A Year’s A Long Time

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I’ve learned a lot these past 10 months as I embraced, resisted, and—all the while—kept my New Year’s resolution not to drink alcohol for one year. If I learned only one thing it’s that a year can seem like a very long time. Sure, it’s 12 months, 52 weeks, 365 days, 8,760 hours, 525,600 minutes, and 31,536,000 seconds. More than that, though, it offers a heck of a lot of time in which to change one’s mind. It’s no wonder that, according to one survey, only 8% of people succeed in keeping their resolutions.

No, I’m not thinking of stopping now! I know that, with two months still to go, it might seem a bit premature to have this conversation. It’s just that I’ve been thinking a lot this week about how long a year is and I decided it would be a good blog topic. Besides, (knock on wood) there’s zero chance that I’m going to take a sip of alcohol between now and midnight on New Year’s Eve. So I might as well write about it, while my thoughts are fresh.

The best part about a year being such a long time is that it gives plenty of time to make great personal progress, which in my case included losing 23 pounds and cutting 23 minutes off of my fastest marathon time. It’s also more than long enough to change not only your habits, but also to evolve your personal thinking and perceptions. Even though I have decided that I will drink alcohol again, I’ll never think about it the same way again. Before my dry year, I never fully appreciated how pervasive alcohol is in our society or how damaging it can be. Many of our conventions revolve around alcohol, despite 30% of American adults not drinking at all and another 30% only drinking one alcoholic beverage a week.

Now that I proved I could do it, reached my goal weight, stepped up my running game, and developed this new appreciation for life, I’m basically ready for the year to be over. That’s one of the reasons why I started to think that a year is a long time. The other is that I’ve been giving a lot of thought to whether or not I will commit to another difficult and/or life-changing resolution for next year.

The one I’ve been tossing around all year has been a resolution not to purchase any material objects. With all the time I’ve spent thinking about it and floating it by other people, today was the first time that I Googled it to see if someone else has done it. Of course someone has.  I found this guy, who had a life-altering experience not buying any consumer durables or clothes for several months and made it about six months, before he broke down and bought a new computer (after spilling coffee all over his old one). I also found this family with two young children that stuck to their resolution not to buy anything new for a whole year (they allowed themselves to buy used clothes and other items). There’s even a Wiki article on “How to buy nothing.”

I have two more months to mull it over. I’m just not sure I have it in me to go from one extreme resolution right into another. Maybe 2015 will be a year of just savoring what I achieved in 2014 and enjoying the wonderful life that I have. Or maybe it will be the year that I qualify for the Boston marathon, publish a memoir, and reconnect with a dozen old friends from college. I’m interested to know your thoughts as we approach 2015.

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Leaf-Peeping Season

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Five months ago, I wrote about “Fiddlehead Season,” a time that epitomizes the fleeting nature of early spring and reminds me of the vulnerabilities of childhood. How different that time of year is compared to leaf-peeping season, which, I should note, is lingering particularly long this year. A gloriously bright foliage is nature at its most beautiful. And, if spring is like childhood, then the colors of fall reflect the confidence that only comes with age and experience.

This autumn, more than any other, I found myself inexplicably stopping to take photos of the changing trees. On my way to work, on my way home from work, en route to the grocery story — you name it, I stopped my car, jumped out with my iPhone, and tried (sometimes in vain) to capture the sunlight shimmering in the trees. I even varied my thrice weekly drive to Montpelier, in hopes that a different route might yield more trees, more mountains, and, most importantly, more color.

About a week ago, I took an abrupt U-turn in the middle of the road, just a mile from home, in order to snap a photo of the evening light dancing across Buswell Pond. After snapping the pic and jumping back in the car, I quite literally laughed out loud and asked myself, “When did you become a leaf-peeper?”

I’m not sure exactly when it happened. But, clearly, it did. I’ve come a long way since childhood, when I vividly recall thinking that the “flat-landers” were crazy to pay nearly a hundred bucks a night to stay at my parents’ inn, just to watch the leaves change colors.

I thought then that leaf-peeping flat-landers were nothing short of a danger on Vermont’s roadways, driving so terribly slowly and often stopping suddenly, usually right in the middle of the road. “What’s wrong with these people?” I often asked myself.

The drivers from Connecticut and New York were bad enough. But the ones with unrecognizable license plates from presumably more far-flung locations took even greater risks to get just the right view of the bright foliage. It was just absurd.

My Aunt Nancy tried to explain to me that the leaves on the trees back where the guests came from didn’t change the same way ours did. I just couldn’t wrap my head around it. Although I could see the trees with their bright colors, I didn’t appreciate them and, I took them for granted.

Over the twenty years that I lived elsewhere, I missed my home in Vermont more in autumn than at any other time of year. It didn’t take long for me to discover that Aunt Nancy had been right. None of the other places I lived, Washington, D.C., Beijing, and Arizona, just to name a few, had a notable fall season. Maybe the answer to the question “When did you become a leaf-peeper?” is the fall of 2007, the first fall after I moved back home.

That may be, but my own leaf-peeping shenanigans really went to a whole new level last week, when I pulled an abrupt U-turn while heading north on route 103 out of Chester. The early evening sun was illuminating the mountainside behind a dairy farm and I felt an uncontrollable urge to both admire and preserve the scene. I knew I would drive by that same farm again hundreds of times, but may never catch it again with that perfect light that gave the appearance of setting the foliage on fire.

Here’s a small sampling of photos taken in the past few weeks:

Breakfast with the Vermudgeon

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Thus far, the “Vermont Inn-trigue” thread of my blog has mainly contained stories that revolve around my mother, Ruth Combes. She is precisely one half of the dynamic duo of innkeepers that have kept this business going for more than 36 years. I am overdue in writing specifically about the other half, my father, Bill Combes.

