So Close, I Can Taste It

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Just before I left the office last night, a rush of emotion came over me when I realized that today would be New Year’s Eve and 2014 would soon be a distant memory. Envisioning myself at midnight tonight, I became determined to have a bottle of Dom Perignon to celebrate the successful conclusion of my dry year. Surely, if ever there would be a time to enjoy a bottle of what is widely considered one of the world’s best champagnes, the anniversary of a full year without alcohol would be it.

So, I did a bit of online searching, made several phone calls, and managed to track down the only bottle of Dom Perignon within a 20-mile radius. Luckily, I was able to reserve it and pick it up along my commute home. It turns out that the bottle is from 2003 and is in a gorgeous commemorative box, bringing, perhaps, a bit more value to the $175 price tag that I paid for the bottle. Yes, I know that it’s sort of crazy to spend that much money on one bottle of consumable liquid. However, I deserve it, don’t I?

Dom Perignon

(I was happy to find this bottle of “Dom” on short notice.)

It might be hard for someone to believe me when I say that having this special bottle to celebrate with tonight actually has nothing to do with wanting to drink alcohol again.  Recently, I very happily celebrated Thanksgiving, Christmas Eve, Christmas, and my step-daughter’s engagement party and never once thought that these milestone family gatherings would have been enhanced one iota by my drinking alcohol along with everyone else.

The best way to describe my desire to make tonight a once-in-a-lifetime celebration is to say that I am proud of myself. I can’t believe I did it. I launched my resolution and my blog exactly one year ago today, and went from enjoying a few glasses of wine every night and being a fixture at local wine-and-food-paired dinners to going an entire year without drinking alcohol.

Along the way, I lost well over 20 pounds, cut 23 minutes off my best marathon time, and, more importantly, learned a lot about the power of alcohol in our society and about myself. As added bonuses, I took an unforgettable trip to Laos to celebrate my journey and started writing regularly about my parents’ nearly four decades in the Vermont inn-keeping business.

Tonight, I’ll observe the end of a truly incredible 2014 and the promise of the New Year with family and friends over a bottle of something extra special. What happens after that is anyone’s guess. You can be sure, however, that I’ll let you know in future blog posts. Thanks for following – and, Happy 2015!

No Good Reason

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I woke up early the other day thinking about my blog and tried to come up with one good reason why I haven’t posted anything lately. (Can you believe I wrote my last post about this survey of American alcohol consumption habits six weeks ago?) It turns out there isn’t a good reason. All the things that might have caused me to put it aside—like being so close to the end of my resolution that it just seems too boring to acknowledge again; or that winter meant the end of my running season and also the need for training updates; or even the fact I just started a new job, but still had to finish up a few things for my old one—just add up to pure and simple procrastination.

It certainly wasn’t due to a lack of material. Believe it or not, the blog folder on my computer has a file for each of the five weeks I missed. The week of November 16th, I conducted several interviews and started and re-started a piece for the “Vermont Inn-trigue” thread of this blog about the inn’s most loyal guests, a group of hunters who’ve stayed at the inn each and every hunting season for the past 37 years. I interviewed the leader of this group, Tony, multiple times, heard many of his jokes and stories, and took a look at the scrapbook of his group’s many memorable times at the inn.

Tony has stayed at the Combes Family Inn each and every year over its 37 years of operation.

Tony has stayed at the Combes Family Inn each and every year during its 37 years of operation.

Just a few of the snapshot from decades of visits to Vermont and the Combes Family Inn.

Just a few snapshots from the mementos complied over decades of visits to Vermont and the Combes Family Inn.

Tony saw this flyer in 1968 and decided it would be fun to scare up a group to go hunting in Vermont. The farm became the Combes Family Inn in 1978.

Tony saw this flyer in 1968 and decided it would be fun to scare up a group to go hunting in Vermont. The farm became the Combes Family Inn in 1978.

My first interview with the group was over dinner. When one of them asked “What’s for dinner?” my dad replied, “We’re not changing the menu unless you guys change your jokes.”

“You have a better chance of getting hit by lightning,” Tony replied. That evening, with the barbs and jibes getting lobbied back and forth, was not all that different from my first such dinner with them, when I was just 10 years old.

The night before the hunters left, we all watched the Patriots game and I had a chance to ask Tony if it surprised him that he’s been coming to the inn for 37 years in a row. “No it doesn’t,” he answered. “We’re comfortable coming here. When we leave, we’re already looking forward to coming again the next year. God willing, we’ll be coming for many more years.”

Before I knew it, the hunters were gone and I never turned that great material into a coherent article. The following week, I wondered if I should be concerned about my high levels of caffeine consumption. I vowed to research the pros and cons of caffeine and explain why people who stop drinking alcohol often become chronic coffee drinkers. This post would have been like my article about Crystal Light back in January. I found several articles about caffeine consumption, including this general overview, this one about the role coffee may play in helping people abstain from drinking alcohol, and this one citing 10 reasons to quit drinking coffee. I didn’t get very far in my research. However, I did resolve to figure out eventually which was worse, alcohol consumption or caffeine consumption. I’ll let you know when I figure that out.

Several other blog topics presented themselves in late November and early December. I briefly considered breaking with my usual M.O. by writing a political piece about the disheartening state of race relations in our country. Although I quickly ruled that out, I will share one comment that I left on Facebook that sums up my feelings about what transpired in Ferguson: “Mike Brown’s fate was sealed the moment Officer Wilson saw him him as a crazed demon that needed to be killed, rather than a troubled teen who needed to be saved.”

