Witnessing how one man’s passion fuels others’ pleasures
When The Flats opened in the quiet Cape Cod town of Brewster, we were excited. At first glance, it seemed to offer high quality food, and had some interesting meal and drink options. It also seemed right for us, given that Brewster is nearby and doesn’t have the same summer crowds as, say, Hyannis; we’re also willing to pay a little extra for a dining experience that has quality built into every aspect of it, yet does so with a casual feel. But in all candor, we’d forgotten about them for a little while.
As The Flats started to build a fuller social media presence, we began running across them more. And they caught my eye when they had a creative donation as part of a the annual Figawi Ball charity event we’d attended, and that I unsuccessfully bid on. (In fairness, it was a rookie mistake. I should’ve waited until five minutes before the end of the silent auction and then outspent the prior bidder.) But our interactions after that event led me to take a closer look, and I learned a lot from what Mason Pryme, executive chef and owner, shared about his experience of opening this restaurant.
One of the things I really enjoy about Cape Cod is how many small businesses exist, and the closeness of the locals, who routinely give me ideas for places to check out. What I didn’t fully appreciate is what it’s like being someone on the receiving end who’s also just starting a new business. There are always going to be the random hiccups, events out of your control, and lessons learned. But that learning curve has to be quick, given that word-of-mouth will spread quickly among locals, and tourists are counting on you to help deliver a great vacation.
So, imagine running across a thread in a local Facebook group about your restaurant. I’d be instantly nervous as I pored over the feedback. Then, imagine finding so many positive comments. And with widely public forums like Open Table, Yelp, and TripAdvisor, your performance is under a microscope for all the world to see. When a new restaurant such as The Flats launches, there are people to hire and train, systems to implement and refine, menus to test and tweak, so it’s almost impossible to go off without a hitch. It seems intimidating. But as Chef Pryme noted, “cooking is a very rewarding career because food brings people together.” That perspective coupled with about three decades of experience, created a willingness to brave such challenges required to open The Flats.
With Chef Pryme’s emphasis on the excellent quality of both the ingredients and how those are put together and then delivered by staff, it’s easy to understand the excitement when customers respond. I hadn’t considered the added scrutiny that would come when another chef eats at your restaurant, but can appreciate how great to leave that person equally happy.
More poignantly, Mason discussed his and his wife’s parents coming in. It’s another example of the difference between small businesses and Corporate America: my parents never sat in one of my meetings, appreciating the flawless PowerPoint deck I’m walking a team through (which is fortunate for all of us). But to have your parents sitting in a full room buzzing with the excitement of happy customers, and seeing the very tangible culmination of your vision and dedicated execution of it, would be an emotional moment you’d carry with you, as would your parents.
As the second summer has now wound down, The Flats appears to be settling in well. Regardless of how good the food and drink is it’s still a business, with permits to obtain and maintain, HR functions that need to be smooth, and numbers to routinely crunch. But the staff has seemed genuinely happy and clearly well prepared, which is a subtle window into the business. The Flats will now stay open year round, aside of a brief timeout in January. Locals should file that nugget away! And with the shoulder season starting, they’ll rotate in some seasonal comfort food and a prix fixe weekday menu for the last three months of the year. In addition to availability for holiday parties, they’ll also build on last year’s New Year’s Eve event, with a four-course dinner, live music, and champagne toast. There aren’t many New Year’s Eve options on the Cape’s Route 6A, as we well know, so this could be a good option for anyone in the area.
I really appreciated the firsthand sharing that allowed me to see how someone can take a passion and turn it into a success. It gave me added perspective on how much goes into a flawless dining experience. Many small businesses on Cape Cod and in a lot of tourist towns hustle hard during the busy season, and then hustle in a different way when it quiets down. To get a fuller understanding of everything Chef Pryme, Co-Chef Tim Ames, and the team put into the restaurant leaves me with a fuller appreciation of the next meal I'll get there.
Interested in the origins of phrases I use today, and prepared to bore my kids as I teach them that history.
Every now and again, we might drive by an historic grist mill. Maybe we think it’s scenic, but we don’t often give it much thought. However, grist mills were critical aspects of colonial communities, as these converted grains into flour for use by the local citizens. Entire towns were often based around some key businesses, including these. Today, we pop down to the grocery store or bakery, grab some fresh bread, and we’re off and running. If we want to be fancy, we do that whole routine with the yeast and the dough rising, we cook it, and everyone ooh’s and aah’s as we react nonchalantly. But in early America, this was a tedious routine.
