Q: What is the hardest part of being an innkeeper for you?
A: A lot of people think that innkeeping is great fun like the restaurant business, meeting new people. You are, but you're serving these people and you're running around. We have seven working fireplaces. That means if all seven people come in at approximately the same time, you have to get all seven fires going while they are on dessert. You have to run around and do the turn-down service for all the rooms. They ask 1,500 questions and it's very hard to keep your cool when the phones are ringing and you know you have to be here and there.
Nothing could have prepared us for all the crazy things that happen when you run your own business. If the water pipe breaks -- and they never break on Monday morning, they break on Saturday evening -- luckily Abe is one of those fix-it people. Talk about "Newhart" (the prime-time television show about a country inn). We laugh every time we see that because we're so much like that. (People) think that running around is glamorous -- on television. The groundskeeper comes rushing into our office and says the battery's dead on such and such and Abe goes rushing out and gets that under control. The fresh fish didn't come in, they sent the wrong something else. It's a constant flow of things to do and problems to meet.
And yet, you may be just absolutely dead when you go to bed, but you've really felt like you've done something. We are serving a much younger clientele than we had expected. They are the high-tech couples and are busy with business during the work week and they're here to just be quiet and get ahold of themselves. They don't want a television or radio. They don't want all the trappings. You'll see them walking along the meadow, arms around each other. They just get to know each other better. They curl up under a tree with books.
The more you get into computers and the high-tension lifestyle, the more important it is to have more places to just lay back. People get inside and they say it's like going back 100 years. People pay good money to be away from their children so that they could kind of fall in love again.
Q: You say, "I cook because I love people," in the preface of your cookbook. Is that prevalent in the Mennonite tradition?
A: Food plays a very important part of the Mennonite and the Amish tradition, because they are basically a plain people. They put their best foot forward, express their pride in the food they entertain with. My family was very conscious about food preparation. If it was good enough to put in the jar, it had to be the best. They didn't realize it but it was almost considered an art form. To have a beautiful jar to look at was just as important as the taste. When we set a table, the plates and silverware had to be just right.
In our family the men knew an awfully lot about food. My father and uncle had a butcher shop and they both handled the kitchen and all of the housekeeping chores from the age of 12, because my grandmother had gotten ill. They learned very early in life how important it was to have the proper taste. That rubbed off on all of us.
Q: How did that work with your family and your uncle's family, sharing food and monies?
A: Sharing their whole life. It's probably one of the only successful communities I've ever known. My grandmother had started the butcher business because of my grandfather's accident -- he lost all of his fingers in the corn machinery. He had to do something that didn't require milking cows. The two brothers -- my father and his brother -- worked together all those years. Everything was happening at the farmhouse. The butcher shop was there, the customers. One pok controlled actually three families for awhile.
It was an awfully lot of give and understanding. We were treated just as one family. It was, "You take care of your cousin." Each one set an example for the other. The groceries, the money that was spent was always spent openly. One person didn't go out on a binge.
Each of the women, -- my mother and my aunt -- when they inherited or made money doing little things like selling baked goods, that money was theirs. My family had a big thing about keeping the "ladies' money," as my father always called it. He took the responsibility when he got married -- supporting his wife. So, the monies coming from her side were hers. That stems back to generations before when both sides of my family were very well- to-do. My great-grandfather got carried away and spent his money foolishly and then lost what was left in the Depression. A hard lesson to learn. But my family said, it's not going to happen again. As long as one person has money, and as long as we don't have to have it to survive, we will make it. And so, my mother's money was invested in case the children would need it.
Q: How many lived in the same farmhouse?
A: Eight including the hired hand. We all worked together from breakfast on. We canned and baked together. We were kind of specialized. My aunt made the pies and my mother would do the cakes. The oldest person never did the stand-up hard-work lifting jobs. Ladies were highly respected in our family and we always had respect for the elders. I feel bad that it's gone now. No one would have started to lift a fork until grandpa came to the table.
Q: What happened the night Craig Claiborne came to the restaurant?