Two weeks ago, I almost opted to write about the end of the federal grant that I was directing and my thoughts about how that experience was personally fulfilling and even life-changing. If you get a chance, flip through “Vermont’s Digital Stories,” the final report for the project. I’m proud of the team’s work to improve lives in Vermont’s flood-damaged communities and remain very grateful to have had a meaningful opportunity to give back to others, after my own speedy recovery from Tropical Storm Irene.

Finally, last week, a friend of mine told me that she had heard an interesting radio segment about the different norms and perceptions for alcohol consumption in various countries. The point was that Americans have the lowest national tolerance (so to speak) for alcohol consumption and consume far less alcohol than most other nations. The differences are particularly acute between the U.S. and Europe, especially Italy and France. With such an interesting and relevant topic, I was certain my blog drought was going to be over. Alas, I couldn’t locate the radio piece my friend had heard. And, although I found a lot of articles about similar topics—such as this one, this one, and this one—the weekend came and went without a post.

So, now you’re all caught up on what I’ve been thinking about the past six weeks. Have a very happy holiday season—I promise to write again very soon. There’s no good reason not to.

Breakfast with the Vermudgeon (cont.)

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Above: If you see this man in the Combes Family Inn’s kitchen, enter at your own risk!

Last month, I caught my father in such a rare moment of weakness that I not only managed to get a number of great photos of him cooking breakfast, but I also learned several of his breakfast tips and secret recipes. I weaved all of that great material into a blog post that closed with a promise to later explain why I call him “the Vermudgeon.” Now, a month later, let me fulfill that promise.

Facebook guest comment

Above: A classic response from “a guest” to the original “Breakfast with the Vermudgeon” blog post.

In response to the original blog post, one loyal guest commented on the inn’s Facebook page with these simple words: “We all know why he’s called the Vermudgeon – a guest.”

For those of you not familiar with the inn, here’s the deal.

I coined the phrase “Vermudgeon” shortly after I moved back to Vermont in 2007, after more than a 20 year absence. At the time, my husband Bruce and I were staying at the inn for four months, while our house nearby was in the final stages of construction. During that time, we both got a close-up view of my parents’ lives as Vermont innkeepers. I can’t say whether my dad’s humor has gotten more dry and his general demeanor more cantankerous over the years or whether I just didn’t pay that much attention when I was growing up at the inn.  But I can say that some of his comments to guests, especially when they venture into “his kitchen” during breakfast service, are bona fide sit-com material.

As you probably guessed by now, “Vermudgeon” is merely a mash-up of the two words “Vermont” and “curmudgeon.” Vermont has more than its fair share of curmudgeons – I’ll bet they have the most per capita – and, I have referred to several of them as “Vermudgeons” these last several years. My dad earned his stripes with comments like, “You’re in my kitchen,” to a guest who wandered in looking for more half and half for her coffee, not to mention the countless times he’s declared the grill retired for the day on the dot at 9 a.m. in the winter and at 9:30 a.m. in other seasons.

Mom insists that not much has changed since I left home at 18, as far as my dad is concerned. “He’s always had a dry – even acerbic – sense of humor,” she explained. Rather than providing me her own examples to illustrate her point, she encouraged me to call one of her employees to get a few classics. When I say “encouraged” what I really mean is that she dialed the woman’s number and handed me the phone when she answered.

Here are the three short stories she told me.

There was a large ski group staying at the inn that included several teenagers. My mother had set all of the tables in the dining room with a large table in the middle and a bunch of smaller tables for the teens along the periphery. When it came time for dinner, all the kids came in first and immediately sat at the big table, leaving the adults to scurry around to sit in small groups at the other tables. Evidently one of the adults wanted to sit with a specific group but there weren’t enough chairs at that table. He popped his head into the kitchen and asked my dad where he could find a chair. Deadpan, Dad replied, “There’s plenty of room on the front porch.”

In addition to not liking to be disturbed when he’s busy in the kitchen, Dad is also infamous for not wanting to answer the phone. When I call and he answers, I don’t even ask for my mother, because it’s obvious she’s not home. As you might imagine, his phone manner is also Vermudgeonly.

One guy called to book the walking tour from inn to inn of which my parents are founding members. The gentleman was confused about whether or not he could bring his car to the inn, if he and his wife were to be walking.  My dad’s response, “Oh, you can certainly feel free to bring your car and we’ll just sell it on eBay.”

Strangely, that guy didn’t make a reservation. Then there’s this other guy who called for a room and took a bit too much time to debate whether he would book it B&B or the Modern American Plan, which includes dinner. He seemed concerned about the quality of the food and asked my father, “Do you eat there?”

Dad’s reply: “Not if I can help it.”

LET THEM EAT CAKE (AGAIN)

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A few weeks ago, we were visiting some of my husband’s family in Maine. For brunch, my sister-in-law made an amazing lobster eggs Benedict. She had made way too much hollandaise sauce than we needed and mused out loud about what could be done with it. I immediately suggested that we call my mother and reached for the phone.

Why call her? You might ask. Because, after serving to dinner guests for over 35 years, my mom knows her way around the kitchen and has many useful tips for saving and re-purposing leftovers. If there’s anyone who knows if hollandaise sauce can be frozen and re-served or repurposed in some other way, it’s my mom. And, the answer? “Hollandaise freezes very well. When you heat it on the stove, stir constantly and add a bit of lemon juice and warm water to help re-constitute it,” Mom advised my sister-in-law.

Lobster Eggs Bennedict

In last week’s blog post, I alluded to two of mom’s other secrets:  which cheeses freeze well and what to do with leftover cake.  As promised, here are all the details, as well as my mom’s recipes to make the most of them.

