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Vermont: So you think your Grandma can cook...

extramsg Oct 8, 2009 02:24 AM

I'm a bit frustrated. I've been searching the boards for a week or so now, going through guidebooks and blogs, but not really finding what I'm looking for. So far, I'm finding these categories of restaurants in Vermont:

1) Restaurants serving market/chef-driven New American. It's generally difficult to discern any focus in the origin of the dishes and preparations, but there's usually a strong leaning towards Italian and French preps with local ingredients. I'll probably have one or two of these meals, eg, at Hen of the Wood, but they're easy to find.

2) Allegedly market-driven restaurants with every dish containing something like tuna, avocado, chipotle, or wasabi. In other words, NYC wannabes. Blech!

3) Restaurants serving old school hotel/steakhouse-style "Continental" dishes and generic New England dishes, like french onion soup, chowder, caesar salads, steak au poivre, etc. I even saw duck a l'orange on a menu. I don't mind something a little retro if it's good, but I can find this stuff ANYwhere.

4) Pubs that seem to be shooting for little more than offering an alternative to TGI Friday's and Applebee's by offering the same sort of annoying diverse menu of surprisingly ubiquitous dishes such as fettucine alfredo along side jack daniels wings along side jalapeno poppers and burgers with 40 ingredients. Ugh.

5) Diners that serve the same stuff as Denny's with prices that aim to compete with the national chains and even fast food joints, suggesting quality is a secondary concern. Though I imagine there are exceptions.

What I'm looking for is something different, and something I was a little surprised to discover is so difficult to find: traditional Vermont/New England foods. You know, the stuff that a New Englander's grandma grew up. The stuff that your great grandmother spent a lifetime perfecting. I'm looking for the original market-driven cuisine of Vermont. I want comfort foods and country cooking. I don't really want to go to a place bought by a Manhattan chef who wanted to semi-retire and be "creative".

I want a place where some 73 year old grandma has been cooking for 35 years, ever since she took over from her mother who cooked for the previous 50, using the same time-tested only-in-New England recipes. Does this exist?

PS: I'll be travelling through much of Vermont except too far into the NE, so any suggestions will be welcome. Will be going Brattleboro -> White River Junction Area -> Woodstock -> Waterbury -> Burlington -> Bennington. Am willing to go off the beaten path.

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  1. Morganna RE: extramsg Oct 8, 2009 04:09 AM

    Just a note here, in Vermont, when most people want food their Gramma's cooked, they either cook it themselves or they get Gramma to do it. ;) Vermont, in general, is still an "eat in" culture. We still cook here, so it's harder to find things that everyone would cook themselves because why would you bother to go out for when you could do it better at home? :)

    There are plenty of diners in Vermont that aren't just like Denny's. For instance, there's the Wayside in Berlin (near Montpelier) that serves some regular New England fare. I don't tend to go to places like that, again, because I can cook this sort of stuff myself at home. But I know there are plenty of people who do.

    Also, instead of looking for restaurants, look for church suppers. The Chicken Pie Dinner is a very traditional New England sort of thing. Some churches also offer New England Boiled Dinners and things of that sort.

    As for your "I want a place where some 73 year old grandma has been cooking for 35 years, ever since she took over from her mother who cooked for the previous 50, using the same time-tested only-in-New England recipes." Have you been watching a lot of Diners, Drive-ins, and Dives? The reason places like this are remarkable and make it on a show like that is because -they're rare-.

    That being said, the Wayside has been around for a very long time. I don't recall off the top of my head how long, but a long time (I just found a source, it's more than 90 years old, it opened in 1918). No, there isn't an old gramma in the kitchen who has been cooking there for 35 years, but they've stuck with the old recipes and have old fashioned regional offerings, and it has been family owned and operated since the beginning (Brian Zecchinelli, who married into the restaurant business in 1994 when he tied the knot with Karen Galfetti--whose family bought The Wayside in 1966 from the Fishes (who bought it from Effie Ballou in 1945)). Here are several reviews of The Wayside you can look over:

    http://drunkonfood.com/?p=6

    http://www.yelp.com/biz/wayside-resta...

    http://leahy.senate.gov/press/200807/...

    4 Replies
    1. re: Morganna
      t
      three of us RE: Morganna Oct 8, 2009 06:02 AM

      I agree with you. I can cook the old stand-bys at home. When I go out, I want something different!