Since the beginning of this long adventure, Dad has been the inn’s handy man, head purchaser, waste manager, and, most famously, breakfast chef. It’s for this last role that he is beloved by guests, and it’s the sole subject of this post. Also of note is the fact that my mother is not a morning person, so my father’s contribution as the breakfast chef is fundamental to inn guests getting the second B in B&B. Given the amount of rich material on the topic, it will certainly lead to at least two additional blog posts.

Before observing and interviewing the breakfast chef this morning, I did a quick check in with my mom, asking her to describe my dad’s charm as a breakfast chef. Her response? “I haven’t seen his charm at breakfast,” she replied matter-of-factly. “His style is to be grouchy.”

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You wouldn’t know it this morning. First of all, today is Sunday, signaling that, as tradition dictates, pancakes are on the menu. On other days of the week, various breakfast meats in combination with eggs, and sometimes French toast, appear on the breakfast menu. But every single Sunday morning it’s pancakes and sausage. And Dad’s pancakes are as legendary as they are delicious.

Many times through the years, guests have asked my mother for Dad’s pancake recipe. And she has consistently handed out a recipe that is not my father’s. She doesn’t do this to be deceptive. She does it because she doesn’t know the recipe. This morning, Dad was happy to walk me through the bona fide recipe, as well as some of his other breakfast secrets, eliciting this response from Mom: “I did not know that.”

Well, now you do.

Bill’s Famous Pancakes

Ingredients:

One box of Jiffy Corn Muffin Mix.
8 cups of your favorite Buttermilk Complete Pancake Mix (Dad prefers
Krusteaz, although any brand will do).
2 teaspoons of cinnamon.
Approximately 7 cups of water (see “method” below for more information).
Yield: 20 or more servings of 3 medium-sized pancakes.

Method:

Use an electric mixer to beat together all ingredients. When adding the water, make sure to pay attention to the texture of your pancake batter to get the right amount of water. “You want the batter to run off the spoon, with a little imprint left on it. The batter should not be resistant to come off the spoon, nor should it be runny,” Dad explains. Your griddle has to be hot, but not too hot so that you avoid burning the pancakes.  To grease the surface of the griddle, use a good quality margarine, not fluffy tub of margarine or butter. Regardless what others say about using real butter, Dad’s experience is that margarine is not only less expensive than real butter, it also melts more easily and doesn’t burn as readily. Do not try to flip the pancakes, until after the air bubbles that form on the surface of the pancake has burst. “You will be tempted to flip them before the bubbles burst. But do not do it,” Dad warns.

Dad’s advice about prepping and greasing the grill is universal, whatever’s on the breakfast menu. I personally don’t often eat pancakes anymore. Seeing dad was in a good mood today and I didn’t want to push it with an outlandish breakfast order (something I usually do), I requested scrambled eggs. His scrambled eggs are among the fluffiest I’ve ever had and I have to admit I have not been able to replicate his method myself. I asked him to walk me through his method for achieving fluffy and perfect scrambled eggs, so I could explain it to all of you.

Bill’s Fluffy & Perfect Scrambled Eggs

Method:

Add tablespoon of water and beat the eggs very quickly to capture air. Since you are working with a hot grill, the other secret is to spread the eggs with a fork all over the griddle and cook them for less than one minute. Scrambled eggs cook much more quickly than any other style, so keep that in mind if you have a mixed order from the same table, the eggs aren’t on the griddle for more than a minute.

It was a real treat to find Dad in such a cooperative and chatty mood this morning so that I could quiz him about so many of breakfast secrets. He even revealed that he has been experimenting with his scrambled egg methodology and looked up Martha Stewart’s techniques on his iPad.

If you have the luxury of only having scrambled eggs on the menu so that you don’t have to keep your griddle very hot, he suggests that you try Martha’s low-temperature method. Two videos of this method are available here and here.

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(Above: Although Dad doesn’t encourage adults to place special orders at breakfast, he’s known to produce some really special breakfast treats for the many children that stay at the inn.)

Special breakfast orders aren’t encouraged at the Combes Family Inn, and, frankly, guests issue them at their own risk (refer back to “grumpy” above). Despite this, Dad also revealed some excellent tips on how to make poached eggs. (Disclaimer: If you read this post and then stay at the Inn, please do not mention my name if you dare to order poached eggs.)

Poached eggs

Ingredients:

A pinch of salt.
A tablespoon of vinegar.
2 eggs.

Method:

Use a frying pan with water. Add a little salt and vinegar to the water. Dad says, “The salt is not important, but it helps the water get to a higher temperature. The vinegar, however, is important. It keeps the egg together.” And, he continued, “in terms of timing, I don’t have the time to screw around with a kitchen timer. When I drop the eggs in the softly boiling water, I put the toast down on the toaster. When the toast pops, the poached eggs are done.”

Speaking of the appropriate timing of the different components that go into an egg dish at breakfast, my dad’s number one advice about cooking breakfast is something that I learned in high school and have lived by ever since. With the one exception of poached eggs (as you just learned above), “you always put the toast down first, before putting the eggs on the grill – always,” my father advises, even warns.

Bottom line:  my mom suggests that you listen to the master, because, she proudly claims, “In the winter he can serve breakfast to more than 30 people and get them all on the ski slopes by 8 o’clock.”

We’ve come to the end of this blog post and I haven’t had a chance to explain why we call him the “Vermudgeon.” For that, you’ll have to tune in next week.

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