Just like you might not expect that hollandaise sauce can be successfully frozen and reused, many people shy away from freezing cheese. It is true that the texture changes when you bring it back up to room temperature. For that reason, my mom exclusively uses leftover and frozen cheeses to make her legendary macaroni and cheese recipe. A favorite of kids and adult guests alike, mom is continually asked for this recipe. However, it is truly never the same dish twice! The only type of cheese that my mother won’t freeze is fresh goat cheese. As for the others, she reckons that she’s frozen them all: American, Swiss, Cheddar, and even Brie.

Macaroni & Cheese

Ingredients:
7 ounces elbow macaroni (about 2 cups uncooked)
3 tablespoon butter
3 tablespoon flour
3/4 teaspoon salt
dash pepper
2 cups milk
2 cups shredded cheddar, American or both (or whatever other types of cheese you froze!)
1/4 cup bread crumbs
1 tablespoon melted butter

Method:
Cook macaroni, following directions on package. Rinse in cold water and drain. Melt butter in saucepan, blend in flour, salt, and pepper. Add milk, cook on stovetop, stirring frequently until mixture is thick. Combine 1/2 of cheese mixture and macaroni. Then fold in remaining shredded cheese. Pour into a greased 2-quart casserole dish. Sprinkle the top with crumbs and melted butter. Bake 350 degrees for 30 to 40 minutes, until bubbly and lightly browned on top.

Saving leftover cake to make the dessert called “trifle” is another one of my mom’s guilty secrets.  You can save pretty much any cake and freeze it. Once, she even drove over to another inn to take home the leftovers of an entire wedding cake, when she heard the bride wasn’t keeping it.

According to my mom, “The key is to remove all of the frosting. I think vanilla cake makes the best trifle, but I’ve also done it with chocolate and other flavors.” After removing the frosting, just freeze the chunks or slices or whole pieces of cake in gallon sized freezer bags. You can keep it this way for up to one year.

The recipe for my mom’s cake trifle has never been written down before. That makes this the world premiere of the written record for this most excellent dessert.

Ruth’s Leftover Cake Trifle

Ingredients:
1 pound leftover cake
1 cup fruit-based liquor (mom suggests this cassis from the Putney Mountain Winery)
1 cup jam (mom uses her homemade peach or strawberry jam)
1 package vanilla pudding mix
2 cups fresh berries
Fresh whipped cream

Method:
The day you plan to make the trifle, take the bags of frozen cake pieces out of the freezer and let them come to room temperature. Be sure to wash your hands well and use them to break the cake into approximately one inch cubes and set aside in a large bowl.

Use a large square or rectangular cake pan to assemble two layers of the dessert. Cover the bottom of the pan with cake pieces (only using half of the cake). Add half of the liquor. A fruit-based liquor like cassis, which is made from blackberries, is what mother usually uses. Then layer in the jam. Mix up a package of instant vanilla pudding with one cup of milk or half-and-half, making a custard. Put half over the layer of jam. Repeat all steps so that you have two layers, substituting the fresh fruit on the top, instead of jam. Use whatever fresh berries are in season. Refrigerate until ready to serve.

Just before serving, top each serving with freshly made whip cream (1 cup of heavy cream whipped with a table spoon of powdered confectioner’s sugar and a teaspoon of vanilla). If you don’t use up all of the whipped cream, remember that it also freezes very well!

Although it doesn’t involve previously frozen ingredients, another of Mom’s extremely popular time-saving dessert recipes is her “paper bag apple pie.” She’s been making this for over 25 years. During my interview with Mom this morning, I was so captivated by this recipe, that I goaded her into making it with me today during half-time of the Patriot’s game. I’m not exaggerating when I say that the prep time for this delicious rendition of apple pie is less than 10 minutes.

Paper Bag Apple Pie

Ingredients:
4-5 apples, cored, peeled, and sliced
1 pie shell
1 cup sugar
1/8 teaspoon salt
½ teaspoon cinnamon
5 tablespoon flour
3 tablespoon water, apple cider, or apple juice

Topping:
½ cup brown sugar
½ quick oats
1 stick of margarine or butter
¼ cup chopped nuts (optional)

Method:
Place apples in pie shell. Sprinkle with remaining ingredients. Combine topping ingredients to make a crumbly mixture. Spread on top of apples in pie. Place shell with all ingredients in large brown paper bag. Use either paper clips or stapler to bind airtight. Bake 1 hour at 375°. Serve with vanilla ice cream or whipped cream. Serves 8-10.

Mom making bag apple pie

  Into the bagSeal the bagFinished pie

You can find several of the inn’s other recipes on their website here. If you have any questions about these recipes or the inn’s other kitchen secrets or cooking tips, please post them as comments and we promise to get back to you.

Tante Evelyn’s Treats

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My mother is a very good cook. It’s hard to replicate her cooking, because she’s one part Alice Waters, with her emphasis on fresh, local ingredients; one part Rachael Ray, with her mantra that “easy-to-do” is almost always best; one part Martha Stewart, thanks to her kitchen cleverness; and one part MacGyver, no explanation necessary. Another time, I’ll post some of her time-honored cooking and meal planning tips, such as her advice on which types of cheeses can be successfully frozen and re-served and what to do with leftover cake. This post, however, isn’t directly about Mom’s cooking. It’s about a recipe and, as it turns out, human nature.

Tante Evelyn

“Tante Evelyn”

The most requested recipe in my mother’s large repertoire, bar none, is a cookie recipe that we call “Tante Evelyn’s Treats,” which was named after my mother’s French-Canadian aunt. Like many immigrant women of her generation, it seemed that the only way Tante Evelyn knew how to show love was through her cooking. Visiting her was always popular when we were children, because she never failed to have multiple homemade sweets freshly baked in her kitchen, that she insisted we eat to our little hearts’ content.