      Church suppers are more fun culturally, for me, than tasty cooking. I typically find the food way oversalted and overcooked. But I go for the community feeling.

      I think the OP's a little dreamy re. the old gramma comment.

      1. re: Morganna
        a
        andrewpb33 RE: Morganna Oct 8, 2009 06:05 AM

        very good point about vermont being an "eat-in" culture, the rotisserie in south burlington is kinda like what you're looking for. it's a real local restaurant where people have the same booth. i haven't been there in several years but i grew up going there several times a year.
        also in south burlington is parkway diner, while it is a greek inspired diner it is amazing and another place where the locals go to eat. if you go up to the northeast kingdom up near the border there are a bunch of dive diners all over the place which serve the kind of stuff your looking for. there is a place called hidden valley restaurant (or a variation of that) in lowell. while i've never been there almost everyone i know have been there. it's pretty much in a converted side of these old people house and serves pot roast, shepherds pie etc..
        good luck on your search and enjoy vermont

        1. re: Morganna
          extramsg RE: Morganna Oct 8, 2009 02:12 PM

          Thanks. The Wayside looks like the type of place I'm interested in.

          Roadfood has a couple pics:

          http://www.roadfood.com/Restaurant/Re...

          Interestingly, I went through a Chowhound thread that was entirely focused on diners in New Hampshire and Vermont, and it wasn't mentioned, I don't believe.

          A church supper would be interesting. We'll be in Montreal for the weekend, though, so I'm not sure how easy we could find one on a weekday. Washington Post had this article:

          http://www.washingtonpost.com/wp-dyn/...

          Would love to know if there are more such options.

          1. re: extramsg
            s
            sophie fox RE: extramsg Dec 28, 2009 03:30 PM

            I've had too many very underwhelming meals at the Wayside. Maybe 15 years ago they were better - as I recall - but lately, not so much.

        2. w
          Wursthof RE: extramsg Oct 8, 2009 08:58 AM

          what dishes in particular are you looking for?

          8 Replies
          1. re: Wursthof
            extramsg RE: Wursthof Oct 8, 2009 01:42 PM

            I'm not from Vermont or from New England, so I wouldn't know.

            1. re: extramsg
              t
              three of us RE: extramsg Oct 8, 2009 02:20 PM

              Really? We're not that exotic. Boiled dinner, baked bean supper, pot roast . . . . it's not like you're going to remote villages in China's northern provinces.

              1. re: three of us
                extramsg RE: three of us Oct 8, 2009 04:33 PM

                "Exotic" is relative. "Boiled dinner" and "baked bean supper" are exotic to someone from the west coast. I'm sure Brazilians don't think of feijoada as exotic and sambhar doesn't seem exotic to people from Chennai.

                Are Southerners and Italians the only ones left in America who take pride in their home-cooking culinary traditions?

                1. re: extramsg
                  whs RE: extramsg Oct 8, 2009 05:47 PM

                  I live in NH, so Vermont is an exotic locale. ;) Actually our church suppers, Elks dinners and political fundraisers are pretty similar. One of the most memorable was a terrific turkey dinner with all the trimmings at a local high school, served by the ladies who had prepared it. A guy from Vermont named Howard Dean got up after the meal to tell us he was running for president. We all thought that was interesting.

                  1. re: extramsg
                    t
                    three of us RE: extramsg Oct 8, 2009 08:39 PM

                    LOL about VT being an exotic locale for someone from NH! No kidding! I once asked our 86 yr old farmer neighbor if he wanted to go to a farm auction in VT. "Oh, I never go there," he said and shook his head like it was the most insane of ideas.

                    We've always found it helpful as well as fun to do a little research into a region's/country's specialties before going there. Sites like this are valuable but so are ones that go into more detail about origins and recipes. Helps tune-up our chow radar.

                    1. re: three of us
                      whs RE: three of us Oct 9, 2009 08:05 AM

                      A lot of French Canadians moved to NH to work in the mills in the late 1800s--we have local restaurants serving poutine, pork pie and salmon cakes. Do you have that in VT? I had a memorable meal called tuna wiggle served over saltines at the Miss Newport diner years ago. That's something you don't see on many menus.

