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.”

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.”

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. 

Old Stories through New Eyes

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A few weeks ago, my brother sent me a very interesting New York Times opinion piece that’s on topic with the “Dry Year” thread of this blog. In it, poet John Skoyles reveals how he had spent much of his graduate school years drinking heavily, and had engaged in risky behaviors as a result. In fact, he wrote a memoir about it called “A Moveable Famine” without realizing that his own alcohol abuse was a theme in the book. It wasn’t until he reflected back on his story after reconnecting with an old girlfriend that he acknowledged his alcoholism. Although I considered reading the memoir, I’m hoping he’ll write another one that looks back on that time with new eyes.

In the same email in which he alerted me to Skoyles’ article, my brother also suggested that I consider adding a new thread or two to my blog, in order to keep people interested and entertained. He felt I needed to branch out from my too-narrow focus on not drinking, dieting and running. I couldn’t agree with him more, so, as a result, I’m introducing a new thread related to the memoir section of my blog.

My two brothers and I grew up in a busy inn, in a Vermont ski-resort town. Although hard to believe given that they’re now both in their 70’s, my parents still run the very bustling Combes Family Inn. Through the years, my mom has threatened now and then to write a book filled with stories from her and Dad’s 36 years as innkeepers. Since they’ve recently begun formulating their retirement plans and even picked a tentative date for closing the doors on their business, I decided it’s time to help Mom document some of her favorite inn-keeping stories.

My parents, while in their mid-30’s, had a dream of becoming innkeepers, long before it became fashionable. My mom was always a great cook and my dad an exceptional handyman. When our original hometown in New Hampshire was becoming over-developed, they began looking for an inn in earnest. They looked for two years to find a suitable one in either rural New Hampshire or Vermont, where they could raise their three young children while creating a business.

My mom’s story doesn’t make sense unless you understand how vibrant and beautiful the inn and its property are today. The photos below give you a taste of what I’m talking about. There are two photos of the inn and the grounds today and four of the “before” pictures.

“I’ll tell you the very first inn-keeping story that I want people to know,” Mom said the other night, after I mentioned this new idea for a blog thread. She was addressing me, my father, my husband Bruce, and my brother Bill, who is visiting for the long July 4th weekend. “The story relates the moment when we all walked through that door, as we took possession of the house in March, 1978,” she said.

“The entrance way had piles of garbage and large, opened bags of large-animal feed. Wafting out of the first room beyond the entrance was the smell of animal feces. A quick look inside, revealed more garbage and a partially collapsed ceiling,” she related. “Our cat, Gimpy, was so skeptical about the place that he wouldn’t walk through the doorway. I’ll never forget that I turned to look at my eldest child Billy, after Gimpy walked away from the front door. Billy, who was just 11 years old at the time, shook his head and asked ‘What have you gotten us all into?’”

Little did any of us know then that 36 years later the inn would be still be in business. Although I have heard the story a million times, I have no recollection of the cat’s disgust or my brother’s reaction, because, in a similar reaction as my cat, I ran back to the car and refused to get out again. I just sat in the car and cried. When my parents came back to force me out, I kept screaming “I want to go to the Snow Mansion!”

I was referring to one of the handful of other inns my parents had looked at before finally selecting the ramshackle farmhouse.  What I called the “Snow Mansion” was really the Snowvillage Inn, a resort near Conway, New Hampshire that had a large pond, tennis courts, and rolling fields. It’s still around today. This is what it looks like now. When we left our home in Merrimack, New Hampshire, in my mind, the Snow Mansion was the type of place we were moving to.  In fact, it was with considerable pride on my last day in elementary school that I told everyone I was moving to the Snow Mansion.

What my nine-year-old self and my cat Gimpy couldn’t conceive of was the potential that my parents had seen in the place. According to my mother, as she reflected back on why they risked uprooting their three young children and moving to start a new life in a house that could truthfully be described as “a dump”: “It was a place we could put our own mark on and start our new business slowly. We loved the area. It was near a small town with a village center with a growing ski resort, and it had a local school for you kids. And, on top of all that, the house itself had more than 50 acres and was on a country back road with a great view.”

Once each month, I’m going to interview my mom and share her stories. Some of them are absolutely hysterical.

Fiddlehead Season

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Fleeting, fragile spring.
A hunt before they unfurl.
Fiddlehead season.