After we opened the inn, it was likewise a treat for all of us when Tante Evelyn visited from New Hampshire to stay with us, share in the cooking chores and generally amuse us with her no-nonsense personality. When she visited near the holidays, she would make batches and batches of her graham cracker treats. A mixture of melted butter and brown sugar is poured over a sheet of graham cracker pieces and, after a mere 10 minutes in the oven, they turn into delicious, praline-type candied crackers. Tante Evelyn would make enough in one afternoon so that my mom could freeze them and have them on hand for an entire year. The days she baked these cookies were, for us kids, always the highlights of her trip to the inn.

Evelyn died many years ago, so we’ll never know exactly how she came about creating her recipe. Nowadays, you can find variations of it all over the Internet, like this one that adds vanilla and pecans and earns a five-star rating from Betty Crocker.  A look through my mom’s ancient Betty Crocker bible that’s now held together by duct tape does not, however, contain this recipe.

Betty Crocker Cookbook

(We don’t know the origin of Tante Evelyn’s recipe. We looked everywhere, including in here.)

Meanwhile, like every other industry, inn-keeping has affiliations and organizations. In the ski region in south-central Vermont where our inn is located, there was once a group called “Snowtown Inns” that was later renamed the ”Okemo Valley Hospitality Association.” In the 1980s, there were 16 inns and motels in the area that were members of this group, which, by the way, is now absorbed into the regional chamber of commerce. My mother was an executive officer of the group and still has a large drawer full of envelopes bearing the group’s logo.

The group met a few times per year and members took turns hosting the meetings. One day, in the late 1980s, it was with much “to-do” that my mother and father hosted the group. After the business was done, they served coffee with an impressive array of nut breads and desserts. I have no doubt that everything was delicious. However, everyone in the group raved about one particular cookie and wondered how my mother made them. Of course, these were the famous Tante Evelyn’s Treats.

When one of the other innkeepers asked for the recipe, my mom was so pleased that her peers loved her beloved aunt’s cookies that she immediately went into her office, printed out the recipe, and made a copy for everyone.

Tante Evelyn’s Treats

Ingredients:
1 package of graham crackers
1 1/2 sticks of butter
1/2 cup of brown sugar
1/2 cup of finely chopped nuts

Method:
Break graham crackers in half (along perforation) and place flat on a greased cookie sheet. Melt butter and brown sugar in a saucepan for five to six minutes, stirring constantly. Pour over crackers and sprinkle with nuts. Bake at 350 degrees for nine minutes. Remove from oven and allow to cool. If desired, sprinkle with mini chocolate chips when cookies are removed from oven and still hot.

Okemo Valley Hospitality

(There used to be an active industry association in the area just for innkeepers and other motel and lodge owners.)

I was away at college and had no idea that this meeting had taken place, until about a year later when I received a phone call from my mother. She was crying and so terribly upset that it was difficult to understand her. After she calmed down, my mother explained that she had just received her latest issue of Yankee Magazine in the mail. In it, one of the competing inns in her hospitality group had won a recipe contest for……guess what? A delicious graham cracker cookie recipe that was remarkably like “Tante Evelyn’s Treats,” but under a different name with slightly more butter.  Otherwise, it was exactly the same!

I insisted that mom defend her honor and write to the editors. But she’s simply not that kind of person. She bore her disappointment and fury in silence and never even mentioned it to the other innkeeper, who is no longer in Vermont and has been long out of the inn business.

The story reminds me of something my mother once told me when I was a young girl. After observing my mom busy in the inn’s kitchen one afternoon, I had complained bitterly, “I don’t know how to cook!” She stopped what she was doing and put her arms around me and said, “Sharon, if you can read, you can cook.”

I appreciated the gesture, but I know today, just as I did back then, that my mother was wrong. There’s a lot more to good cooking than being able to read or following what might in fact be a great recipe. My mom will always be a better cook and innkeeper than her ruthless competitor and, no matter the variations of it that might be out in the larger world, this particular cookie recipe is best when called “Tante Evelyn’s Treats.”

A LITTLE PRIVACY PLEASE!

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In my last blog post, I left you with the image of a woman from Manhattan who had hiked through snow and up a fire escape in heels, entered my parents’ inn on the second story, and found her way to their bedroom. At least she knocked. Believe it or not, there have been several guests through the years who just walked right in. 

winter CFI

Once, during ski season, my mother was enjoying precious time by herself while all of the guests were skiing. She took her ritual afternoon bath, settled into bed with a good book and had fallen asleep. She opened her eyes to see a man standing in her bedroom, just three feet away, looking down at her.

When he saw her open her eyes, he said, in a heavy French accent, “I looked for you all over!” Then, “Are you a Combes?”  Before my mother had a chance to answer, he started babbling excitedly, “My name is Combes. I’m French. I wonder if you are French,” and so on. Mom pulled herself together and suggested that he go downstairs, promising that she would join him there in just a moment.

She took a few moments to get dressed and brush her hair, all the while lamenting the abrupt end of her relaxation. She closed the door of her sanctuary and she joined “Monsieur Combes” from France in the sitting room, where they talked for well over an hour about his family and how he happened past the inn, surprised to see a big sign emblazoned with “The Combes Family Inn.” When darkness began to fall, he stood up, kissed her on both cheeks and left. We never heard from him again.

Then there was the time that Room #8 (The Wildflower Suite) was rented to two nuns from Pennsylvania who were in the area to spend time at the Weston Priory. One of the nuns was in her late 70s, while the other was probably around 50 years old.

At about two in the morning, my mother was awakened by a vague noise and then the sight of the older of the two nuns standing over the bed, looking closely at her through the darkness. When my mother tells this story, she laughs as she says, “There was your father lying on top of the covers in his skivvies. Actually, I’m not even sure that he had his skivvies on!”