                      1. re: whs
                        Morganna RE: whs Oct 10, 2009 04:59 AM

                        There are some places that serve poutine, but I hope for the sake of the people from Quebec that those are not models of good poutine. ;) I've had it a few times and been underwhelmed each time, though in concept it sounds like something I'd normally enjoy. ;)

                        Tuna pea wiggle is pretty fun, and I -think- they have that at the Wayside but I'm not sure. Again, that's the sort of thing your Mom makes when she's out of ideas for dinner. I have a hard time justifying paying someone to make that for me. ;) (Where I grew up, it was called tuna hot dish, or tater tot hot dish, and topped with tots, not saltines.) Haven't seen salmon cakes anywhere around here.

                        1. re: Morganna
                          j
                          johnnycake1 RE: Morganna Oct 11, 2009 05:07 AM

                          Check out "Sissy's Kitchen " in Middletown Springs. She was the owner/chef of the Dorset Inn for the past 20 something years. Really good "comfort food"!!!

            2. TonyO RE: extramsg Oct 10, 2009 06:41 AM

              As a transplanted NY'er (aka, Flatlander) living in Vermont for about 12 years, here is my take on the Vermont restaurant scene:

              1. There is an abundance of Asian restaurants in the greater Burlington area. I have never encountered an area outside of Chinatowns where so many Asian restaurants exist. They even outnumber the pizza joints ! Many are quite good and the food is generally cheap (which may be the main reason there are so many).

              2. There are a multitude of transplanted chefs from around the world that have choosen Vermont as a place to call home. This, to me, is a good thing. It has brought us many quality restaurants and people.

              3. Most areas have a style of cuisine that defines their area. Whether it is a particular dish (Beef on a Wick in Western , NY, Fish Fry in Albany, NY, or Clambakes on the New England coast) the dishes are unique. I have yet to find that in Vermont. However, the one food movement that is being embraced here is the "localvore" movement where food is sourced locally. Sometimes it works, sometimes it is a buzz word that does not translate into anything other than overpriced food. Balance is the key. The restaurants that support this approach that have great balance are the Kitchen Table Bistro, The Hen of Wood, Michael's on the Hill, and The Belted Cow.

              3. There are three distinct types of "Vermonters":

              A. Born and raised here with that distinct Vermont accent. These folks tend to be "meat and potato" type that like hearty fare like stews, roasts, and game. Many hunt and have their own gardens. They don't travel very far, are not much interested in wine pairings, and tend to eat at local diners.

              B. The transplants. These folks (like me) move to Vermont and become residents here. Depending on where they are from, they find the dining scene either fairly similar or quite different form their former home.

              C. The transients. This group is comprised of tourists and folks that have vacation homes here. They put high value on "the Vermont experience" , whatever that is. They pay $50 for a half gallon of maple syrup , repeat over and over "we love Vermont" and are rarely here between March and May.

              So, how does this relate to retaurants ? Group A runs and supports the "Vermont style" restaurants that group C is seeking to "experience" and group B tends to avoid. Group B tend to patronize the places run by fellow transplants as they feel more at home. The wine lists in these places are better and you hardly ever here anyone say "Jeezum Crow" or "Oh, Basket". This is the "new Vermont" , for better or for worse. The further you get from Burlington, the less likely you are to find this type of place, with a few exceptions.

              So, if a Norman Rockwell type experience is what you seek in Vermont, I think you might be out of luck unless you take the road less travelled in which case your likely to hear ," you can't get there from here"...............

              1 Reply
              1. re: TonyO
                Delhiwala RE: TonyO Dec 23, 2009 10:15 AM

                TonyO you are 100 perecnt right!

              2. shaogo RE: extramsg Oct 10, 2009 07:04 AM

                I don't think enough emphasis has been placed on Church Suppers/Grange Suppers etc. Every time we visit Vermont, we scan the newspapers and tourist pamphlets for church suppers. We're *never* disappointed. The best one is not a church supper but a fund-raiser for the local historical society in Brownsville, Vermont: the baked bean supper (now featuring ham, too!) in July. It's held in the archetypal local "hall," the beans are to die for, and dessert is a piece of homemade pie -- if that doesn't say "grannie," I don't know what does.

