"IF YOU'RE looking for veal cordon bleu, you're going to be disappointed. What we do is simple country cooking. Nothing more, nothing less." "I With characteristic bluntness, that's how David Thomas, owner of the Fairfield Inn, describes the dishes he and his staff serve. The inn, a venerable stone structure on Fairfield, Pennsylvania's main street, was built in 1757 to provide food and drink to passing travelers, and it wears its age with dignity. Thomas was born in 1950, and he wears his youth with drive and enthusiasm -- for the inn, for the town, and for what he envisions as the ideal balance between the two.
In fact, Fairfield is the kind of tranquil, gentle-rhythmed town -- steady, sturdy, with the quiet-pretty plainness of a place the tourist business hasn't found yet -- where an inn built 20 years before the Revolution still looks as if it belongs. Though just 90 minutes from the Beltway, it could be a century away.
As far as Thomas is concerned, that's just fine. Formerly a desk-bound executive with the dinner house division of the Marriott Corporation in Washington (remember Garibaldi's and the Joshua Tree?), and before that university-trained in restaurant/hotel management, he gave up the corporate life at the age of 25 to go home again, to take up the small-town Pennsylvania life he knew as a child and, with some help from his parents, to buy the inn.
Thomas' conversation grows most intense when he talks about the inn's relationship to Fairfield. "I don't want to impose the inn on the town as though it was a big tourist attraction brought in from the outside. I want the inn to grow naturally out of the town. That's why the people who work here are natives of the area, and why all the work in restoring and maintaining the buildings is done by local people."
He gestures toward the partition in the dining room. "It's also why there's a jukebox in the bar. The music may detract a bit from the colonial image, but it's what the local people who socialize in the bar want to hear. On weekend nights when we're serving dinner, the jukebox goes off. Sometimes we even have a lutist in costume who sings colonial ballads during the meal. That's the balance. The inn is for people coming in from the city, but it's also for the people who live and work in town."
Last year, Thomas employed local craftsmen and contractors to restore a second building down the street as a guest house for overnight visitors. It's a handsome residence dating from 1801, and he's managed to furnish it completely in antiques -- sturdy, satin-polished, useable antiques, the kind you actually sit on and sleep in.
The commitment to use only local help at the inn extends to the kitchen. The cooks are all town women, none with professional training. Mary Hartman (no relation to the TV heroine), one of Thomas' mainstays, has been cooking at the inn for nine years. Before that, she cooked for her family and worked in the nearby canning factory.
Granny Sites, 79 years old, comes in two days a week to bake the pies and cakes. Before she started baking for the inn, she made pies only at home. And once a week or so, Audrey Wortz, also 79, comes in to make her specialty, boiled pot pie.
Thomas himself is no out-of-touch executive when it comes to cooking. On a Sunday morning Thomas can be found in the kitchen, sleeves rolled high, concentrating on a batch of limas and bacon. "Many of the recipes came with the place," he says, "and Mary and I experiment together on new ones. Some of them work out, some don't. To be perfectly honest, I've also adapted a few things from my days with Marriott. And I keep on the lookout for new dishes when I'm traveling and eating at other country restaurants, bringing back ideas and trying to recreate them."
Thomas has no hesitation about sharing his recipes. "Except for one," he says with a determined smile. "The biscuit recipe is mine."
Holidays are important events at the inn, and, largely because of Thomas, in the town as well. Since this is apple country, he's helped to organize a pippin festival in Fairfield on the first weekend in October for the last several years. To celebrate the Christmas season, Thomas serves special dinners on the first two Sundays in December, with candles, a wassail bowl, a yule log, a minstrel, a boar's head and, he says, "always a surprise or two." These Christmas dinners, he says, are beginning to resemble reunions, as more and more of the same people, some of them from the Washington area, return each year.
The secret biscuits excepted, here are a few examples of the Fairfield Inn's simple country cooking, as described by David Thomas.
WARM CABBAGE SLAW (4 to 6 servings)
"This recipe came from a friend of mine who had a country restaurant of her own for many years. It makes a great side dish, especially in fall and winter. I like to serve the slaw with a roasted meat, like pork." 1 small head cabbage, cut as for slaw 1 teaspoon salt 2 eggs 3 tablespoons flour 4 tablespoons vinegar 6 tablespoons sugar 2 tablespoons butter
Place the cut cabbage in a pan, add salt and just enough water to cover, and cook for 15 minutes. In a separate bowl, lightly beat the eggs and mix in the flour. Add the vinegar and sugar to the warm cabbage. Mix in the egg and flour mixture, and then the butter. Cook, stirring, until it thickens.
HOT SPICED APPLE CIDER (4 to 6 servings)
"As this is apple country, here's one of our favorite fall drinks. There's nothing more pleasant than a mug of this cider after a crisp evening outside." 1/2 gallon fresh apple cider 2 sticks cinnamon (or to taste) 6 whole cloves (or to taste)
Warm all together on the stove for several minutes or, better yet, heat over an open fire.