“May I help you?” my mother asked the old sister, who meekly replied, “I am looking for the bathroom.”

Mom said to me as she told the story, “I guess I was a really good innkeeper back then. I simply got up and took her by the hand and walked her back down the hallway to the bathroom connected to her room at the other end of the hallway.”

At breakfast the next morning, the younger of the two nuns pulled my mother aside and asked about what had happened during the night, evidently aware of the rustling in the room in the middle of the night. It turns out that her companion was known to be a sleep walker and that’s probably how she ended up in my parents’ bedroom!

It’s certainly a significant invasion of privacy to have people walk right into your bedroom, especially when it’s the only space in the whole house that is not open to the guests. However, that’s not the only way that our family gave up privacy through the years. 

It was also very difficult for our family to have private time, especially around the holidays when the ski season was in full swing. In 1999, several of us actually celebrated Christmas day at the inn. My mother claims that this was the only Christmas she and my father ever spent with their grandchildren on Christmas Day.

In fact, it was my nephew Liam’s first Christmas. Liam’s dad — my brother Billy — and his whole family were there. I was finally back from living overseas and also made it back to Vermont for Christmas for a change. It was a rare time in all of the years since my family opened the inn back in 1978 that many of us had the opportunity to celebrate together on Christmas Day.

Of course, it being a significant winter holiday, the inn had several guests, all of whom, save one, were off skiing. Would you believe that rather than reading in the living room or doing some other personal thing, the woman guest sat with us all morning long? She was there next to each of us as we opened every last gift, even peering along with us into our Christmas stockings. My mom’s favorite part of this story is that this woman –who only visited the inn that one time and whose name no one remembers — is, quite literally, in every single photo we took that Christmas morning.

Looking back on these and several other stories and my mother tells about the loss of privacy inherent in having opened our home as an inn for guests all of these years, it strikes me that we gained so much more than we ever gave up.

New York State of Mind

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In my bid to tell as many inn-keeping stories as possible in the run-up to my parents’ retirement as innkeepers of the Combes Family Inn, I’ve selected several anecdotes about winter guests from New York City. More specifically, they all hail from Manhattan.

Please don’t get the wrong idea. The Combes Family Inn loves (nearly) all of its guests, including those from New York. After all, New York, by far, is home to the largest chunk of inn guests through the years, right down to this very day. It’s also worth noting that my father is originally from Long Island. Sometimes, however, when people travel away from their urban lives and end up this far out in the country, strange things can happen. This is particularly true during winter storms.

119winter CFI

 

(Above: The Combes Family Inn is within sight of Okemo Mountain Resort and is typically surrounded by bountiful snow all winter long.)

Back in the old days, my mother always stayed up for the last guests to arrive. During the ski seasons of the late 70s and early 80s, she spent many Friday nights (that stretched into Saturday mornings, if necessary) reading alone in the sitting room, waiting for guests to check-in for the weekend. One particularly snowy night, just before he retired for the evening, my father snow-blowed an extra wide path from the end of the inn’s long, curving driveway and down the 30-foot walk-way to the front door.

Several hours later, my mother was interrupted from her reading by the sound of an approaching car. Then, she was startled to see headlights pass right by the sitting room windows, where there is no driveway, just a sidewalk for guests to get to the front door by foot. By the time my mom got to the front door, the car was gone. But there stood two people with their luggage!  As it turned out, it was a couple from Manhattan who had booked a reservation for the weekend.

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(Above: The posts in the foreground of this photo now prevent cars from driving through the driveway and parking lot up to the front door. You wouldn’t think they’d be necessary. Evidently, they are!)

After exchanging pleasantries with the couple, my mother glanced into the parking lot, thinking about the headlights she had seen just moments earlier. “What happened to your car?” she asked.

The woman replied, “Oh. We were just a mile or so from here, when we came upon a guy by the side of the road whose car was stuck in a snow bank. We stopped to help him out, but it was too dark and too difficult to do anything. He explained that he really needed to get to his condo five miles up the road. We told him to jump in, and then we let him borrow our car after he dropped us off here.”

“Did you know him?” my mother asked, a bit incredulously. “No. But we’re sure he’ll bring our car back,” the man replied. My mother was shocked that they were so trusting of a stranger and feared that they would never see their car again.

Very early the next morning, when my father got up to prep for breakfast, he walked out to the parking lot and saw a gorgeous new BMW parked right out front.  After the couple came down for breakfast and went out to check on the car, they told my parents that the stranger had not only returned their vehicle as he’d promised, but he also left a nice note and a 50-dollar bill in the cup holder!

Another time, when my mom was up late waiting for guests, she watched a huge black limo glide into the inn’s driveway. Curious, she went outside to meet the vehicle. The driver stepped out and explained that he had a couple from Manhattan in the back who wanted a room for the evening. Evidently they had hired the limo after clubbing in New York, and one of them had gotten the brilliant idea to visit a friend with a ski chalet at one of the southern Vermont ski areas. Mind you, this was before the era of everyone owning a cell phone. As the limo got deeper into Vermont, the passengers realized that they had no idea where their friend’s condo was. The limo driver saw the inn’s sign on Route 100 and was probably thinking he would drop the couple off there, presumably to just get them off his hands.

My mom took one look at the “post-party” couple sleeping it off in the back of the car and said, “Well, you can’t drop them off here.”

“What am I supposed to do?” asked the driver. People who know my mother will not be surprised that she replied: “You’re going to have to drive them back to New York City.” And, that’s exactly what he did.

After several years of successful inn-keeping, my mother stopped staying up after midnight, waiting for guests, opting instead to leave little notes with pleasantries and room assignments on the front door, which is inside a covered entryway.

