“Enlightened” Ithaca

One of the best kept secrets about New York is that, about an hour north of the Big Apple, the state is a mostly rural and often unsophisticated place.

Case in point: I live near an upstate village where, shopping in our only supermarket, I once asked a clerk where the artichoke hearts were hiding. She looked puzzled for a moment before her face brightened and she asked, “Have you checked the meat department?”

So in 1997, it might have come as a surprise when the leading “alternative” magazine, Utne Reader, put upstate Ithaca at the top of its list of the 10 most enlightened towns in the U.S. But it was hardly a surprise to me. I’ve lived within 60 miles of Ithaca for more than 35 years and, for those of the “alternative” persuasion, the Finger Lakes college town has long been a hip oasis of great restaurants and shops, intellectual stimulation, a vital music scene and spectacular natural beauty. It is one of a handful of places in America where the alternative culture of the ’60s established a beach head and is still letting its “freak” flag fly.

Ithaca’s prime example is the Moosewood Restaurant, the world-famous vegetarian restaurant celebrating its 30th anniversary this year. It was started by a collective of seven young people with no formal culinary training and little restaurant experience. Today, with a middle-aged core, the collective has grown to 19 members who have produced a steady stream of best-selling cookbooks while running a restaurant that, according to Bon Appetit, is one of 13 that has revolutionized the way Americans eat (the list runs from Chez Panisse in Berkeley to McDonald’s).

The collective has won awards from the James Beard Foundation, both as a regional restaurant as well as for its cookbooks. In observance of its anniversary, the Moosewood Restaurant Celebrates will be released in October. The restaurant’s 10th book is, fittingly, a collection of recipes for parties and special occasions.

With the possible exception of Ben & Jerry’s Ice Cream, it’s hard to think of any nationally known food business founded by hippies that has not only survived but thrived, all the while clinging to its counterculture image and principles. “If someone told me in 1976 that I’d still be here today, I’d be shocked,” said David Hirsch, one of the collective’s earliest members.

In the ’70s, eating in a vegetarian restaurant could be a pretty grim affair, when ideology rather than tastiness ruled the kitchen. But, from the beginning, the Moosewood’s founders were never hardcore vegetarians and served a meat entree every day (indeed, even today, many members of the collective are omnivores, though meat has been dropped from the menu and replaced by fish).

“We’ve never made people feel uncomfortable about what they like to eat,” Hirsch said. “We took vegetarian cooking, which was considered wacky, and made it a flavor-based part of the mainstream.”

Although it grosses $1 million a year and is a destination restaurant that draws visitors from all over the world, the Moosewood’s low prices don’t allow the kind of profit margin that, split 19 ways, is making any of its owners rich. Lunches are $6.50 and dinners are $11 to $15. On Tuesday nights starting in early fall, all entrees are less than $10.

Tucked into a corner of a refurbished former high school, the 70-seat restaurant is an unpretentious, high-ceilinged place with plenty of attractive woodwork, a bar and lounge, and wood chairs at simple wood tables lighted overhead by old school fixtures. “As one of my co-workers once joked, first-time visitors usually expect a much bigger place with much taller waiters,” Hirsch said.

Hirsch attributes the restaurant’s success to its culinary creativity, which has produced more than 2,000 field-tested recipes for the cookbooks. Although only a few hundred of the recipes are served in the restaurant, they reflect a fusion style that, for example, combines Japanese seasonings and Indonesian ingredients to create a stuffed, braised eggplant. On Sunday nights, the small kitchen produces ethnic dishes. A recent ethnic night featured North African cooking: Morrocan stuffed eggplant, spinach almond beureks (a dish wrapped in phyllo dough), vegetable tagine (stew), and fish with a chermoulla sauce (a spicy melange including lemons, tomatoes, and cilantro).

The ethnic influences reflect, in part, the fact that Ithaca is a surprisingly diverse community – 13 percent of residents are Asian. This is largely attributable to the generous resettlement of Vietnamese and Tibetan refugees, plus the large numbers of foreigners at Cornell University, whose stature attracts 20,000 students, 16 percent of whom come from abroad. The Dalai Lama, who has visited Ithaca three times, apparently finds the area hospitable, too: the North American seat of the Dalai Lama is a modest house in a residential neighborhood of Ithaca, where the spiritual leader has established a satellite of his personal monastery in India.

Ithaca’s international flavor also gets a literal translation at the Farmer’s Market, a venerable institution where you can buy everything from locally-grown seasonal vegetables (you won’t find ringers selling oranges) to ready-to-eat Sri Lankan cuisine, sushi, homemade jellies, wine, cheese and handcrafts.

