By Jane and Michael stern
Originally Published 1994 Gourmet Magazine
Vermont’ s fine inns and restaurants boast an abundance of modern chefs who create deluxe meals. But suppose you aren’t in the mood for exquisite noisettes of things and urbane confections. Suppose you hanker for a well-built chowder; or an earthy corned-beef boiled dinner including beets, parsnips, potatoes, and rutabagas; or the earnest comfort of warm Indian pudding for dessert. Are there still places in the Green Mountain State to savor such inelegant fare, once the hallmark of the Yankee table? That was our goal on a recent expedition that took us from Brattleboro to Burlington and into the Northeast Kingdom: to find the best inland eateries where the food is hale, the price is right, and the dress code is flannel and calico. The itinerary zeroed in on diners, lunchrooms, and eating halls where we hoped the honest ways of iron kettle cooks might still prevail.
In Manchester Center, at six o’clock in the morning, we struck gold: UP FOR BREAKFAST, a small café at the top of a flight of stairs with a second-story view of Main Street. The pancakes in this cheerful little place are a true taste of Vermont, especially when glazed with pools of maple syrup. Three kinds are always available, with or without blueberries in the batter. Buttermilk pancakes are sunny-hued and fluffy, easy to eat; the pancakes made from buckwheat batter are dark and serious; and the sourdough cakes are breathtaking. The first thing you notice about the sourdoughs is the sound they make when you press the edge of a fork to one of them. You hear a faint crunch as the tine breaks through a lacy crust. Inside the chewy web that encloses them, the pancakes are thin but substantial, with the vigorous disposition of an old sourdough starter that has had years to develop its tang.
Sourdough can be a hard sell, says Carolyne Mumford, who makes the batter and cooks the pancakes and runs Up for Breakfast with her husband, David. She explains, “I’ve had my starter quite a while. It has broken only twice in ten years, both times during a heat wave in the summer. It makes a batter with real character. So when new customers order our sourdough pancakes, I feel I ought to ask if they’ve ever had real sourdough before. After all, these are not your typical American pancakes made with Bisquick.”
Nor are Up for Breakfast muffins typical. They hark back to a time before modern muffin mania, when hefty Muffins were still pretty much a regional specialty of New England—known elsewhere but generally underappreciated, like Southern biscuits or the great cinnamon buns of rural Iowa. They are tender-textured quick breads with broad tops and cream-colored insides, the best of them chockablock with blueberries and nuts.
Up for Breakfast is so small and so beloved by its patrons that on weekends there can be an hour’s wait to eat. (It is open from 6 A.M. to noon on weekdays, 7 A.M. to 1 P.M. on weekends.) The Mumfords, self-taught cooks who started in the business washing dishes and waiting tables, opened their breakfast café in 1985. Today they dream of buying a bigger building somewhere in Manchester, where there would be ample seating and a parking lot. But Carolyne promises that even if they do graduate to a full sized ground-floor dining room, they will never change the name of the restaurant. “Up for Breakfast is an idea, not just a description of where we are,” she says. “Being up for breakfast is the right way to start the day.”
In the town of Weston, at a wooden table in THE BRYANT HOUSE, you can have an archetypal Vermont meal that starts with crackers and concludes with Indian pudding. Affiliated with the adjacent Vermont Country Store (of mail-order fame), this charming café is a bonanza for anyone in search of such regional fare as a bowl of cold milk accompanied by Vermont Cheddar cheese and a supply of crackers. Crackers and milk: There’s a forthright meal for you!
The crackers are primitive: round, hard, and white, the kind you’d expect to find in an old wooden cracker barrel. Known as Common Crackers, they were developed in Montpelier in 1828 and were considered essential for constructing a farmhouse chowder in the days when chowders were layered casseroles of crackers, potatoes, and salt pork. The customary way to eat crackers with milk is to break some of them into the bowl, let the pieces soften slightly, and then spoon up the cool pabulum, punctuating its simple bliss with an occasional chaw on the cheese. Other Vermont treasures here include chicken pot pie topped with a flaky biscuit, apple crisp redolent of maple syrup, and Indian pudding as respectable as adult breakfast cereal, not too sweet, served warm with vanilla ice cream melting fast on top.
You’ll need to double-clutch and downshift when you go from the quaint town of Weston to the P & H TRUCK STOP up in Wells River. The culture shock is extreme. If The Bryant House conscientiously cultivates its service of Vermont cuisine, the P & H dishes out the classics with perfect nonchalance. From the outside it looks like any truck stop at a highway exit, and we never would have expected anything more than home fried potatoes and hot roast beef sandwiches if we hadn’t received a postcard recommending the place from no less culinary authorities than Evan and Judith Jones (authors of The L. L. Bean Book of New New England Cookery). They praised P & H for its local color as well as for “mammoth helpings, truckers’ specials, and ten kinds of pie.”