One stormy winter night, a couple was driving to the inn from Manhattan, with their baby in tow.  My father had gone to great lengths to set up a crib for them before he went to bed, at around 10 o’clock. My mom waited up another hour or so and then resorted to leaving a note on the front door. Later, in her slumber, Mom heard people come in at around two a.m. The next morning, mom saw the couple sitting at breakfast, but with no baby in sight.

“Wow. What a storm last night! It must have been frightful driving through that with the baby,” Mom said to them. They just nodded and smiled. My mother continued, “The baby must be sleeping really soundly.” Again, they just smiled. A few minutes later, they finished breakfast and asked for their bill; they had to be on their way.

About a minute later, the phone rang. It was the couple with the baby from Manhattan! They explained that the driving had been so bad during the storm the previous night that they had to stop halfway and spend the night en route. They would be arriving at my parents’ inn in just a few hours!

Mom didn’t tell the other couple what she had learned. Instead, she processed their payment and dashed to the room to clean it and make it ready for the family that had actually reserved it.  She figured out that the first couple must have been desperate when they happened upon the inn during the storm. Seeing the note, they likely assumed that the people with the reservation wouldn’t make it, in such bad weather.

photo 1 photo 2

(Above: The inn’s long drive way curves around the side of the inn and around the motel units. The entrance is on the opposite side of the building, at the end of the long driveway and walkway. Also pictured, the “back side” of the inn, with a view of the back door and fire stairs; you pass by this side of the inn as you travel through the driveway and into the parking lot.)

During another snowstorm, a woman from Manhattan got confused about how to enter the inn. Instead of following the driveway all the way around the inn to the actual entrance, she stopped her car on the side by the back door. She then proceeded to hike through the snow and ice and found the back door either stuck or locked. So, she hiked through more snow and ice and climbed up the fire stairs, which lead to a door on the second floor. A moment later, my parents were startled to hear a knock on their upstairs bedroom door. When my mother opened it, the woman said, “Gee. Your inn is really hard to get into.”

Mom looked her up and down and noticed she was in high heels and that her nylons were completely shredded on both legs. Without missing a beat, Mom said, “I guess so.”

How CNN Changed My Life

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CNN Press Pass

Some of you asked to know more about the “Throwback Thursday” photo of my CNN press pass (pictured above). Although my two-week stint with CNN seemed a mere blip on the screen, it completely changed my life.

After graduate school, I moved to Singapore as a newly-wed in January 1994. The following spring my husband’s job transferred to Beijing. I joined him there after a brief vacation to visit my family in the U.S. I arrived in China that April inexplicably obsessed with the O.J. Simpson trial, having read an old People Magazine on the return flight. How had I not heard about the sensational trial and all of the hoopla surrounding it?

Rather than settling in smoothly as I had always done before, I felt isolated and wrestled with my sense of self. Very quickly, I became depressed. My journals from this time show how CNN became a symptom of my depression and, incredibly, the cure of it, just three months later.

China Journals

(Above: One of my journals open an entry about my work with CNN in Beijing in 1995.)

A journal entry from June 8, 1995 is below:

It’s so lame that I have all of this free time right now, yet I can’t seem to get myself to do anything with it. For someone with so many dreams and ‘goals,’ it’s bizarre that I am completely incapable of following through with even just one of them. I sent that fax to CNN, but I’m sure in my mind that they won’t call. I know I need to get fluent in Chinese, yet I stay at home all day and don’t even try to read the local papers or listen to the local newscasts. It’s pathetic. I mean, look at all these seemingly pathetic characters who appear as guests on Donahue, Oprah, etc. Half of them got their shit together long enough to write a book. I’ll be turning 27 and I don’t have a real focus…I’m into this TV journalism thing, yet I doubt anyone would hire me.

Perhaps, lame to say, watching Larry King Live’s 10th Anniversary Special was beneficial, because I learned that many famous and talented people also lack confidence and are still fearful to face the camera and audiences that idolize them. On Larry King, I’m embarrassed to admit how wonderful it really is to watch his live interviews….I also seem to have developed something of a crush on Barry Scheck, O. J. Simpson’s attorney for DNA issues.

Completely unmotivated to do anything else, I watched endless coverage of the O.J. Simpson trial on CNN International in our apartment, while my husband traveled for work. Who knows how far downhill I would have gone had CNN not responded to my fax? Luckily, CNN called me, and it became the catalyst for a remarkable change in my life.

The United Nations Fourth World Conference on Women was held in Beijing for two weeks in September 1995. CNN devoted significant coverage to it, because then First Lady Hillary Clinton was attending, despite very loud calls for a boycott due to Chinese human rights violations. At the conference, Clinton took the government to task for its treatment of young girls and made the iconic statement “that human rights are women’s rights — and women’s rights are human rights.” (The full text of her speech is here and a video here.)

CNN temporarily augmented the local bureau with network heavyweights Judy Woodruff, Larry Register, and Richard Roth, and a handful of locals, including me. My job was to watch, read, and summarize Chinese media coverage of the conference, so that the CNN team could keep its pulse on the extent of Beijing’s censorship. At first, it simply got me out of the apartment. It didn’t take long, however, for that walk down the hallway to become a walk out of my depressive state.  As I wrote on September 18th, 1995:

Last Friday was my last day at CNN, but it was incredible!! Most notably, Judy Woodruff and Larry Register gave me quite a lot of responsibility by allowing me to single-handedly select three short clips of young people giving their impressions of the Conference…

I will never forget the interview with an eleven-year-old Nigerian girl…Her speech was slow, and deliberate – she chose words carefully and spoke with intelligence about the government having to listen to the voices of the people. She said that the platform (the Beijing Women’s Conference) could help bring the voice to the government – but that people must be heard for it to make a difference.

