Travel guidebook publisher Lonely Planet has released A Fork in The Road — a collection of 34 original stories that show how travel, food and eating combine to shape and inspire our lives. Edited by James Oseland, editor in chief of Saveur magazine, the book brings together culinary pioneers and literary hot shots including Michael Pollan, Gael Greene, Frances Mayes, Francine Prose and Alan Richman.
Here is an expcerpt from David Kamp, a writer and humorist whose work appears most frequently in Vanity Fair. He is the author of, among other books, The United States of Arugula, a chronicle of American food trends.
I still have the little printed card from the place:
‘A Good Place to Spend the Night’
Cabins and Good Meals at Reasonable Rates
Maple Cottage was a clapboard farmhouse on the outskirts of Center Harbor, New Hampshire, about ten miles east of Squam Lake, where Katharine Hepburn and Henry Fonda scenically confronted their mortality in the 1981 film On Golden Pond. It had been built, like most nineteenth-century farmhouses, close to the road, just a few feet back from New Hampshire Route 25.
Old people and transient guests, the ones just looking for a place to bed down for a night, stayed in Maple Cottage itself. We stayed in one of the cabins, which were a quarter mile beyond the main house, down a dirt road in the back. The cabins, white with green trim around the windows, were spartan: bare bulbs for lights, knotty-wood walls, cold water only, no bathtubs or showers. But they looked right onto a secret little lake. Kanasatka, it was called: a kind of budget version of Squam Lake/Golden Pond—much smaller, but with the same blue crystallinity and families of warbling loons skimming its surface at twilight. We did our bathing and laving in its waters, using overturned Frisbees as floating soap trays.
R.M. Fletcher was Robert Fletcher, ‘Rob’ to his old friends—who, like him, were literally old—and ‘Mr. Fletcher’ to my family. He was a lifelong bachelor, congenitally shy, born and raised on the Maple Cottage property, back when it had been a working farm. He had thick white hair barbered in a tight 1920s style and the plain features of a Dorothea Lange sharecropper. He was usually wearing an apron over his short-sleeve dress shirt and belted trousers, because he was usually in some stage of meal preparation.
I probably exchanged no more than two sentences ever with Mr. Fletcher, but I was always overjoyed at the first sight of him—that moment each year when our car pulled up at Maple Cottage after the seven-hour drive from New Jersey. My father would get out and enter the house through the side door, where the kitchen was. A minute or so later, he and the old man would emerge, engaged in jovial small talk. We would all say our hellos to Mr. Fletcher and catch wafts of whatever was cooking inside. Sometimes it might be a baked good like apple pie or cranberry bread, but usually the air carried a gravy aroma. An inviting one, like the kind you wake up to on Thanksgiving.
‘Cabins and Good Meals at Reasonable Rates’: truth in advertising. We were a Mom, a Dad, a girl, and two boys, and, for a two-figure sum per night, we got two squares a day, breakfast and dinner, and a beach more or less to ourselves, since none of Mr. Fletcher’s other patrons seemed to love Lake Kanasatka as much as we did. We took our meals in the Maple Cottage dining room with our fellow guests, boardinghouse-style. Breakfast was at 8 a.m. and dinner, 6 p.m. At mealtimes, Mr. Fletcher would summon us cabin-dwellers by standing on his porch and waving one of those town crier–type bells in the direction of the lake, Ya-DING, Ya-DING! Sometimes, if my brother and I charged up the dirt road fast enough, we would catch sight of the old man shuffling back into the house, his aproned back to us, his walk rickety and arthritic, the bell silent by his hip. He looked exactly like a codger in a George Booth cartoon in the New Yorker.
This was in the 1970s and early ’80s. My father was a car salesman who got precisely two weeks of vacation time a year, and he always took the same two weeks off—the last two in August, leading up to Labor Day. I was aware that other kids my age were getting on airplanes and going to Disney World or family-owned condos in Florida, but not for a second did it ever occur to me that our vacations were modest or old-fashioned. As I learned later, though, our family’s way was pretty much how working-class families had holidayed a century earlier. Norman Rockwell, in his memoir, Norman Rockwell: My Adventures as an Illustrator, describes childhood getaways from his native New York City (yes, he was a city kid, despite his totemic depictions of small-town life) that, though they took place when William McKinley was president, sound strikingly familiar:
My family spent every summer until I was nine or ten years old in the country at various farms which took in boarders. Those country boardinghouses weren’t like the resort of today… Those boardinghouses were just farms. The grownups played croquet or sat in the high slat-backed rockers which lined the long front porch. We kids were left to do just about anything we wanted.
