“We have taken a house in the country,” a mildly pompous friend told me recently. I snickered quietly over this bit of Whartonian affect. But I’m finding it harder and harder to hold the “What, me–bourgeois?” pose. We have also taken a house in the country–Columbia County in upstate New York–where I am sitting flu-ridden right now as zero-degree air courses up through the slats in our all-too-authentic fully rusticated floorboards. The squirrel who has made his home in the stairs careers rather too freely inside the walls, prompting our dog Ruthie to bark insanely at random patches of radiator. Should all this prove a bit too authentic, the sport-ute–a coach-and-four-wheel-drive, if you will, for the yuppie burgher–waits outside, ready to provide an entire spectrum of lumbar support with the mere press of a button. It has only been a few hours since we unfroze the pipes to the bathtub–Bart Brothers down in Pine Plains smartly suggested running the heat up to 75 degrees while leaving the tap open. There was something real about putting up with this hardship, just as there is something real about the antiquey knives and forks my wife bought to go with the antiquey farmhouse. Though the dishwasher (circa 1985) stands at the ready, the fragile cutlery must be cleaned by hand.
       Issues of realness have a way of getting complicated around here. In the last 150 years, I’m told, perhaps accurately, the population of Columbia County has increased a mere 50 percent, from 40,000 or so to 60,000 or so. This is largely because the region, which is north of the horsey hills of Dutchess County and west of the twee farmhouses of Connecticut’s Litchfield and Massachusetts’ Berkshire counties, has little immediate industry and lacks either the obvious tourist appeal of the Berkshires or the immediate Kravis-attracting snob appeal of Connecticut or Millbrook. Many of the people who do live and work in southern Columbia County have lived here for centuries. Their ancestors have, anyway. Up on Route 82, the Miller homestead was one of only a handful designated in 1976 as a Bicentennial Farm, meaning that it has been in continuous operation since before the United States existed. Many of the family names of people who live here–Hoysradt, Hoyt, Boice, and Miller–show up on 18th-century tombstones and feature prominently in local histories. The locals of this part of Columbia County have about as firm a claim on realness as any people you’re liable to meet.
       Beginning sometime in the early ‘80s, the hundreds of dairy farms that formed the economic backbone of this region ran into trouble, and most have since gone bankrupt. Downstaters snapped up a fair portion of the farms and precious saltboxes and colonials and Georgian revival houses and repurposed barns that picturesquely dotted them, while the locals decamped to double-wides on small plots of land dotted with somewhat less picturesque rotted-out school buses and disused semis and killer German shepherds named Tiny. Some have tried (and are still trying) to turn their failed farms into gravel mines. To my mind, this seems a poignant and unlikely prospect, though, if I’m wrong, the locals will certainly have the last laugh. A local realtor estimates that the balance of power has more or less plateaued at 50 percent weekender, 50 percent local, and the area’s economy has made fitful efforts to cater to this new order. Something called Pasta at Large opened not long ago in Millerton (I am proud to say I have so far ignored the call of the fresh, smoked mozzarella), and over the Connecticut border, in tonier Salisbury, the IGA is actually now called La Bonne Epicure/IGA.
       At Millerton’s Farm Country Cafe, diners eat overpriced free-range birds and peasant bread amid decor whose idea of farm country seems to revolve around the theme of austere shafts of wheat. At places frequented by actual country folk–like Alfie’s at the Pond on Route 3–the decor is Bronx function hall by way of Twin Peaks, and you get those delightfully doughy Parker House rolls that invariably come heated and ponderously wrapped in a cocoon of starched white linen. I’ll take the Parker House rolls every time.