When I was a child, Thousand Island dressing was my favorite. I was sure I detected notes of pineapple; possibly, papaya, which I had once eaten in dried spear form at Eastern Market. Combined with its light coral hue and exotic name I was sure the dressing’s origin must be somewhere tropical. Perhaps, Polynesia, as I had seen Mutiny On The Bounty. I asked around but nobody knew where it came from. I looked it up in an encyclopedia and discovered that Polynesia, a sub region of Oceania, was in fact made up of over 1,000 islands in the South Pacific.
“Ahhh, that’s it!” Problem solved. I felt I had made a discovery.
Years later and I’m now in middle school on a trip to New York City with my father, who introduced me to my first meal at The Waldorf Astoria. It was here that I learned matter-of-factly, via the maitre d’, that Thousand Island dressing was created decades earlier by “Oscar of the Waldorf”.
“Really?” I said. “Oscar was Polynesian?”
Now, imagine my surprise, decades later, while preparing for this trip, when I learned the Thousand Islands, that Thousand Island dressing is named for, is not actually the 1,000 islands associated with Polynesia, but the Thousand Islands region of New York.
And – according to The Oxford Companion to American Food and Drink – Thousand Island dressing is more closely associated to Prussian born, George Charles Boldt Sr., the proprietor of the Waldorf Astoria, who when summering in the Boldt Castle, on his private Heart Island, apparently improvised the recipe; later, instructing his chef, Oscar Tschirky – or, “Oscar of the Waldorf” – to place it on the menu at the hotel.
Yeah, I know. Mind blowing.
Further, there is no papaya in Thousand Island dressing. In fact, after hours of research, I wasn’t able find even one that includes pineapple.
The good news is that one can still get to Boldt Castle via ferry from Clayton, New York. The great news was that we had reservations for the weekend at 1000 Islands Harbor Hotel in that very town.
A part of the Harbor Hotel Collection, the 1,000 Islands Harbor is one of three in the west side of New York State. The two others include Chautauqua Harbor Hotel, which we had just come from, and Watkins Glen Harbor Hotel, located in Finger Lakes wine country. We were on a bit of a fall tour, immersed in colorful landscapes, visiting state parks, and hunting for classic cider mills, when we arrived in Clayton with the rain.
Fortunately, the lobby was cozy, with a fire in the fireplace and an apple and warm cider cart near the front desk. My boys had ranked this feature among the top amenities in Chautauqua Lake and were thrilled to see it here. Nette and I grabbed complimentary coffee and tea from the lobby before we all hit our rooms.
For dinner, we opted for room service and shared a variety of dishes; Artisanal Charcuterie Board, California Cobb Salad, Lakehouse Chicken Quesadilla, and the Rachel (with house made 1,000 Island dressing). We enjoyed a fine meal and watched ships pass through the storm on the St. Lawrence River.
We awoke to more rain. Dressed for the weather, I surveyed the hotel grounds. Due to winds coming off the water it was colder outside than it looked but my body warmed as I moved. And, I brought a cup of hot coffee.
As a child, I was intrigued by the St. Lawrence River, after learning on a visit to the Detroit Historical Museum that it was part of a circular route, beginning in Montreal, that Antoine de la Mothe Cadillac navigated in 1701 when he founded Detroit. At this point of the voyage Cadillac and his crew would have portaged their canoes at Niagara Falls, paddled the length of Lake Ontario, before quite possibly pulling ashore for the night at what is now Cape Vincent, Wolff Island, Clayton, or Alexandria Bay, before making Montreal. In fact, the party could very well have camped right along these shores.
“Intéressant,” I thought, staring across the river. “Must have been one hell of a voyage.”
I think it’s time for blueberry stuffed French toast, came a text from Nette. We’ll meet you in the restaurant.