ESTHER'S HOT BACON DRESSING (4 to 6 servings) 6 eggs 2 1/2 tablespoons cornstarch 5 cups sugar 1 1/2 cups cider vinegar 1 pound bacon
Mix eggs, cornstarch, sugar and vinegar, and let stand. Fry the bacon and drain, saving the fat. Let the bacon cool, then crumble. Combine the crumbled bacon and about half the fat with the other ingredients, and cook until glossy and smooth, stirring constantly. Serve warm. The dressing can be kept in the refrigerator for a week or more and re-heated in a double boiler.
CHICKEN CORN SOUP (4 to 6 servings)
"This is one of the steady favorites at the inn. I like to use some of the leaves of the celery in the soup, so my guests know for sure it's homemade." For stewing chicken: 1 medium (3-pound) stewing chicken 2 stalks celery Salt and white pepper, to taste
For the soup: 1 cup diced celery 2 tablespoons parsley 2 cups corn
Stew the chicken, using just enough water to cover it, along with the celery stalks and salt and white pepper to taste. Let the chicken simmer until the meat falls from the bones. Separate the broth from the meat. Strain the broth and allow to cool in the refrigerator overnight. Remove meat from bones and refrigerate, covered, overnight as well.
The next day, bring the broth to a boil, add the diced celery, and simmer until it's almost tender. Dice the cooked chicken and add it to the broth along with the parsley and corn. Bring to a gentle boil just until the corn is cooked.
AUDREY'S BOILED POT PIE (4 to 6 servings)
"This is really more like a stew with dumplings than a pie. I've also heard it called 'slippery pot pie,' from the way the dumplings slip down. It's one of those thrifty Pennsylvania dishes where you use whatever's available, so it lets you turn scraps and leftovers into something. The meat can be beef, chicken or ham. To some extent, you can let the amount of meat be determined by what you have on hand, but the more meat, the richer a broth you'll get. We usually serve Audrey's pie with applesauce, coleslaw or our warm slaw.
"This recipe is for a pie using chicken. You can start off as with the chicken and corn soup (see above), by stewing your chicken with celery, salt and pepper, and letting the strained chicken broth and chicken meat cool in the refrigerator overnight.
"Bear in mind that Audrey doesn't use a recipe when she makes this pie. She talked this one to me as she worked, and I tried to get it down as faithfully as possible. Once you grasp the basic idea, you'll probably want to add your own twists." 3 1/2 cups flour 1/2 teaspoon baking powder Pinch of salt 2 quarts chicken meat and broth (see recipe above) 3 medium potatoes Chopped parsley, for garnish
Mix flour, baking powder and salt. Add just enough water to make a soft dough that can be rolled. With a rolling pin, roll the dough as thin as you can without it falling apart. Cut into squares about 1-by-2 inches.
Add the chicken meat to the broth and bring to a boil. Add the potatoes, peeled and cut into chunks. Allow to cook until the potatoes just begin to get tender. Now start adding the dough squares to the boiling broth, a few at a time, being sure to stir after each addition, so the squares won't stick together. Reduce the heat and allow to simmer until all is tender. Garnish with chopped parsley.
MARY HARTMAN'S CARROT GLAZE (Enough for 2 pounds of carrots)
"This is a sweet dressing for carrots that gives them a candied taste. You can adjust the sweetness by using more or less of the glaze. The carrots should be served piping hot." 1 cup water 6 tablespoons cornstarch 1 cup butter 1 cup light brown sugar 1 cup orange marmalade
Make a paste of the water and cornstarch. Melt the butter and mix it with the paste. Combine over heat with the sugar and marmalade. Pour the hot glaze over the cooked carrots and serve.
RASPBERRY OR SOUR CHERRY PUDDING (4 to 6 servings)
"The big joke at the inn is that all the recipes were my grandmother's, which of course they weren't. This one, though, actually did come from my grandmother. It's really more a cake than a pudding. Even though this year's season for fresh raspberries and sour cherries is over, I'm including it because it's a favorite of mine. And there's always next season. This pudding freezes well." 2 eggs 2 cups sugar 4 cups flour 1 teaspoon baking powder 2 cups milk 1 quart fresh raspberries or pitted sour cherries Vanilla ice cream or whipped cream, for serving
Beat eggs and sugar, then add flour, baking powder and milk. Mix well. Fold in fruit. Pour into a greased 9-by-13-inch baking pan. Bake 45 minutes at 350 degrees. Serve warm with vanilla ice cream or whipped cream.
GERMAN APPLE CAKE
"This cake is a great way to use fresh apples. Almost any variety will do; we usually use the golden delicious or the tart stayman. Apple cake can also be used as a breakfast or coffee cake." 3 cups flour 2 teaspoons baking soda 1 teaspoon salt 3 eggs 1 cup corn oil 2 cups sugar 1 cup chopped pecans or walnuts 2 teaspoons vanilla 3 cups chopped apples
Mix the flour, baking powder and salt in a large bowl. In another bowl, beat the eggs, oil and sugar, then add the nuts, vanilla and apples. Combine with the flour mixture, and pour batter into a greased 9-by-13-inch pan. Bake at 325 degrees for 1 hour or until the cake tests done.
Note: be sure to start this cake in a cold oven.