Mr. Fletcher’s land was no longer being actively farmed, but the area remained farm country and the cuisine was still farmhouse—not so much in the ‘farm to table’ way of today’s neo-retro agritourism, in which your married-couple 29-year-old innkeepers might present you with a freshplucked heritage pullet roasted with fingerlings and garlic scapes from the very acre upon which the dear bird foraged, but in the hearty, stick-to-your-ribs way that sustained farmers who had corn to thresh and hay to bale and cows to milk, and therefore required lots and lots of calories to burn. Breakfast was two courses. Oatmeal first, served in a generous, undainty portion, with cream and brown sugar. The oatmeal was necessary, because late Augusts in New Hampshire carried with them a heavy intimation of fall, meaning not only that there were a few red maples along the road already beginning to turn, but also that the air temperature reliably plunged into the low forties at night. We’d wake up to vapor coming off the lake and out of our mouths. Though it would be swimming and canoeing weather by 11:15, it was sweatshirt and oatmeal weather at eight. After the oatmeal came the ‘proper’ breakfast, which, if syrup pitchers were set out on the table (my preferred scenario), was pancakes or French toast. Absent the syrup pitchers, it was piles of eggs with piles of toast and rashers of bacon.
But it was Mr. Fletcher’s dinners that captivated me and have kept Maple Cottage forever in my mind. Unambitious and cost-conscious as my family might have been in terms of travel, we lived very much in thrall to the aspirational food manias of the times, whether that meant visiting the wondrous new places that Craig Claiborne and Mimi Sheraton told us about in the New York Times (Dean & DeLuca! The Fondue Pot!), or, at home, essaying Julia Child’s soupe au pistou or Mollie Katzen’s carrot-cashew curry. Perversely, Mr. Fletcher’s stolid Yankee cooking, with its clean, uncomplicated flavors, struck me as radical.
Sundays only, he did a ‘supper’ at 1 p.m. instead of six. It was basically the full Thanksgiving, expertly realized: the turkey, the stuffing, the cranberry sauce, and what have you. A day or two later, the leftover turkey would reappear in a pot pie with peas, root vegetables, and late-summer corn. It sounds ridiculous, but, prior to Maple Cottage, I had never heard of pot pie and was unaware in general of the concept of flaky crust–encased savories.
Mr. Fletcher’s turkey pot pie blew my mind, as did his Yankee pot roast, as did his ritual Saturday-night New England boiled dinner: braised vegetables, brisket that he’d corned himself, baked beans, and, most exotically of all, circular slices of molasses-steeped New England brown bread, home-baked in a coffee can. Inasmuch as one can eat a Norman Rockwell painting, that’s what I did, nightly and voraciously.
Dessert was a cake or fruit pie, Fletcher-made, never store-bought. One night, one of the old-timers with whom we shared a table, Aggie, asked me if I’d liked the apples in the apple pie. Aggie was a central-casting little old lady with pluck: gray hair up in a bun, floral-print summer dress. Years before we met her, she had lost her husband, ‘my Joe’, and she kept his memory alive by faithfully listening to his Red Sox on the radio. I told Aggie that yes, I’d liked the apples in the pie. ‘What if I told you,’ she asked, pausing for dramatic effect, ‘that they’d been stolen?’
Aggie was herself the thief. On her daily constitutional, she had happened upon a tree on a neighbor’s property that was already bearing ripe fruit, and she’d helped herself. Mr. Fletcher sheepishly acknowledged to us that he had accepted the goods even though they were hot.
Oftentimes after dinner, we would all—my family, Aggie, the other elderfolk roosting in the rooms upstairs, the hippie-hiker couples passing through in their Volkswagens—retire to the house’s front parlor, where an upright piano stood. There, another of Mr. Fletcher’s solo regulars, an Episcopal minister from Rhode Island named John Evans, who was somehow able to spend his entire summers at Maple Cottage, entertained us with song—not religious music but Tin Pan Alley stuff that he played off the top of his head or from the stacks of old sheet music that sat atop the piano. Reverend Evans was a multi-instrumentalist and a gabby, endearingly affable eccentric, a bit like The Music Man’s Professor Harold Hill but with actual musical ability. I still have his printed cards, too, five of ’em: one that describes him as a reverend, two that describe him as a harpist, one that describes him as ‘Singer, Author’, and another that describes him as ‘Entertainer’, his specialties being ‘Country, Dixieland, Oldies’. He and my father, a gifted amateur crooner, got along like a house on fire and duetted by the piano until it got late, which, at Maple Cottage, was around 9:03 p.m. At that point, it was sweatshirts on, flashlights out, and back down the hill to the cabin by the lake.
To recap: I spent summer evenings in a country boarding house eating meals with strangers and listening contentedly as people merrily sang along to sheet music in the parlor.
What century did I grow up in again?
I suspect that even then, as a child, a part of me recognized that what I was witnessing and participating in was a time warp, a way of life that already belonged to the past. I further suspect that this was part of the allure. Maple Cottage may not have been as glam a destination as the high-rise Florida condos or Colorado ski resorts to which my more affuent friends traveled, but it was every bit as transportive. Probably more so.
I’ve since gotten to take airplane trips and swim in tropical waters and bargain in souks and sleep in hotel suites whose nightly rack rates have run to four figures. Still, Maple Cottage remains the beau idéal of vacations in my mind, and I retain the provincial bias that there is nowhere in the world as pretty as New England in late summer. And while my palate has since been treated to hundreds of experiences putatively more exciting and broadening than the simple country meals prepared by that old man in his farmhouse in New Hampshire, my abiding culinary love is for the kind of congenial, familial New England home cooking where everything seems to be infused with either pie spices or pan drippings. ‘Mr. Fletcher food,’ I call it.