These grist mills were barn-like structures alongside a waterway. Less than twenty in New England have survived, with about a third in Massachusetts. Prior to the industrial revolution, New England didn’t have ready access to wheat, and corn was the easy grain people could get their hands on.
The grist mill would have created a waterway with the ability to either dam and release the water, or at least to steer it, so that when they were ready to grind, the water would flow over a paddle wheel. This then turned into a huge physics experiment that modern kids would find interesting to see in action, even if they’ll go on to get a C in physics in a few years: the water turns the wheel. That wheel then turns a ginormous mechanical wheel with a bunch of spokes coming off of it. This then turns another wheel. There were two two-thousand pound, circular grinding stones that were horizontal. The bottom one would stay put. The gears ultimately made the top one spin quickly enough. Meanwhile, the hopper was filled with the initial grains that slowly dropped into this contraption.
Ultimately, all of the rudimentary mechanics and a lot of wooden mechanical parts were still refined enough to control how precisely the top one-ton stone was suspended above the bottom one. With grooves in the stones, they could then create more or less powdery flour. This business provided mutual benefits, as the miller would provide the refined flour back to the farmer, minus a ”miller’s toll”.
Aside of the ingenuity, the grist mill was also a social hub, of such importance that it turns out our language still reflects its impact. For example, if a number of people were looking to have their grains milled, a line would form. Unlike today’s supermarkets, where you just quietly stand in line and perhaps spy on the shopping cart of the stranger in front of you, this would have been a situation in which people knew each other. Those lines would result in people “milling about” while they gossiped, which is still referred to as a “rumor mill”.
Meanwhile, inside the grist mill, the floor would have been covered with a hay like material, referred to as thresh. A piece of wood at the doorway would help keep the thresh in place, which you’d stand on when you crossed the “threshold”. You would have then seen the miller hard at work. The finer dust that can be produced from corn is vastly more flammable than coal dust, so a spark could be deadly. Since the giant stones don’t actually touch but are positioned ever so slightly apart, to grind the grains, the miller would routinely verify very carefully that everything was safe. In other words, he would have his “nose to the grindstone”. We use the phrase regarding a hard work week. For them, it was working hard to not blow up... makes me feel like I’ve got it a little easier! His milling produced varying grades of flour, obviously with varying costs to the farmer. For the more routine grade that worked adequately in everyday cooking, he would produce a “fair to middling” grade.
All of these phrases are in use today in the American lexicon; many by me, as my daughters look at me as if I’m making stuff up or talking in ye olde English. But these words and phrases started off not as expressions, but as meaningful terms. Knowing the origins can be interesting, and create connections to our nation’s past.
For the grist mills themselves, the beating they took from the rigors of the machinery and the effects of the water made it hard for them to survive. The industrial revolution and the railroad began to negate the need for these in so many villages. The ones that have survived until today are a combination of ones that were saved, restored, reproduced, or moved.
We’ve visited several. Such visits have more often involved admiring these buildings from the outside. But sometimes there are tours and demonstrations, and sometimes you can buy the processed corn flour for your own use. The tours we’ve taken have been educational, but also interesting. Seeing these mills in action can also generate interesting conversation with kids. Sure, you run the risk of boring them and having them treat you as if you’re as old as the mills themselves. However, the combination of the views, the history, the machinery, and the tour will give you decent odds of finding some aspect that resonates with them. However, since these are smaller structures and tours, it’s often best to combine them with some other activities as part of a broader itinerary for the afternoon or the day.
A quick search with the google machine will give you the options to choose from. Given the effort to preserve the few grist mills still dotting the New England landscape, and the impact these had on the growth of our country, it’s a fun activity. While it’s a little off the beaten path, it’s one definitely worth an hour of your time.
Killing four birds with one stone (history, exercise, food, and scenery)
The Fort Hill historic district in the Cape Cod town of Eastham is a small attraction. But it has several activities that can easily evolve into a full afternoon of enjoyment.
The area was originally settled by English colonists in 1644 amidst worries against an invasion by the Dutch. Over time, it developed an agricultural focus. Soon, the natural resources were over-consumed and scarce, leaving a largely barren landscape. Life was challenging, and drove many young men to the sea for work.