Last year, I started writing a memoir and completed the first section, which is titled “Fiddlehead Season.” There’s something about the fleeting nature of this part of spring that reminds me of childhood, both my own and generally. Below is a condensed version of a small section of my memoir with an update from last weekend tacked on the end.

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(Only one variety of fern is edible and you have to pick them when they are still tightly wound in early spring.)

 

The father of a childhood friend has a hobby of foraging and had become somewhat famous locally because of this. He was very successful in fiddlehead season, so much so that it truly amazed me after I had moved back home and started foraging for fiddleheads myself. He was also the only person I personally knew who is an avid mushroom forager. I have always hated mushrooms, so this skill was something I had never learned to appreciate.

One spring after my husband and I moved back to my home town, I got a phone call out of the blue. My friend’s dad announced himself then said: “Sharon, let your mom know that I have a bunch of fiddleheads for her. You can come by the house any time.” Click.

The next morning, my mom and I headed over there. We weren’t even sure which house it was, despite the many times I had gone over there as a child. It’s funny how, over time, you can lose faith in your memory. Is it the white one next to the brick house or the other one in front of that? Luckily, we were saved by the lady of the house, who popped out of their front door when she saw our slowing car.  We met her at the open doorway, through which she handed us some Ziploc bags and told us to head out back to take as many fiddleheads as we wanted. We found them soaking in water in a large white bucket in the shade, under the eaves of their house.

I’ve received similar calls most springs since then, and sometimes I’d even go by the house myself and just help myself to fiddleheads from the bucket in the back.  It had become an early spring routine. But the calls stopped two years ago and I learned that my friend’s father’s health had begun to fail and he was no longer able to forage.

Last summer, I had arranged for some of my friends from out of town, who have a keen interest in Vermont mushrooms, to meet and discuss mushroom foraging with my friend’s father. He had diligently prepared by assembling several photographs of different local mushrooms he himself had taken through the years. He had also marked up several reference books with notes and tabs. Although my companions already seemed to know quite a bit about the edible mushrooms in the area, I could tell they were gleaning helpful tidbits and were thrilled with all of the preparations and visual aids.

I wasn’t really participating in the conversation, except by picking up a photo here and there, nodding, and asking a few tangentially related questions.  My mind wandered to other things and then, finally, to fiddleheads. As they kept talking about puffballs, chanterelles, and whatever else, I decided that I wasn’t going to leave that house without knowing that secret spot where he successfully forages for all of those fabulous fiddleheads every spring.

When the mushroom conversation started to slow and I could sense that my companions had learned a lot about fungi and were very happy to have a few great leads on where to look for certain types, I eased my way back into the conversation again. “Do you always say that it’s April first when you go out picking fiddleheads?” I asked. “May first,” he replied. “May first.” “And…you go somewhere along the river?” I probed further…

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Last weekend, my husband, Bruce, dropped me off at the bridge at the end of the road. I got out of the car with my baseball cap, my iPhone, and two pairs of scissors stuffed into our spaghetti strainer, which was set inside our green plastic vegetable strainer. I carried these items in my right hand and used my left to move sticks and trees and bushes out of my path. I went directly to the river bank and it wasn’t easy going.

Young green shoots were all over the place, mostly covered with dead twigs and long, brown grass that had become matted against the ground over the long, snowy winter. I went toward one patch of green and then another and another, ruling them all out. Then I made my way methodically south, staying about the same distance from the edge of the river. After moving a ways downstream, I noticed some unfurled fiddleheads to my left, the side that was away from the river. I hadn’t expected this. I was told the ferns were on the riverbank. No matter, at least I found them.

At first, I was disappointed to see the tall, thin fiddleheads already unwound, reaching toward the sun, because I thought I was too late. After all, I was told “May 1st.” However, the winter had been long, and when I looked in my usual spots the previous weekend I could see that it was still too early to pick them.

The truth is, they come and go so fast you can’t always plan to harvest them over a weekend. I knew that. I should have come during the work week. I was berating myself with these thoughts when I saw a large tight mound of perfect, tightly furled fiddleheads. They were large, and a deep, dark green, reminiscent of the ones I bought at a local market last spring. After I cut them, I spotted several others just like them nearby.

They were there all along. I just couldn’t see them when I was distracted by the unfurled ones.

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(My husband and I picked more than two pounds of fiddleheads at the secret spot.)

If you ever plan to be in northern New England in early May and have an interest in picking fiddleheads, check out my “how to” guide on Facebook.