While most small towns offer farmers little more than a vacant lot, the 125 members of the market organization have a classy permanent home at which they gross $4 million a year. With roof lines and a footprint styled after a 13th century European cathedral, the waterfront market building is open-sided to catch the summer breezes coming off Cayuga Lake. Live music, dancers, kids shows or shenanigans such as the annual Rutabaga Toss (a zany version of bocci), make the market a fun place to spend a weekend morning or have a lakeside picnic lunch. The market is open rain or shine; Sundays (10 a.m. to 2 p.m.) are less crowded than Saturdays (9 a.m. to 2 p.m.), when as many as 5,000 may show up.

With 6,000 more students at Ithaca College (the other college on a nearby hill), it is clear that the two institutions are the dominant factor in the economy and cultural life of the city (population 30,000). It is the quintessential college town – irreverent, and simultaneously cosmopolitan and idealistic.

• EcoVillage, two miles outside of town, is a kind of dream community of 30 highly energy-efficient homes clustered on three acres so that the rest of the 172-acre site remains open for organic gardens, orchards, woods and wetlands. Families live in their own affordable homes but enjoy the benefits of cooperative living. The so-called cohousing movement, which began in Denmark in the late 1960s, caught on very early in Ithaca, and now more than 50 similar communities have been built across the U.S.

• At the Community Alternative School, which is part of the public school system, the kids vote with faculty and staff on how to run things, and students grow lettuce hydroponically to supply the school cafeteria. One of the school’s graduates, now a teacher at another school, is an alternative fuels enthusiast and shade-tree mechanic who runs his pickup truck on used vegetable oil.

• The Tompkins County Public Library is powered by a large solar electric system.

• While upstate New York (excluding some large cities) votes solidly Republican, Ithaca once elected a socialist mayor.

• For many years, the city has been using its own local paper currency, called Ithaca Hours, along with federal greenbacks. The currency exchange has been a model for dozens of other communities all over the world.

• Ithaca is friendly to homegrown entrepreneurs, but when Wal-Mart attempted to move into town, the locals won one of those rare victories against the biggest of the big boxes and kept the retailer out. The re-purposed brick school building that houses the Moosewood passes for a mall in Ithaca, and there is not a franchise among its 15 shops.

Similarly, the stores are locally owned in the Commons downtown. It’s a thriving pedestrian mall that has been named one of the state’s top architectural projects for having preserved an historic small-town look and feel. The Commons features local artists’ sculptures and, during the summer, more than 50 free concerts showcase some of the best local talent during lunch-hour, twilight and evening concerts.

Look over top-of-the-line handcrafts, fine art and European porcelain, or, perhaps, stop in at the Ithaca Hemp Company, one of several “head shops” downtown, to buy a handblown glass pipe. There’s also paraphernalia for dogs at a popular pet salon (self-serve or drop-off); it’s called – forgive the frat house humor – Doggie Style.

Although the Moosewood is the city’s signature restaurant, more than 40 others offer everything from upscale dining to cafe fare, from great bagels to inexpensive Vietnamese. Ithacans sustain an art cinema house, several Off Broadway theaters, plus at least six independent bookstores.

One of the clearest signs of Cornell’s influence downtown is the Sagan Planet Walk, which is both a scale model of the solar system as well as a memorial to Carl Sagan, the late astronomer. The center of the Planet Walk is the Sun Station, an obelisk on the Commons. This is one of the few walkable solar models in the world and, if you follow it out to Pluto, you’ll go three-quarters of a mile to the edge of the city; you can’t walk to the nearest star, however, because it would be as far away as Hawaii.

The miniature solar system extends to the hands-on ScienCenter, an excellent museum for children and families that features 100 indoor and outdoor exhibits, including clever gadgets and displays built by Cornell scientists and students. An expansion this year tripled the size of ScienCenter, which is strongly supported by the community with cash and volunteer labor. But even adults who majored in English can have fun here: at one exhibit you stand in front of flood lights fitted with colored bulbs, where you will discover that your shadow is not gray but a darker shade of the lights’ color.

Although its sprawling 745-acre campus can be intimidating at first, Cornell is classic Ivy League and an architectural feast well worth savoring. Start at the information center at Day Hall, corner of East Avenue and Tower Road, where you can pick up a map and a list of events, or go on a free, student-guided tour. Consult a free copy of the Cornell Chronicle to see if any of the free or inexpensive art films, lectures, concerts or sporting events appeal to you. Here are a few other possibilities.