                2 Replies
                1. re: shaogo
                  extramsg RE: shaogo Oct 11, 2009 10:39 PM

                  FYI, I found this link to a listing of grange meetings in Vermont. Some mention potlucks. Haven't been to a grange meeting since I was a kid in Elmira, Oregon, and only remember how bored I was with all the old farmers there. So I have no clue if most have food or not, but here it is for posterity's sake:

                  http://www.vermontstategrange.org/gra...

                  1. re: shaogo
                    extramsg RE: shaogo Oct 12, 2009 12:53 AM

                    Okay, a couple more links. Some newspapers are online and have event calendars. eg, the Addison Independent has several town events from the county. For upcoming October I can see a potluck in Middlebury on the 21st, eg, and a potpie dinner in Bristol the 23rd.

                    http://www.addisonindependent.com/cal...

                    Several towns have decent websites, even smaller towns, that include community calendars which often have similar events to the above. eg:

                    Middlesex: http://www.middlesex-vt.org/html/cale...
                    Waterbury: http://www.waterburyvt.com/cgi-bin/ca...
                    Groton: http://www.grotonvt.com/
                    Chelsea: http://www.chelseavt.org/index.asp?Ty...

                    I think I'm a little late for many of the events, but hopefully this will come in handy for others next year.

                  2. o
                    odug RE: extramsg Dec 22, 2009 11:57 AM

                    Being a seventh generation Vermonter (without an accent I might add), and a sous chef at a restaurant "bought by a Manhattan chef". I will say that you just need to find out what you are looking for. This past year we did a slow food dinner featuring the foods of native Vermonters. Flint corn, venison, fried bread, squash, beans... most of which we liked so much that we have incorperated them into our regular menu. We use such exotic ingredients as native trout and root vegetables. We have dishes like chowder with pork belly and lamb stew. Both of which are pretty traditional VT foods. My grandmother who is the native Vermonter doesn't cook that well. Most of my friends who are native Vermonters have grandmothers who don't cook that well either. I'm not sure what happened in VT, but at some point there was a lot of food tradition that lost. I think it has to do with VT becoming a dairy based agriculture. It took most of the farmland and made it into pasture land for cows. Only now are people starting to grow more traditional crops and animals. I'll echo other posters saying it is rare, and I'll say again you need to know what you are looking for. True VT food is out there.

                    1 Reply
                    1. re: odug
                      d
                      dfrostnh RE: odug Dec 24, 2009 04:31 AM

                      I married into a native NH family. I suspect when they went out to eat they wanted something special like roast beef or fried clams or Chinese. My MIL was a good cook but like many women of that generation, she was seduced by convenience products. My FIL had stopped fishing and hunting so I never tasted hornpout and venison at their house. I think it was a big deal that she still made baked beans from scratch. I discovered however buttercup squash, swiss chard and parsnips at her table and learned that Cortlands were the best for pies. We're back to having our own vegetable garden again and luxuriating in the taste of our fresh vegetables. My sister, like our mom, will only cook butternut squash because it's easier to cut. My husband stopped fishing too and my father never ate fish although he fished both fresh and saltwater (if the neighbors didn't want his catch, Mom buried the fish in the garden) so I never experienced fresh caught fish. DH still talks about the fresh donuts and yeast breads his mom, aunts, and neighbors used to make. It was much easier for me to buy at the store and I never learned how to make a good pie crust. The family also stopped making their own cider and vinegar (the orchard was sold and is now gone) and maple syrup. They no longer have their own chickens (and egg route) or plant potatoes. Yikes, I just remembered that it's been many years since someone made ice cream at every big family event. And I thought I was doing well to make cookies from scratch.

                    2. shaogo RE: extramsg Dec 22, 2009 09:33 PM

                      Off-topic, just a bit.

                      If there were ever a place *known* as a destination for "Vermont Food," I'd have to say it was the inimitable Dog Team Inn near Middlebury. The place burnt down -- claiming the life of the owner -- before he could sell out. The realtor who had the listing has very kindly left the sales pamphlet on-line as a memorial to a unique place:

                      http://www.loopnet.com/Attachments/E/...

                      1 Reply
                      1. re: shaogo
                        TonyO RE: shaogo Dec 26, 2009 10:58 AM

                        The Dog Team was quite a landmark. From the need to order off the blackboard upon entering, to the large pot of mashed potatoes dished out at the table, and the incomparable sticky buns and spinning relish wheel, it really was a one-of-a-kind restaurant that is missed.

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