The Dreamaway Lodge
The Dreamaway Lodge Really weird things happen to me all the time. But none of my eating experiences have matched the flakiness quotient of dinner at Dreamaway Lodge, a half hour from Tanglewood in the Berkshires.
Word of the Dreamaway came from chowhound buddy Barry, who is as fond of offbeat scarfing as I. He'd mentioned the place several times, but I always found myself unable to focus; it all seemed so blurry and distant. Just the NAME "Dreamaway Lodge" made me sort of sleepy. All I'd gleaned from Barry's urgings was "polenta"; I imagined myself running through trippy fields of opium-scented flowers with Dorothy, but smelling corn mush and shrieking "Polenta! Polenta!" instead of "Poppies! Poppies!".
At no time did the Dreamaway Lodge become any more real to me...even after having eaten there. Without corroboration from dinner companions Alan and Cecilia, I'd seriously doubt that our meal there was more than a hallucination.
You drive up to the base of a mountain, the twisty street growing ever narrower. When it dissolves into a rubble-strewn dirt path, look straight up. Looming, shrouded in mystery and garlic, is The Dreamaway Lodge.
Were we too late? Had the owners died ages ago, leaving (imagine a cross between a Catskills retreat and a small version of the hotel where Jack Nicholson freaked out) decaying on the side of a mountain? No. We'd made contact (DREAMY contact) by phone the day before, when we ordered The Meal.
Actually, you don't order at Dreamaway Lodge. You are ordered. Rule number one: you must call 24 hours in advance, and the elderly Albanian sisters (three if I recall correctly, but forgive me details; again, I was whoozy) may reluctantly agree to cook you The Meal. I'd forgotten, in that drowsy way one forgets dreams, what Barry had told me The Meal exactly was, but he'd at least driven home the vital necessity of specifying "polenta". When I did so, the voice on the phone took on new respect. Silence, then hushed agreement, then a dial tone.
We tiptoed in with that trepidatious gait one adopts when the sudden need to flee seems a likely possibility. The interior was an amazement of knickknacks and memorabilia, the kind that could only be accumulated by elderly Albanian-American vaudevillian sisters and their charismatic (deceased) mother.
Lenore--one of the sisters--guided us to our table in a large, old-fashioned dining room. Only one of many tables was set; we didn't require much guidance. As we settled in, she dashed off to to play for us her recording of dobro/twangy folk songs.
We heard tales of how she and her siblings (who hate each other seethingly, practically spitting through their teeth invective like "why don't you leave these nice people ALONE to eat their DINNER, Lenore!!") had been vaudville performers as a family band (yellowed publicity shots of cutesy fiddle-toting youngsters confirmed this), their formidable mother managing the business.
Mom, with enormous shiny hair bun and Dick Butkus physique, had run the Dreamaway as a fully functional inn countless decades ago. Signed celeb photos filled the walls (I couldn't focus on them sufficiently to pick out familiar faces, though Alan and Cecilia spotted a young, pre-dazzle Liberace), so it was apparently a Big Deal once. Anyway, "functional" is no longer a word you'd use to describe the place. Asked if they still rent rooms, the sisters howled with laughter for several seconds, until they realized that they were coming dangerously close to family rapport, at which point mirth stopped on a dime, eyes darting poisonously around to spy the one foolish enough to be caught guffawing solo.
The cook sister had a gaunt, hardened face; some horrible back problem rendered movement painful. Our polenta had meant agony, as she was keen to emphasize in her cheerful tableside visits (inevitably ending with Lenore hissing her back into her kitchen/lair). Her revenge, she confided, was the knowledge that the stuff expands violently in the stomach; she took great pleasure in goading us to eat more and more, standing over us with a malevolent motherly sneer.
Man, it was good, though. The soup was throwaway-vegetable, the salad an icebergy joke. But that huge platter of fluffy polenta topped with chicken, meatballs, and sausage in a rich, homey tomato sauce was heavenly. The sausage tasted homemade, the chicken succulent and falling off the bone, and the meatballs--usually impossible to find good in restaurants--were WAY unbelievable; moist and grainy. I kept spooning helping after garlicky helping onto my plate, happy to observe that the platter seemed hardly diminished after repeated attack. But gradually it became a burden. We've all been to mom 'n pop places where there's pressure to clean plates, but here we felt not so much pressure as compulsion; deadly, utterly inescapable compulsion. We gulped as much with anxiety as with polenta, the innocent-looking platter proving supernaturally bottomless.
Between courses, I jammed with Lenore on my trombone. Another party that had come in (poor souls, eating their chicken and meatballs atop a bed of mere spaghetti) hooted/hollered, and the cook even cracked a smile. Lenore was in heaven, but not enough so to refrain from ultra high pressure salesmanship of her tape. After dessert (cookies and breath mints), she handed each of us a home-grown cassette (featuring cover photo of her broad-faced grinning mug under cowboy hat) and demanded ten bucks per, deaf guy subway trinketeering style. She's probably sold more recordings than Yanni.
But they really did take a shining (woops, bad word choice) to me. When, early on in the polenta, I became dejected upon observing that the spaghetti-based meal also included potatoes (I adore potatoes), the cook dashed crookedly back to the kitchen for 45 minutes, to whip me up some after-dessert spuds...along with still more pieces of chicken. "Mixed feelings" was very much the term, but despite an Exploding Monty Python Fat Guy fullness that couldn't accomodate even a wafer-thin mint, I forced it down. And in spite of the pain, my gustatory memory of this tardy amuse bouche remains fervidly positive, so impeccable were those potatoes (roasted with chicken fat. God...).
I sent some people to the Dreamaway weeks later, and they chucklingly reported that Lenore likes me. That is, Lenore...uh...REALLY likes me. This was confirmed by a subsequent phone message from her (I'd offered my biz card when she'd mentioned an upcoming recording session), begging me to return before summer was out, when she'd leave for Florida. The message closed with " handsome hunk, you!" (THAT was certainly a first...chalk one up to cataracts). Then, another pleading message from Florida: she'd hurt her leg and was laid up in bed, hoping for a phone call from me to "cheer her up". It appears that Lenore's dreamed up some May/December romantic action here.
But I for one am pure of heart in MY intentions, which largely (no, entirely) center on getting more of that yummy polenta. I may stop up this summer for another helping of The Dinner, so if Jim's Page disappears, please send a rescue team to Dreamaway Lodge, in the October Mountain State Forest near Becket, (wow, how perfect) Massachusettes, 413-623-8725
Oh, and for god's sake, if you go (and you must), please DON'T show them this article. Hell hath no fury like a grandmotherly banjo-wielding woman scorned...