On the second day of my Greater Boston tour, I awoke to a gentle rain. How surprising to learn that Boston’s gray skies, brilliant leaves and wet sidewalks are similar to autumn weather conditions back home in Indiana. This may sound obvious, but if you go in November, bring rain and winter gear—galoshes, gloves, an umbrella and waterproof outerwear. You’re in the northeast. Anything can happen.
I skipped breakfast and walked to the Green Street T station 10-15 minutes away. Arriving in downtown Boston in the midst of a downpour, I noticed a sidewalk kiosk for the Hop On Hop Off bus tour. With only a few hours to spend downtown, it seemed sensible to get the lay of the land aboard a bus where I could stay dry.
Our guide was entertaining, but after a few stops it was apparent that introducing Boston was secondary to his real aim: having his ego stroked. Normally, I’m a fan of Hop On Hop Off tours, especially in a city where I have no previous experience. I made a mental note: it all depends on the luck of the draw. In this case, I drew the short stick.
I bailed on the tour at a stop across from the Union Oyster House, the nation’s oldest operating restaurant. It was high noon on a Saturday and the historic eatery was busy with tourists and locals. Of course, I’d already tasted my first cup of Boston seafood chowder the night before, but who can resist a recipe that’s been around since 1836?
Hot, creamy and loaded with lobster, clams and fish, it is comparable to seafood gravy. I’m not opposed to gravy, so I had a bowl rather than a cup. My table was located adjacent to the booth where a young John F. Kennedy sat every Sunday doing his senatorial paperwork. What a perfect prelude to my next destination, the John F. Kennedy Presidential Library and Museum.
Get inspired at the JFK Library
With only two days of local commuting, I felt like a veteran of the T. I took the Red Line from a downtown terminal to the JFK/UMass stop. On the lower level, you catch a shuttle bus that drops you at the JFK Library and Museum. As I stepped off the bus, the clouds parted and the sun broke through, perhaps an omen of the inspiration found inside.
It’s hard to imagine a more uplifting place to counteract the effects of living through splenetic times. I don’t care if you’re a liberal or a conservative—the JFK Library is an undeniable witness to the sense of possibility and hope this idealistic president brought to the national consciousness. (Think about that the next time you cast your presidential vote. Leaders matter. Words matter.) I visited on the 58th anniversary of Kennedy’s election, which coincided with my 58th birthday. Can you blame me for feeling a little weepy throughout?
In one kiosk, the Nixon/Kennedy presidential debates run in a continuous loop, underscoring how much we’ve changed. At one point in the debate, the candidates are asked to explain why they’re the best person for the job. Any contemporary mind recognizes the question as a prompt that leads to ugliness and insult. But that’s not what happens. I’m paraphrasing, but the candidates respond something like this: “The American people will have to compare my experience to his and decide who is best.”
Other parts of the debate are contentious, but overall, this exchange is genteel to the point of quaintness. Another perk for people with literary interests: JFK was an Ernest Hemingway fan, and the museum has a small collection of the author’s papers, manuscripts and books. Give yourself at least three hours to really soak up the JFK experience.
I left the museum in high spirits, returning to Jamaica Plain with 45 minutes to spare before dinner with friends. That left just enough time to avoid overspending at Salmagundi Boston, a local favorite for stylish hats. Happily, it was located next to the restaurant we chose.
Buy a statement hat
I assumed Salmagundi was a surname, but it’s actually a word defined as “a mish-mash of everything.” With a massive inventory of over 12,000 hats, the store’s name fits.
Did I mention it was my birthday? I couldn’t leave without a hat, but what should it be? An unusual toque? A classic beret? A vintage cloche? Or an elaborately trimmed fedora? So many options! Thank goodness for the knowledgeable Salmagundi staff. With their guidance, I chose a burgundy, asymmetrical fedora.
When the clerk gave me the bill, I stumbled over the price—exactly the amount on the tag. What about sales tax? “Hats are considered essential clothing in Boston,” she said. “They aren’t subject to sales tax.” If I had known that, I might have splurged on the mustard yellow fedora that has haunted me every since.
For the rest of the trip, I enjoyed compliments wherever I went. As I walked downtown, a Boston Public Works employee looked up from his work, tipped his own hat in a salute and said, “Nice hat.” It wasn’t a leering, sexist comment, but rather an expression of respect and admiration. Trust me: I’ve lived long enough to know the difference.
Your hat will also give you the pleasure of saying “Salmagundi” every time someone comments on it. The word rolls off the tongue like a one-word poem. (Try it: sal * muh * >goon * dee.) Salmagundi has two locations in the Greater Boston area, one in Jamaica Plain, the other in Boston’s North End neighborhood.
My dinner companions are regulars at Vee Vee, a privately-owned restaurant next to Salmagundi in Jamaica Plain. Their loyalty scored us a reservation on a busy Saturday night. I claimed our cozy table near the kitchen and surveyed the small 35-seat dining room and locally-sourced menu. While waiting on my friends, I settled on seared scallops served over a butternut polenta and a bright citrus slaw made from finely chopped carrots and celeriac.
We only see each other every few years, and our dinner was more than a celebration of my birthday; my friends Adam and Maureen were engaged. With a double celebration as an excuse, we went for broke—appetizers AND dessert with dinner. Beer lovers will also love the extensive craft beer menu at Vee Vee.
For an appetizer, Adam and Maureen guided me toward crispy shitake mushrooms complemented by a sriracha soy sauce—an easy choice because the clerks next door at Salmagundi had also given the shitakes rave reviews.
I’ve never been a butterscotch fan, but when dinner was over and the dessert menu was passed, my betrothed friends suggested the butterscotch pudding. Banish any notion you may have of butterscotch pudding made from a box mix. This creamy confection was quite simply one of the best desserts I’ve ever had.
On the way back to my Airbnb, we solidified our Sunday plans—a trip to nearby Concord, a literary thrill covered in my next post.