Larry thought it was too harsh…But Judy Woodruff liked it – so it was in. I had no idea that they would close the series with 28 seconds of clips chosen single-handedly by me!!

My work at CNN was quickly followed by a few job offers, including the one I accepted as the China Marketing Manager for an American automotive company. That I had never heard of the field of “marketing” didn’t prevent me from acing my interviews and getting the offer that led to a long and successful marketing career. I remember a question the HR director asked at the end of my first interview: “The women’s conference is coming to Beijing very soon. Have you thought about taking part in some way?”

 “Oh, yes.  I cannot start with your company until after it’s over. I’ll be working for CNN during the conference,” I replied. I’ll never forget the look on his face.

Dinner Is Served

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Six weeks ago, I added a new thread to my blog to give voice to the rich lore resulting from my parents’ 36 years as Vermont innkeepers. There’s only 62 weeks until their expected retirement, so it’s time to get cracking on documenting these stories.

First, I want to explain my process. I rely on a combination of my own memories growing up in the inn and recollections of my mother’s re-telling of events to come up with the subject for each post. Then, I interview my parents, usually over dinner, to fact check my memory, gain more context, and add dimension to each story. At last Sunday’s dinner, a few questions about serving dinner at the inn yielded so much material that this post only includes stories from the first year.

CFI Menu Cards and Ads

(Above: Saved menu notes and weekly newspaper ads from the inn’s first year of serving dinner to the general public.)

In a previous post, I explained that my parents started renovating the property that became the Combes Family Inn in March 1978 and we hosted our first inn guests that August. After working out some kinks in the rooms business and making additional renovations, the three innkeepers were finally ready to serve dinner to guests by October. In the inn-keeping world, it is much more prestigious to serve dinner, in addition to offering bed and breakfast (“B&B”). As my mom explained: “Before moving to Vermont to become an innkeeper with us, your Aunt Nancy had taken a commercial cooking class on Long Island, so we thought we were hot shit.”

The very first dinner guest of the Combes Family Inn was a gentleman in his 80’s who booked a week by himself during the October foliage season. The first night of his stay, Aunt Nancy decided to make a recipe from her cooking class, Beef Rouladen in Burgundy Sauce.  “It came out so rich,” my mom recalls, “we thought we had killed him.”

Beef Rolade

(Above: My Aunt Nancy’s Professional Chef Cook Book, open to the page with the recipe she and my mother served their first dinner guest.)

The following month, the inn-keepers were getting ready to start preparations for Thanksgiving dinner and discovered that they had run out of propane and couldn’t light the stove. My dad frantically tracked down the guy at the local gas company. Unfortunately, after listening to my dad’s sob story about needing to cook for a house full of people, he replied: “I have my own problems.”

Undeterred, Dad made a few more calls and came up with a plan. He jumped in his Blazer with the turkey and headed down to our friend Jerry’s restaurant, the Winchester. Jerry had cranked up his stove to 500 degrees and proceeded to cook our turkey for the hour that it took my father to drive to and from Chester, where he picked up a hand-held drum of propane, something he wasn’t even sure was legal.  

In spite of the drama, Mom swears it was the best tasting turkey they’ve ever served.

Bill’s Super Quick Thanksgiving Turkey Recipe

Unstuffed 20-pound turkey.
Salt and pepper rubbed inside.
Place in turkey roasting pan with an inch of water.
Cover.
Cook at 500 degrees for one hour.

The day after Thanksgiving, Dad made two phone calls. First, he called a different propane company to promptly switch-over the inn’s service. Second, he called the original company and left the following message: “This is Bill Combes from the Combes Family Inn. I’m disconnecting my service. Now, my problems are your problems.”

What happened that New Year’s Eve is a story I remember like it was yesterday. We had a large group of 5 or 6 Japanese families who stayed at our inn, while they were skiing at Okemo Mountain. My Mom, Dad, and Aunt Nancy put together this impressive menu: roast beef, twice baked potatoes, Yorkshire pudding, glazed carrots, home-baked bread, and chocolate mousse.

When Dad took the beef out of the oven to get drippings to make the Yorkshire pudding, there were no drippings and the beef looked like a huge leather shoe. That’s when he discovered that he had bought a pre-cooked roast beef (usually used to slice off luncheon meat) and not a raw beef slab. Lacking other alternatives, they reluctantly served the beef, carrots, bread and potatoes, without the Yorkshire pudding. The guests were so polite that nearly every one of them asked for seconds. I am the only member of my family who entertains the possibility that our Japanese guests actually liked the beef.

Bill’s Yorkshire Pudding Recipe

Eggs, whole 20.
Milk 2 qt.
Bread Flour 2 lb.
Salt 1 oz.
Butter, melted 24 oz.
Drippings from Roast Beef (fat only) 24 oz.

Break eggs in mixing bowl; beat well. Add milk; mix well. Add flour and salt; beat until smooth. Beat in melted butter.

Place 12 oz. drippings in each of 2 15- x 18-in baking pans. Place pans on range and when smoking hot, divide batter evenly between pans.

Place pans in 375 degree oven on shelf in bottom half. Do not open door for 25 minutes; total cooking time, 35-40 min. Remove from oven and drain excess fat by tipping pan. Cut in squares to serve, 25 portions per pan.

The following summer, my parents and Aunt Nancy decided to serve dinners to the general public, in order to generate cash flow to help keep the business going through the slower summer season.  I should explain that the Combes Family Inn has always had one seating each night for dinner (7pm Thursday through Saturday and 5pm Sunday) and serves the same three course meal to each guest, unless there is a prearranged special request. The menu changes nightly.