The wallpaper in the main dining room tells the tale: It is a pattern that shows all the favorite brands of big rig, including Peterbilt, Mack, and Kenworth—dramatic views of the long-haul trucks’ grilles, cabs, and front wheels. The clientele includes state troopers and local blue-collar types in addition to professional drivers; the paper place mats advertise a nearby livestock auction and also forewarn ordinary customers that truckers receive preferential treatment so they can get back on the road pronto if they are running late. On the second floor, above the dining room, is a lounge, showers, telephones, and a bulletin board on which deadheaders (truckers with empty trailers) can advertise where they’d like to take a load. “Reefer [refrigerated trailer] available to Memphis tonight,” one note says. “Retread needed!” pleads another from a stranded driver who cannot afford a new tire.
And yet the aroma in the P & H is not of axle grease and diesel fuel; it is of fresh-baked bread and pot roast cooked to a tender fare-thee-well and blanketed with gravy. The moment you walk in, past the shelves of whole loaves of white, whole-wheat, oatmeal, and cinnamon-raisin bread for sale and toward the case that holds at least fifteen (by our count) kinds of pie, you know you have found a kitchen that means business. Most of what’s on the menu is standard truck-stop fare, although the fact that everything is written in French as well as English (for drivers from Quebec) gives even mundane listings a certain epicurean ring: Pancakes become crêpes, doughnuts are beignets, and cheesecake is soufflé au fromage.
P & H soups and chowders are especially inviting, and some have true local flavor. Tomato-macaroni soup is so thick with vegetables, ground beef, and soft noodles that it is best eaten with a fork and is, in fact, reminiscent of the Down East pennysaver’s lunch known as American chop suey. Corn chowder is another native prize, loaded with potatoes and corn kernels and flavored with bacon. We love the falling-apart pot roast and almost any kind of sandwich made using thick-sliced P & H bread, but not everything is as savory. The purée de pommes de terre tastes as if it came from powdered mashed-potato mix; the meat loaf has a pulpy character that only a die-hard diner fan could love.
The P & H dessert selection always includes several kinds of pudding as well as the vast repertoire of pies. Grape-Nuts pudding, an old New England favorite, is a gentle dish in which the once-pebbly nubs of cereal have softened so dramatically that they have become mere streaks of grain throughout the cool, sweet custard. A memorable moment at the P & H occurred after the waitress reeled off the day’s dessert list to us, including Jell-O among her recitation. When we asked her what flavor the Jell-O was, she answered without hesitation, “Red.”
The WAYSIDE RESTAURANT in Berlin, on the outskirts of Montpelier, has been an oasis of regional cooking since it opened in 1918. When the current owners, the Galfetti family, took over some thirty years ago, they inherited a menu that included salt pork and milk gravy, fresh native perch, old-fashioned boiled dinner, and several kinds of hash, including red flannel hash (so named because beets dye it the color of a farmer’s long johns). All these things are still available at the Wayside, although not every day. Perch can be had only during ice-fishing season, when it is lightly breaded and fried to a crisp; salt pork covered with creamy white gravy has become a Thursdays-only tradition; boiled dinner and shepherd’s pie are cold-weather specials; and fiddle-head ferns are offered only a few weeks in the spring.
Whatever the daily specials, and regardless of seasonal shortages, you will eat well any time you come to this cheerful town lunchroom. You begin to sense that fact when you smell warm rolls being toted to the tables. They have a just-baked, yeasty perfume that promises great things to come. What a joy it is to tear off a shred from a roll and submerge it into a bowl of Wayside beef barley soup—a hearty brew so thick with meat and pearly grains that a spoon literally stands up in it—or dip it in the vegetable soup, a jumble of carrots, squash, onions, tomatoes, and beans.
The last time we ate at the Wayside was a Wednesday, which is always chicken pie and meat loaf day. What a feast the chicken pie is: piled into a big crockery boat with dressing and a crusty biscuit, with a great heap of gravy-dripping mashed potatoes on the side. Wayside meatloaf is superb, too—a two-inch-thick slab with a sticky red glaze along the rim and rivulets of stout brown gravy dripping down its sides.
We passed up tapioca pudding, Grape-Nuts custard, mincemeat pie, and home-made gingersnaps in order to concentrate on a couple of definitive Vermont delicacies: apple pie made with densely packed hand-cut apples in a fork-crimped crust, and maple cream pie. Low and flat, with barely whipped cream dolloped on top, the filling of the maple pie is too delicious for words. Its radiant band of amber cream is complex, powerful, and elegant the way only pure maple can be, and it resonates on your taste buds after a Wayside meal like a grand north-country cordial.