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. 

Cat School

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I enjoyed putting together my last post, “My Sibs and Me.” So much so, in fact, that I have to tell one more sibling story.

As I’ve mentioned many times in the past, I am writing a memoir. In the process, I have dusted off several boxes of old books, letters, journals and photographs. The last box I opened had several reports and personal mementos from my primary and secondary school years in Ludlow, Vermont.

Among these items was a typed, untitled, one-page story with an “A-” in red ink at the top. I have no idea how old I was when I wrote it, or what my assignment was. The story, however, is one that I have told many, many times through the years, even very recently. In all of those recountings, though, I never quite told it the same way that it was typed by my young self on a nearly transparent sheet of typing paper.

The story takes place when I was four and my brother Wayne was five. At the time, our older brother Bill was six and in first grade. I was in my first year of a pre-school program, and was very worried about how my cat passed his days while I was away at school. My mother eventually found my many nagging questions about my cat—“Gimpy”—tiresome and finally told me that Gimpy also went to school. She explained that, as soon as we three kids went off to school in the morning, Gimpy went to “Cat School.”

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(Above: This photo was taken about the same time that the “cat school” story takes place.)

On the morning of the story, the pre-school was closed, but the elementary school was still in session. This meant that Billy went off to school while Wayne and I stayed home. Shortly after Billy had left, I looked out the window and spied Gimpy walking around outside. I ran to Wayne and told him to come with me and look, because “Gimpy must be on his way to Cat School!”

Below is exactly what was written on the typed page that I found.

___

When I was about four, my family lived in Merrimack, New Hampshire. Our house had some woods and a swamp behind it.

One day, my brother, Wayne, and I decided to follow our cat, Gimpy, around to see where he goes during the day. The cat started to head for the woods, so Wayne and I chased him. I don’t remember how long we followed Gimpy, but somewhere in the middle of the woods, we lost sight of him.

I started to cry and Wayne said, “I know how to get home from here.”

We started heading back the way we came and came to the swamp. Wayne walked right through the water and when he got to the other side, he said, “Sharon, come on, it isn’t that deep.”

I said, “I don’t want to get wet!”

Finally, I went in the swamp and got wet all the way up to my chest. After a bit of walking we reached a place we’d seen before.

I said, “Our house is this way.”

“No, stupid, it’s this way,” Wayne said.

Wayne went his way and I went mine. When I couldn’t see Wayne any more, I started screaming and (then turned around and) caught up with him. I followed him through the woods and finally we were out of the woods and in our back yard. Mom was standing next to the house yelling at us. We ran to Mom and hugged her. I think she was crying.

Mom said, “Oh, I’m so glad to see you! If you ever run away again I’ll give you both a licking!”

By: Sharon Combes

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Finding my old school essay allowed me to see this childhood episode through my own eyes as a child. I imagine myself being too embarrassed at the time that I wrote it to acknowledge that I believed my Mom when she said that our cat went to school. Therefore, I completely left that part out, despite it being a fundamental part of the story.

This tale is a special sibling story to me, because it’s a microcosm of my relationship with Wayne when Billy wasn’t around. We had our differences, but we still turned to each other and, ultimately, bonded.

I’d love to hear other childhood sibling stories. Please comment on this post with one of your favorites.