Funky Finger Lakes

Upsidedown chairs are just one part of the '60s flashback experience at MacKenzie-Childs' in New York State.
Upsidedown chairs are just one part of the '60s flashback experience at MacKenzie-Childs' in New York State.

“There’s a bumper sticker that sums it up, ‘Ithaca is 10 square miles surrounded by reality’” says Pie Girl, owner of the new Finger Lakes bakery of the same name.

After traveling across North America, she chose to open her whole wheat bakery among the wine trails, rolling farmland and small villages of upstate New York, being in one of the few cities where the counter culture of the 1960s and ’70s still flourishes.

If you think of Seneca Lake and Cayuga Lake like two fingers of a peace sign, then Ithaca is at the tip of the Cayuga index finger. Located some four hours driving time from New York City, three hours from Buffalo and five hours from Boston, it has garnered notoriety as one of the “Healthiest Cities” (Organic Style Magazine) and the “Best Fly Fishing in North America” (Fish and Fly Magazine).

Yet, Ithaca is more than a haven for aging hipsters. The fan club keeps on growing. Why the alternative bend?

“Ithaca is one of the most enlightened communities in America,” says 30-something Tom Rivera, leader of the controversial religious order called Twelve Tribes, a Christian sect founded in the 1970s.

Although it has communities around the world, the Ithaca tribe just opened Maté Factor, a storefront café, in December 2003. Located on pedestrian-only Ithaca Common, its outreach café is the cornerstone of the religion. It’s sort of a Starbucks that has seen the light — it promotes an environment of peace and features yerba maté — a South American tea with a buzz.

“It provides a mild stimulant and instant clarity,” Rivera explains, as he steams up a frothy mug. I take a tentative sip and am relieved that it’s a drinkable blend of cappuccino and Chai tea instead. Later, I decide that he must have given me an extra dose of clarity as I giggle my way, like an extra from the movie Reefer Madness, through an entire dinner theatre show.

Hooked on the flashback experience, I head one block north to The Moosewood Restaurant, a member-collective restaurant that just celebrated its 30th anniversary.

Located in the historic Dewitt building, it works miracles by making brown rice taste good. The Doobies and Dylans of the ’70s have been replaced with world beat as background music, but the place hearkens back to a time when hairy-looking alfalfa sprouts spilled out of communal cupboards and organic yogurt bubbled on countertops.

The Moosewood Cookbook, released in 1977, was at the frontier of vegetarian cooking and is still one of the New York Times’ Top 10 best-selling cookbooks. The recipes and menu no longer carry old favorites like Planet Burgers, and the staffs’ love beads have been replaced by body piercings, but the “it’s-so-good-for-you” ambiance is still the same.

Also keeping up with the times is the MacKenzie-Childs pottery workshop, a 30-minute drive north of Ithaca on 89 acres (36 hectares) of rolling pasture overlooking Cayuga Lake. Originally founded by Victoria and Richard MacKenzie-Childs in 1983, their use of humorous and whimsical designs revolutionized home interior design. “We came knocking at the formal dinner party and crashed it,” says Victoria MacKenzie.

The artists’ historic farmhouse opened to the public for the very first time in February, 2004. Sort of an Alice in Wonderland meets American writer, as well as a psychologist and drug campaigner Timothy Leary’s (1920-1996) fun house, it has been lovingly restored and features all of the artists’ surreal humor; like upside-down chairs, for which it was known.

But the company is not mired in the past. Its flagship store on 57th Street, in New York City, is still a source of modern heirloom collectibles for brides from Beverly Hills to Palm Beach.

“The citizens are not as mellow and happy-go-lucky as they seem,” says Heather Weber, a lifelong resident of Ithaca, citing a 10-year battle to keep the city Wal-Mart-free. Other monopolies have been shown no mercy, either. Target’s plan to expand its parking lot onto environmentally sensitive Buttermilk Falls State Park was stopped.

In contrast, the dumpster-diving Rainbow Family of Living Light was not hampered during its festival of praying for peace, the planet, and more marijuana around the area’s cascading waterfalls.

But Ithaca boasts more than lost hitchhikers. They are a fit and buff bunch, judging by the toned bodies jogging by the doorway leading to Café Dewitt — a breakfast spot in the downtown core. My server, a Russian physicist studying at Cornell University, loads up my plate with organic jam and natural salsas. She explains that most Ithaca restaurants participate in a Cornell program called the “Finger Lakes Culinary Bounty,” a co-operative partnership where chefs, farms and food producers promote local fare and ingredients.

With Cornell University, Ithaca ’s population of 30,000 swells to almost double and is a big influence on the town. Alumni of this Ivy League School, one of eight elite private schools in the northeastern United States, range from NASA astronauts to Nobel laureate author Kurt Vonnegut. There’s even over-the-Mensa-top professor astronomer Carl Sagan. It’s an intellectual town full of academics and students — with 16 percent coming from abroad. It all adds up to diversity and tolerance. And that’s part of the secret.

“We wanted to be with others just like us,” says Pie Girl, explaining why her family ditched California for New York State, “educated, brainy and environmentally responsible.” But then she quickly adds, “Except we aren’t brainy.”

I don’t know about that. After a mug of yerba maté, I feel pretty brainy. And to think of it, pretty darn healthy too.

If You Go

MacKenzie-Childs: Take a tour of the restored dairy barn and watch artisans handcraft, paint and trim the whimsical tableware for which they are famous. The recently restored 15-room farmhouse is available for tours and special events and features high tea between 3 and 5 p.m. daily on the terrace overlooking Cayuga Lake. Located at 3260 State Route 90, Aurora, 800-640-0546;

Moosewood Restaurant: Fresh seafood and creative vegetarian cuisine are served in the collective’s original home, a historic brick school building, in downtown Ithaca. Live gypsy/swing jazz plays every Tuesday. Shop for the salad dressing and cookbooks that made them famous. Located in the Dewitt Building at 215 North Cayuga Street, Ithaca, 607-273-9610;

Pie Girl Café: Serves carefully handcrafted baked goods. 1006 W. Seneca Street, Ithaca; 607-273-9800

Maté Factor Café: Stop in for a taste of yerba maté, the green tea for which the café is named, and listen in on some religious controversy. The address is 143 East State Street, Ithaca; 607-256-2056

Ithaca Downtown Partnership

Finger Lakes Region Tompkins County

New York State Tourism