The innkeepers promoted their new dinner service throughout 1979 and 1980 with ads in the local weekly paper which included the dinner menu for the three course meal planned for that Thursday, Friday, and Saturday night, as well as a Sunday buffet. Each night, the meal was $5.95 complete with dessert and coffee. BYOB.

One night, they had 12 reservations for outside diners. The menu included stuffed pork chops with homemade apple sauce, corn chowder, scalloped potatoes, green beans, and apple crisp. At about ten minutes before 7pm, Mom was just about to go into the sitting room to chat with the guests before ringing the dinner bell, when she checked the progress of her pork chops and discovered that she had never turned the oven on. Instead of grabbing the dinner bell, she cranked the oven up to 450 and went into the sitting room and said “Good evening, I’m Ruth Combes, the innkeeper. Dinner’s going to be a few more minutes.”

Ruth’s Apple Sauce Recipe

5 lbs regular Macintosh apples.
1/4 c. water, apple cider, or apple juice.
1 T lemon juice.
1/2 c. brown sugar.
Cinnamon (to taste).

Slice apples. Do not peel or remove cores. Put apples, sugar, and liquid in large covered pot and cook over medium flame for about 1/2 hour or until apples are tender. Put apple mixture through food mill (this is a great kitchen gadget, especially for pureeing soups and vegetables). Add lemon juice and cinnamon.

It may not seem like it based on the stories I’ve told above. However, my parents are both excellent cooks. And, needless-to-say, dining at the Combes Family Inn is a truly one of a kind experience. 

Casualties of Childhood

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My husband Bruce and I drove to his hometown last weekend to attend a poetry reading by one of his high school mates, the poet Tom Lux. Tom has published more than a dozen volumes of poetry in his illustrious career, including New and Selected Poems, 1975-1995 for which he was a finalist for the 1998 Lenore Marshall Poetry Prize and Split Horizon for which he received the Kingsley Tufts Poetry Award. Two great online articles about Tom and his writing can be found here and here. He is currently the Bourne Professor of Poetry at Georgia Tech.

At White Square Books, a charming little book store, on a Sunday afternoon, Tom read poems that he had selected for the occasion that were autobiographical of events and people in his hometown of Easthampton, Massachusetts. Most of these poems were nothing short of extraordinary. One of his newer poems, which I believe hasn’t been published yet, is haunting. Tom called it “the most autobiographical” of all his poetry. It’s a recounting of a time as a 15-year-old, when he used his shot gun to kill a small brown bird. Through the narrative and detail of the poem, it was evident that he had researched the habitat and habits of the type of bird to show how much he had thought of this bird in the more than 50 years that have passed since the day he killed it.

The poem ends with the bird’s talons and little legs remaining attached to the tiny branch, after the rest of the bird had been blown to smithereens. Tom watched the result of his mischief and saw the talons still clinging eerily and upright on the branch and, after a bit of wind, swinging down, still attached.

You could have heard a pin drop for more than a few moments after Tom had finished reading the poem. Everyone in the room was shocked into thinking about Tom’s dead bird and then, perhaps, some casualties of their own childhoods. I briefly mourned this bird, and then recalled one my brother Billy had killed with his BB gun when I was 6 and he was 8, at our Pépère’s hunting camp in Tinmouth, Vermont.

I think it was my cousin Kelly who dared him to shoot the young woodpecker which was in the tree down behind the outhouse at the camp. In the dense fog of childhood memory, I had thought that it was my more mischievous brother, Wayne, who was the bird executioner. To my surprise, the answer to my text to Billy this morning “Do you remember at Tinmouth camp the time Wayne killed a bird with a BB gun?” was this: “That was me. A small woodpecker. I cried. It was very traumatic for me. I still think about it.” And, then, he added in a second text: “Pépère consoled me and taught me the importance of not aiming a gun at something you do not want to kill.”

I see it vividly in my mind now. Billy killed it with his first shot and it fell dead with a thump. We all ran over to it. Kelly and I immediately began crying and ran to find the adults to tell them of Billy’s mischief. I also remember clearly that Billy and Wayne both cried too, as they followed behind us up the hill. When I shared these memories with Billy this morning, he replied: “It is funny about childhood memories, I don’t remember anyone else being around. It was me. My BB gun. A live woodpecker. An excellent shot. A dead woodpecker. Me crying because of what I had done. Pépère imparting that valuable life lesson. The burial ceremony.”

The incident was so memorable for my brother that he had saved photographs from that day and knows the exact date, October 20, 1974. Incredible. A few of those photos are below.

Pepere and deer Motley Crew Hunting Camp in Oct 74 Oct 20 1974

In the moments after Tom had finished reading his poem, I thought more about the old hunting camp. More than a few of Tom’s autobiographical poems involved boys with their hunting rifles. It was easy for me to relate to these childhood stories. I had grown up in a similar fashion in New Hampshire and Vermont, although a few decades after Tom’s upbringing in Western Massachusetts.

My brother came up to Vermont a few months ago and we decided to tool around a bit and found ourselves heading through Wallingford on Route 140, on our way to Tinmouth. Billy hadn’t been out there since childhood. I, on the other hand, had gone out a few summers before with Bruce to show him the land that was a part of so many childhood memories. I used to call the annual rite of going there as a very young child, “going to Vermont.” When I was nine, we moved to Vermont. Pépère died shortly thereafter and the camp lasted just a few years following that, until Mémère died when I was 12.

When Billy and I pulled up to the old cemetery in Tinmouth, we parked the car on the opposite side of the road, jumped the gate, and headed into the field, in search of the old camp and the outhouse. The trailer was there, a caved in pile of trash, and the outhouse was nowhere to be found.

Camp as trash