Had Cadillac’s party camped here it is likely they ate a variety of fish from the river; perch, trout, walleye, bass, and smelt. A license to fish in those days came by peace treaty with the Iroquois Confederacy – Cayuga, Mohawk, Oneida, Onondaga, Seneca – set in place due to the regime of governor-general of New France, Frontenac. They would have also eaten wild game and foul, corn, melons, squash, and whatever nuts, berries and lettuces they could forage. And, of course, they would have carried with them a good barrel of Cognac.
I wondered if Antoine de la Mothe Cadillac would have enjoyed Thousand Island dressing, while I dipped my fork of blueberry stuffed French Toast into a ramekin of organic, 100% pure Canadian maple syrup.
Historic Clayton, New York
Our main excursion for the day was to travel by ferry from Clayton, New York to Boldt Castle, Heart Island. Unfortunately, two things stood in our way: 1. The ferry wasn’t operating, and 2. Boldt Castle was closed for the season. So, we decided to explore historic Clayton, instead.
The town of Clayton is named for U.S. Senator, John Middleton Clayton (1796-1856), member of the Whig Party, who served the good people of Delaware and summered on the St. Lawrence River. In democratic fashion, a portion of the town voted in 1872 to incorporate itself as a village. And, in 1985, much of that village was placed on the National Register of Historic Places.
Comprised mostly of art galleries, boutiques, and private residence, these historic buildings are also part of an official Walking Tour that, quite by coincidence, we found ourselves taking. Architecturally and historically significant, as one of the most cohesive collections of late 19th and early 20th century buildings in northern New York, the district is comprised of 31 structures built between the 1850s and 1920s.
We took our time in the rain studying the details of each building. Several businesses were open but it was clear that, while summertime is high season, fall and winter belong (mostly) to locals – and, we were grateful to be enjoying these streets in such an intimate setting.
We turned a corner onto James Street and was immediately drawn to a mural we later learned was made by artist, Kelly Curry. The Koffee Cove, a beautiful little family restaurant in its 50th year, was just what we needed to break from the weather. The boys had milk and homemade cookies. Nette and I had coffee and a slice of the finest homemade Blackberry Pie. Delicious. Filled with plump fruit. We chatted with staff and locals and learned a little more about the area. We also discovered that all the customers, on this afternoon, anyway, were there for Turkey dinner; followed by pumpkin-caramel cheesecake.
Walking back to the hotel, we took our time to see as much of the village as possible. The downtown area and neighborhoods are really quite storybook in appearance. As with many resort towns there is always an element of local vs tourist, family-owned vs monied developments. But, it seems the townsfolk of Clayton have really come together to maintain their heritage.
Back at 1000 Islands Harbor Hotel
Built in 2014, the 1000 Islands Harbor Hotel is the first full-service hotel in Clayton since the Victorian Era. We made good use of its hot tub to chase away the bitter drizzle. The boys grabbed apples and cider from the lobby and we went back to our rooms to prepare for dinner. Somewhere in there it was determined Nette and our youngest would order room service while our eldest would dine with me in the hotel restaurant.
We sat fireside and enjoyed a flowing conversation. For the young man, a Burger (med), with fries. I ordered the Grilled Filet, served with fingerling potatoes and asparagus. We were very pleased with our meals and to have shared this special time together. Just the two of us. Plus, my son now understands the origin of Thousand Island dressing – something, he will carry with him on his journey.
Back in our room, we watched animated shows and laughed ourselves to sleep in comfortable beds and linen. Like their sister hotel in Chautauqua Lake, 1000 Islands turned out to be a great stay for family.
We awoke to sunlight illuminating the MIA DESGAGNÉS as she pushed her way westward along the St. Lawrence. An oil tanker, she sails under the flag of Canada. A quick search showed she’s 135 x 23.5 m and that Quebec is her home port. She was just underway. As were we.
We came to town with what seemed a cold, November rain. Now it felt like late September. In fact, it was high cider mill season and Nette had her charts and graphs set for one of Jefferson County’s oldest establishments.
