Cambridge, Massachusetts: Come for the Food, Not the Weather

Cambridge, Massachusetts.

April 7, 2011

Today’s report on the taste of Washington comes from Cambridge, Massachusetts.  Reporting from here is justifiable because the whole 400 miles or so from Washington to Boston is in many ways a single urban place.  You can ride the train from one end to the other without changing trains, which is one way of defining a place.  Educational institutions and their athletic conferences also define a place: six of the eight ancient Ivy League campuses are easily reachable from train stops along the line.

If you are a Californian, Boston is the center of the other Bay Area. The two have a lot in common. Boston and San Francisco were once the financial and cultural capitals of their respective regions until they were superseded by newer, larger and vastly uglier metropolises to their south, which shall go unmentioned in this article. Ships out of New England filled up the port of San Francisco during the gold rush when crews abandoned them where they dropped anchor and headed for the hills. What is now the financial district of San Francisco, at the base of California Street and south of the Embarcadero, was a forest of masts and rotting hulks.

There is also a close connection between this East Coast Bay Area and Washington, DC.  Washington’s managerial elite often went to school up here, most notably, of course, at Harvard. The Kennedy administration was particularly famous for hiring Harvard men, including C. Douglas Dillon, Dean of Faculty McGeorge Bundy, and, of course, JFK’s brother Robert; but the pattern was set much earlier by Franklin Roosevelt, class of 1904 and Theodore Roosevelt, class of 1880. Washington is so full of Harvard graduates that it is joked that the red line subway from Harvard Square runs a secret train direct to the red line in Washington.  On the other hand, Robert McNamara, perhaps the quintessential Kennedy whiz kid, went to the University of California, Berkeley; Ted Sorenson, Nebraska.

In terms of geography and climate, the two cities are very different. Washington is a southern city.  Summer is the rule; winter is mild and usually ends before it gets too tiresome.  In Boston, it is the other way around.  Winter here is the rule; summer a passing dream.  It is a very nice dream, filled with trips to the beach and Fenway Park and watching fireflies from the porch of the summer house, but it comes to an abrupt end in early September.  It is not uncommon for every single day in February to be cloudy. When March turns into April, things still do not improve much.

Here is the weather report from the Boston Globe for the next five days:

Breezy with sunshine fading behind increasing clouds.

Clouds breaking to allow some sunshine, as high pressure ridges from Canada into northern New England.

A storm approaching New England from the west will cause clouds to return.

The storm will move off to the east, but the sky will remain mostly cloudy.

Considerable cloudiness with a chance for additional rain.

OK, you do not come here for the climate.  How about the food? I took an informal poll a few years back, of a table full of bright thirty-somethings, all San Francisco Bay Area natives, with many of whom I attended Harvard’s Kennedy School a few years back.  We were dining in San Francisco.  I asked for silence and popped the question:  is the food better in here or in Boston?

They burst out laughing.

Well, there is good food in Cambridge, and, as one might expect in an intellectual capital, good coffee.  As I did not have time on this trip to dine out with friends, I’ll just report on the coffee.  Peets has opened a small shop in the heart of Harvard Square – yes, coffee heaven and intellectual heaven have met – next to the justly famous Grendel’s Den, facing a tiny park between the subway and the river. There are some good local shops as well. I love Peets, especially the original Peets in my old neighborhood in Berkeley, but the one here was packed every time I walked past.  I got a great espresso one afternoon at High Rise, which lists itself as a bakery but is wonderfully obsessive about good coffee. They make what I call a “New Syle” espresso, beans roasted to a medium brown that results in an complex, earthy, acidic brew.

My favorite turned out to be Cafe Gato Rojo, in the basement of Dudley House on the corner where Harvard Yard meets Harvard Square. Café Gato Rojo was crowded but not impossibly so.  Upon asking if I could share a table, one of two students responded, “Certainly, sir.”  The barista served up what I call a traditional espresso, dark-roasted beans, deep, wonderfully bitter flavor, in an elegant two-tone cup, crimson on the outside, white on the inside, atop a matching saucer. Mmmmm. I sat there a good while just taking in the atmosphere, the chili pepper lights encircling the ceiling, multi-ethnic young people studying books and (mostly) laptops, often with earbuds.  Through the casement windows I could see the sun shining intermittently upon the buds and branches of early spring.

I came for the memorial service for the Reverend Professor Peter Gomes, Harvard Chaplain for thirty-five years, although I think his official title was “Minister of Memorial Church.”  The service was dignified in every way, as one would expect of a man who was always well-dressed; usually, even in summer, in a three-piece suit, with a pocket square and watch fob.  For all of the formality, Peter was a good egg, a great conversationalist and boon companion. Two Harvard Presidents and the Governor spoke, each of whom told stories about Peter that made everyone laugh knowingly, something people at Harvard are particularly good at.

Knowledge is power. Nowhere else on earth is that statement truer than at Harvard. You come here for intellectual excitement and access to power, symbolized in so many ways, but my favorite is the fact that the Harvard president’s office is on the first floor of Massachusetts Hall, the second floor of which is, like most other buildings in the Yard, a freshman dorm. Being in the whirl of events at Harvard is an adrenaline rush the likes of which I have never experienced elsewhere. At nowhere else have I ever found it so easy, and so much fun, to do good work. Nowhere is it easier to find people to talk to. I am staying on this trip at Irving House, just a few blocks east of campus. One night I went down to the small basement dining room, where a fabulous breakfast is served in the morning, to enjoy a bottle of beer and a snack. A casual hello to a suntanned gentleman with a long gray pony tail, who was making tea, led to a conversation about ancient Mayan texts. He had just flown up from Guatemala for a couple of weeks at the Peabody Museum and was one of the world’s leading authorities on the subject.

Harvard is a living, working, breathing museum that is well worth a visit.  It is in fact quite accommodating to visitors.  Many if not most of the lectures and concerts are free and open to the public, as are the many museums. The university has put up a very user-friendly website.

For all of its history and self-importance, there is a wonderful light-heartedness about the place, well embodied by President Kennedy. Two months after the 1960 election, the President-Elect arrived on campus for a meeting of the Board of Overseers, of which he was a member.  He was mobbed by students who broke through police lines.  After a few minutes he pulled himself loose and called out from the steps of University Hall in the middle of the Yard. “I am here to discuss your grades with President Pusey.  I shall protect your interests.”

Richard Hyde

Richard Hyde believes that St. Helena, California is the world’s greatest small town and loves to enjoy good wine and food there while playing bocce ball of a summer evening. Nonetheless, he leaves to spend winters in Washington, DC. He admits that this may be a sign of advanced lunacy, which he treats by inviting friends over to his top-floor apartment overlooking the National Cathedral, where great conversations take place accompanied by bottles of Malbec and mounds of fresh pasta. Despite the brilliant conversation and analysis of the world’s problems, no action is ever taken. Sometime in the spring, like a large migrating bird, he returns to the Napa Valley, where he practices Esalen bodywork at the Calistoga Massage Center and other fine health spas. He also writes a blog, “In Search of a Sense of Place.”

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