half century, I had never been to this part of the state. I was struck by the beauty of western New York made more beautiful by goldenrod blooming everywhere. It not only lined roads and driveways, huge fields of the golden flowers were around every bend. I had had no idea of goldenrod’s beauty before. Was it planted? Did it have a use? Of course, I thought of allergies, but I later learned that goldenrod is not a major cause of hay fever. It blooms the same time as rag weed, and rag weed is the major culprit of allergy sufferers.
Although I had not before seen so much blooming goldenrod, the golden colors made the spouse and me think of our spring barge trip through Burgundy where the blooming colza fields carpeted the land with a similar shade of yellow. I could not help but wonder what van Gogh would have produced from this wondrous western New York of hills and valleys colored in swatches and patches and fields of gold.
We got to Mt. Morris, New York, late in the afternoon, checked into a not-very-good motel, and drove to what passed for a downtown—little more than an intersection. My economic calculus says that there is an inverse relationship between the number of “antique” stores in a locality and the town’s prosperity. Of the few downtown blocks of Mt. Morris, one was lined with what proclaimed themselves to be antique stores, perhaps comprising a quarter of the existing establishments. Such stores in struggling towns seldom contain valuable items but are primarily filled with stuff that looks as if it had been discarded, and the Mt. Morris stores followed that pattern. Even so, the spouse and I like poking around such places, and we filled the remainder of the afternoon at a couple of the stores.
I was looking at some respectable shirts in the first store, but they did not fit. (Of course, they were too small.) The person manning the store came over and tried to find one that could contain me, but I don’t think that a sale was the chief goal. He wanted to talk. On a weekday in September, he did not have many customers. It took some effort to get away from what could have been a never-ending conversation, but the escape was brief, for a clone of this person was manning the second store we entered.
He, too, was retired and after parting with this fact he told us what the job had been—something with New York state—and what his starting salary had been and how that pay had impressed his father. Hardly taking a breath, he said that his mother now took care of him and did his laundry and cooking. After the briefest of pauses, he said that she was ninety-nine. The spouse and I separated and foraged in the store piled high everywhere with cast iron pans, bottles, Christmas ornaments. I don’t remember if I asked him, but he did old us he did not make a living from the store. “Last month may have been the first time I made enough to pay the rent.” Acquisition was his hobby. He went to auctions on the weekend, and he loved getting something that intrigued him. The store seemed to be the result, but he said that he had several barns even more filled than his store. He did not seem to mind that we stayed beyond closing time, and even though we bought $40 worth of “antiques,” he did not really seem to care whether we made the purchases as long as we would listen to him talk and, occasionally, reply.
The two men manning the antique stores as well as the motel clerk all recommended Questa Lasagna for dinner. We went and were surprised. The cook and owner, we were told by a server, was a graduate of the CIA—no not that one, but the Culinary Institute of America. I have been to other restaurants in out-of-the-way places were a CIA graduate was cooking, and the food has always been good or better than good. That was also true for Questa Lasagna, where all the pasta was homemade. You don’t get house-made pasta in many restaurants in population centers; I certainly didn’t expect it in a town of a couple thousand in western New York.
Eating is part of the reason I travel. I go to experience new things—landscapes with flora and fauna I have not seen; people who are different from those I encounter in my daily routines; museums that get me to see things I had not before; architecture that has me experience shapes and forms and spaces outside of my normal encounters; music I don’t normally hear; stores with goods and books and prints that I will not see at home. And I want to experience food. Of course, on any trip, I have to eat, but I want the experience of someone “cooking.” By that I mean that a restaurant is not just microwaving or presenting meals prepared by some distribution company that I could get in a thousand different places, but that someone in the kitchen is actually cooking, not just thawing what someone else has prepared. And at Questa Lasagna someone was actually cooking.
Adding to our surprise, we found a restaurant five miles away the next night where people were cooking, EuropaCafe. Two women born in Poland, but who met in New York, owned this place. They offered among other items an incredible array of soups, many of which I had never heard of before. I had a sour rye soup, whose Polish name I don’t remember, that was distinctive and incredibly good and incredibly filling. Although I went on to get more food—a hunter’s stew based on sauerkraut, fresh green beans, stuffed cabbage—I really needed nothing beyond the soup. I heartily recommend both these restaurants.
While the real cooking of these places was a bonus for our visit, our reason for being in the Mt. Morris area was to visit Letchworth State Park and chase more waterfalls.