“Can we listen to Sparks, dad?”
The boys had not yet been strapped into their seats.
Donuts & Waterfalls
Built in 1801, the Burville Cider Mill was originally a saw mill. Apparently, Captain John Burr bought the mill in 1802. Legend says, John Burr was actually a pirate, who stole supplies from ships sailing Lake Ontario, before selling them to troops in Sackets Harbor. Legend also says, to this day his ghost haunts the mill.
In 1940, the mill was converted into a cider mill by Homer Rebb. No word on whether Homer’s ghost haunts the mill. The Steiner family has owned the mill since 1996 and has refurbished it to its original glory, adding a new press and a few donut machines.
Burville was in full swing, with a steady flow of cars pulling in and out of its small parking lot. The mill had bins of apples for sale, local honey products, and pure maple syrup from Pickert Family Farm out of Rodman, New York. They sold unique gifts including wooden toys hand-crafted by a Steiner family member. And, then there were donuts. Glorious donuts. 99¢ each. $11.88 a dozen.
We bought a mix of plain and cinnamon.
It had been a long drive but we made good time. Unfortunately, we encountered congestion near Buffalo Niagara International Airport that stuck with us past Kaisertown and the Seneca Buffalo Creek Casino, culminating in a line of vehicles at the Peace Bridge crossing. This gave me time to explain to the boys the importance of being respectful when speaking with the Canadian Border Patrol.
Nette opened a cooler and brought out a board of Charcuterie from 1000 Islands Hotel.
“What are you doing?” I asked.
“Giving the boys some protein so that they’re calm,” she said.
“We’re in line for Border Patrol and you’re designing a platter of Charcuterie?” I asked. “These guys aren’t going to let us in with that – remember ‘Mad Cow’ disease?”
“What is ‘Mad Cow’ disease?” my youngest laughed.
“They confiscated my Osso Bucco and made you peel pepperoni from the pizza,” I said. “Listen, guys … Antoine … put the prosciutto down … put it down.”
Antoine ate the prosciutto.
“Wasn’t that on the American side?” Nette asked.
Of course, it was the American side, I remembered. But, the point was the same. Once, when I was a kid, my dad was driving our family in a rental SUV across the Ambassador Bridge where we were detained for an hour due to my aunt declaring a cup of tea.
“Everybody quiet,” I said, turning down the Sparks. “The Border Patrol are nice people but they have a job to do. They do not have time for charcuterie, or jokes, or being disrespectful. If we annoy them they could pull us over, or make us go home through Ohio …”
“OHIO?” the boys yelled.
“Which will add four more hours to this drive. So, let’s please put the snacks away.”
Nette repacked the cooler, laying the boys’ blanket over it for camouflage. She pulled out an envelope from the glove compartment.
“Here is my license and the boys birth certificates,” she said.
We were next in line.
“Ok gentlemen, this is it, ” I said. “If you are asked anything, be respectful, and answer honestly.”
I pulled up to the booth and handed the Border Patrol our documents. The agent looked through them quickly, then peered into our vehicle.
“Is this a joke?” he said.
“What do you mean?” I asked.
“Everyone else’s documents are in order but THIS means nothing,” holding up my I.D. “You need an Enhanced license to get into Canada.”
I could feel a space entirely devoid of matter in my head. Slowly, a flicker of images recalling the steps that led to this moment began to develop. And, while it is too vast a story to share with you now, I will say that I took a computerized and a physical road test when I renewed my license; and, while I paid for an Enhanced ID that – as I was now discovering – is not what was mailed to me.
In fairness to the system, I did not even check to see if my license was in order – I just assumed the state would send what was requested. After a minute or so the Border Guard asked me a series of questions, cross referencing them with my Passport, which he found in their system.
We were free to pass.
The reminder of the evening was spent enjoying charcuterie as we took in one of nature’s natural wonders.
Consider these additional references before making your trip: