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.”

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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.