Now, the Fort Hill district offers one of its best attractions right from one of the two small parking lots. It’s perched on a rise, overlooking Nauset Marsh. The amazing, panoramic view includes inlets, marshes, the beach, and the ocean beyond, as well as fields of flowers sloping towards the water. Plenty of boats can be seen on the main waterways, with kayakers weaving through the marshes. Whether taking in the view at sunrise without even leaving your car, or picnicking with family in the small field next to the parking lot, the scenery is spectacular and easily accessible.
Fort Hill’s parking lot is also a trailhead. A sandy trail gently works its way down from the rise and weaves along the edge of the marsh. Views constantly change, giving a feeling of variety despite the easy hike. Several routes exist, allowing for shorter or longer walks. Despite choosing one of the lengthier routes, our walk was still under two miles, lasted about an hour, and was easily managed even by the younger children in our group. Markers and a brochure educated on some of the plant life and historical significance of the area. Also, the Red Maple Swamp Trail includes a long, meandering boardwalk through the swamp that created further diversity to the hike.
The district’s last attraction is the Edward Penniman House. Penniman, like many young men, was driven to the sea. He returned in 1868, a successful 35-year-old, and built an impressive house. He raised the land several feet to afford views of the ocean and bay. The house itself featured hot and cold water and an indoor bathroom – both rarities for the day, and was decadently furnished.
The house is routinely open to the public and the ranger and volunteer during our visit were very knowledgeable about the house, family, and time period during our visit. The barn behind the house is currently undergoing renovations. Once open, it will offer even more antiques and places to explore.
The combination of the views, hikes, and tour offer something for everyone: they can capture the imagination of children or the interest of a history buff or environmentalist; they can deliver a unique trail run for the athlete, a casual walk for a family, or a bench for those looking to sit and relax.
As the days grow shorter and the weather gets colder, a hot afternoon pick-me-up could be just what you need. As a coffee lover, I enjoy a good cup of Joe. As a fan of supporting local, small businesses, I enjoy a good local coffee shop even more. Sorry, Starbucks.
On a recent Saturday afternoon, we paused at Snowy Owl Coffee Roasters along scenic Route 6A (Main Street) in Brewster, MA. This charming, locally-owned coffee shop welcomes you with its open floor plan, comfy couches, and friendly servers. It opened in 2015, expanding the building’s footprint originally occupied by Great Cape Herbs in 2015. The two businesses blend well, and the decor is rustic, with lots of exposed wood, reclaimed from local barns. You can even sit and sip your selection while watching a fresh batch of coffee roasting behind the bar.
According to their website (http://www.socoffee.co/), Snowy Owl roasts “high-grade coffee beans from small-lot growers and co-ops that focus on environmental sustainability, economic development, and educational enhancement programs”. Poignantly, the namesake for this business stems from an owl-shaped pillow that provided comfort to the family’s father before his passing from cancer, and the family has routinely seen owls ever since.
I was delighted to see that I could order my dairy-free cappuccino with almond milk for no additional charge. Jay ordered the brew of the day, the aptly named “Jaws” blend. Snowy Owl also offers “Captain Crosby” (named after the well-known Cape Codders, the Crosby family of Crosby Cat Boat fame), “Brewster” blend, and “Decaf”. We selected a bag of “Captain Crosby” to take with us, after perusing the shop’s retail selection of coffees, T-shirts, and accessories. While we didn’t eat there, you can also enjoy food items for a light breakfast, lunch, or snack, from their partners, Pain D’Avignon (Hyannis) and White Lion Bakery (Mashpee).
The coffee shop hosts events including Open Mics and acoustic music on Sundays. Additionally, Great Cape Herbs (https://greatcape.com/) is tucked behind the serving area, offering all natural herbal remedies in an intimate — small and personal — setting.
I can’t wait to enjoy my coffee at home…and to return soon to Snowy Owl, perhaps for some live music and a snack.
Open hours: Monday — Friday 6:30 AM — 5:00 PM; Saturday — Sunday 7:30 AM — 5:00 PM
Cape Cod Winery's bottles can be bought either from your table, or from inside of the store. Tastings also get you a free glass.
The Good Life...
can't exist alone. Places form the setting for your memories. People around us allow experiences to be shared, enriched, and leave us feeling connected and loved.