• Admission to the Herbert F. Johnson Museum of Art, designed by architect I.M. Pei, is free and usually not crowded. Even if you are not interested in its notable Asian collection, go there for the view: the windows wrapping around the fifth floor offer a stunning panorama of the city and Cayuga Lake.

• Take a journey back in time and visit the Museum of the Earth, which recently opened its doors to the public. This paleontological research institution is a place for people of all ages, interests and backgrounds. Both the serious fossil hunter and the interested elementary school student will be thrilled to discover facts in the major history museum of upstate New York.

• Stroll through Cornell Plantations, a 250-acre arboretum and botanical gardens, including heritage vegetables and herbs. Drop-in, self-guided tours are free; guided tours at 10 a.m. on Wednesdays and Saturdays during the summer are $3.

• If you live in one of the 43 percent of American households that feeds wild birds, you will enjoy the Cornell Lab of Ornithology, the premier bird conservation and research center in the United States. Its 224-acre sanctuary and visitor center, on the edge of a 10-acre pond, is an ideal environment for bird watching and interactive exhibits. In June, the lab, which holds the world’s largest collection of bird sounds, opened a $26 million facility that is five times bigger than the former site. For directions to the lab, a shortdrive from the campus, go to www.birds.
cornell.edu or call 1-800-843-BIRD.

Any fair-minded Ithaca booster would have to admit that other college towns – Austin and Berkeley, for example – are arguably as culture-rich. Yet, geology makes Ithaca incomparable. The glaciers that blessed central New York with the Finger Lakes also created microclimates around them that are superb for growing grapes. About a dozen wineries on the Cayuga Lake Wine Trail, which starts in Ithaca, are spread along Route 89 on the 40 miles of the western shore. The Finger Lakes is the oldest wine district in the East.

But the most alluring aspect of the area’s geology is summed up by the city’s popular bumper sticker: Ithaca Is Gorges. Three of the state’s six gorge parks are nearby. The gorges collect water which crashes down more than 150 waterfalls within 10 miles of the Commons, including Taughan­nock Falls, which, at 215 feet, is taller than Niagara Falls. The falls and gorges made dramatic backdrops for movie producers from 1912 to 1920, when the movie industry flourished in Ithaca, then called “little Hollywood.” Admit­tedly, the scenic water features are often disappointing in the summer, when the gorges are sometimes nearly dry.

But no matter what the time of year, the many trails through the city and nearby state parks make Ithaca prime ground for hikers. However, if you are pressed for time, you can take an exhilarating hike without leaving the city. The Cascadilla Creek Gorge trail follows the creek as it tumbles down a spectacular gorge for 1.3 miles, from Cornell to the city. You can enter the trail a few blocks from the Commons at University Avenue and Court Street.

Whether you take this unforgettable trail up to one of America’s greatest universities or down to the city, there’s plenty to engage you at both ends. Meanwhile, we upstaters may find it a little inconvenient when it comes to finding the artichoke hearts, but many of us are content as long as wild turkeys strut around in the front yard and Ithaca is within cruising distance.


Ithaca has 17 hotels, motels and inns, and more than 50 B&Bs. But rooms are scarce during major college weekends, such as commencement and homecoming. For a guidebook to Ithaca and the Finger Lakes, call 1-800-28-ITHACA or visit www.visitithaca.com. When you arrive in Ithaca, stop at Clinton House (607-273-4497), 116 N. Cayuga Street, just off the Commons. The historic Greek Revival building is a one-stop shop for brochures, directions and tickets for all local entertainment. For a guide to arts and entertainment, pick up a copy of the Ithaca Times, a free alternative weekly.

For details about the Ithaca Farmers Market (Steamboat Landing on Third Street, off Rt. 13), call 607-273-7109 or visit www.ithacamarket.com.

For Cornell University visitor information, call 607-254-INFO or go to www.cornell.edu/CUHomePage/Visiting.html

EcoVillage is on West Hill, off Rt. 79, on Rachel Carson Way. Call 607-273-3440 or visit www.ecovillage.ithaca.ny.us

The Moosewood Restaurant is at 215 N. Cayuga Street in the DeWitt Mall. Call 607-273-5327 or go to www.moosewoodrestaurant.com.

The ScienCenter is at 601 First Street. Call 607-272-0600 or go to www.sciencenter.org.

by Hal Smith
Hal Smith is a freelance writer who resides in Windsor, New York

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *