Why Stockbridge, MA. Is Thanksgiving Town, USA
Hint: Norman Rockwell and a turkey sandwich as good as one you can make with leftovers
We all have a Thanksgiving threshold. Mine is the morning after.
I’m totally fine and chill with eating whatever I want on the holiday — which science tells us is totally OK. I’ve never engaged in dubious dinnertime political debates, I’ve never been a drunk uncle and I’ve generally behaved myself for the most part. When it’s all done, I’ll take a little walk then get on the couch and watch Home Alone as I wait for pie. The whole gluttony thing is fine with me on the third Thursday of November, but I start to get itchy come Friday, when everybody is sitting on the couch and possibly munching on leftovers for breakfast. I feel the need to get out and do something, walk around, get some air.
So I go to Stockbridge, Massachusetts, a place that feels like it was made for Thanksgiving. A small town in the Berkshires of under 2,000 full-time residents, it’s quaint, quiet and peak New England, but there’s more that ties it to the holiday than being in the state where the Pilgrims set up camp. Specifically: an iconic American painter and a turkey sandwich.
“This is the place that people come to for Thanksgiving,” Tom Daly, Curator of Education at the Norman Rockwell Museum in Stockbridge tells me. The work of the artist, known for his paintings, illustrations and magazine covers that spanned over 50 years, is one of the few things almost any American can agree on, even in these divided times. “Families getting back together, they want to tap into the nostalgia of the earlier days, and the opportunity to come to a town of about 2,000 people that has a very well-known inn, an opportunity to look at artwork that’s not going to challenge anybody in your group no matter what their affiliation might be.”
Daly says the day after Thanksgiving is always a madhouse for the museum, and the Saturday and Sunday even more so. “People say, ‘We came into New England, let’s go see something that people connect traditionally to New England.’”
Although Rockwell was born in New York City, he first made the move to Vermont in 1939, and then Stockbridge 14 years later, and lived there until he passed away in 1978. His work does often represent a sort of small-town America where people try and do their best, family and community matter and people tend to look out for each other. (Of course, he also tackled social injustice, like the 1964 painting The Problem We All Live With.)
And, maybe most importantly to the November holiday, he gave us one of the most enduring Thanksgiving images in American history with Freedom from Want, the third in his quartet of 1943 oil paintings known as the Four Freedoms. Daly believe the image reminds us of the holiday because it depicts “people who are older and younger, maybe from different walks of life and enjoying each others company, it’s sort of the essence of the Thanksgiving we all want to have.”
There’s another reason Stockbridge feels like a town built for the last days of November. Sure, the foliage is great and it looks like a Rockwell painting, but we’re talking about something down the road about 10 minutes, at the iconic Red Lion Inn that’s been on Main Street since 1773. The place is usually booked up for Thanksgiving, but you don’t need to stay there to experience the hefty hand-carved turkey sandwich. Sit in Widow Bingham’s Tavern and enjoy one with a few beers before going on a hike nearby.
It’s essentially a fresh version of a Thanksgiving leftover sandwich, and my tradition is to get one topped with stuffing and cranberry mayo, as well as a side of homemade potato chips, a few weeks before Thanksgiving — sort of like I’m training for the marathon meal to come. The weekend after Thanksgiving, I usually try to grab a seat at the bar and drink a Bloody Mary and just enjoy an hour to myself (and the roomful of families that are chatting about whatever). I tell myself I’m not going to get the sandwich, but I often do.
Daly says, however, the trick is to get the Indian pudding. The baked custard smacks of molasses, ginger and cinnamon and is topped off with cream or iced cream, a New England favorite for generations.
While I do love me some autumnal desserts, on the off chance that I’ve found myself near the Red Lion craving the sandwich in the summertime months and the sandwich wasn’t on the lunch menu, I’ve never been rebuffed. They always make one for me.
“I think that’s one of the things that’s very nice about the Berkshires,” Daly says. “If has that feeling that if you ask somebody for something that’s maybe off-menu, there’s a very good chance people are going to try and accommodate you.”
Why is that, I ask.
“There’s so much pride here,” he says.
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