A: Well, when I first started we served only 12 or more. Some local people heard about it and one of these gals called me one night and said, "Betty, I'd like to bring a very important guest to dinner tomorrow night." And I said, "Well, I'm sorry, we only serve 12." She said, "But this is a very important friend," and I said, "Everybody's friends are important, but I'm a housewife and a mother and I can't open for four." Finally, they came with 12. Everything was done the way I still do it today, only I was using my own wedding crystal and china at the dinner. For the first five years we used all of our own things until we got so busy that we knew we had to get matching china.
These two men came in, one carrying a camera, the typical tourist. That didn't bother me. All of a sudden he came over and in his kind, quiet voice, he said, "Could I see your kitchen? I'd like to know what's cooking tonight."
We went in the kitchen and I showed him the sugar peas and he said, "Those are snow peas." I said, "No, they're sugar peas. Snow peas are longer and wider, but sugar peas are sweeter and smaller. And they've been passed down from generation to generation ever since the first settlers."
He said, "chicken and corn noodle soup, that's really unusual. I'm anxious to taste it." I showed him the ham and he said, "How do you scrub that ham and how do you peel it." He just kept going from one thing to the next. He'd never heard of sweet potato croquettes, one of my family's favorites and something that you did for company. I had done chicken pot pie and he look at the Italian pasta machine and he said, "Yeah, I knew about those machines." And I thought, how does this guy know all this stuff?
They seated him at the end of the table and he asked if he could be served first. From then on in, we just had laughter and fun. I served the dinner and we just talked about history and food. He was taking notes now and then but it never occurred to me what was happening until he was finished.
He asked to have his picture taken, a picture of the boys and I, but that didn't bother me. Lots of people did that. Then he came over and said, "You have to share this with the rest of the world because this is a very unique experience." And I said, "If I can't make money (serving) 12, how can I do it for less than 12?" And he said, "After I write the story, you will not have a problem with less than 12. You don't know who I am, do you?" I said, no.
Q: Where did you get the idea to open the inn?
A: I wanted this place from the first year we opened the restaurant. We were farming another five years. We didn't have any credit at that time. It's tough starting a farm. But it's like everybody would be a multi- millionaire if they had $10,000 to invest the day they were married.
Everybody kept saying, "You should have a place for people to stay, buy that inn." We said, "Are you out of your mind, in this energy shortage? It's full of windows." And we came in, fell in love with it and bought it.
Q: How long did it take to restore it?
A: We started in May and opened in August. We had as high as 24 people working every day: 14 painters, 7 carpenters, the electricians.
Q: Many inns begin when a couple or two are partners, operate the inns themselves and as they become more successful they turn it over to key managers. How do you operate your inn?
A: Oftentimes a couple that has tired of the rat race goes into innkeeping to be independent. We are not at that point. We have two key ladies that we call managers -- they don't take care of the bottom line. The chef manages the kitchen and Abe is here every day.
Q: What kind of letters do you get from the readers of your cookbook?
A: I got letters from all over the United States saying, "My mother used to cook and I left home and I didn't have any of the recipes and she's gone." When my mother was ill I took the letters down for her and she got so emotional that she couldn't read more than a few at a time.
She was an excellent cook. I never got awake without hearing my mother singing in the kitchen. If she was doing the laundry in the basement I would hear her sing. She was always the person that, when you were making food, she was talking about how much we were going to enjoy it. Every young person gravitated to my mother. She could talk to a teen-ager. The secret -- she always asked a question and let them do the talking.
When she was doing food she'd show you why you do it a certain way. I'll never forget, I was doing chocolates, first time. She was ill and I wanted to really surprise her. I put the chocolate just like I thought she did but I had turned the burner up too high and it just crumbled and got awful. I knew how expensive chocolate was and I was feeling so bad and finally in tears I came in and I said to my mother, "I've just wasted over a half pound of chocolate. It's just all crumbled, what did I do?" And she said, "Now don't worry about it. I forget to tell you. You have to turn the burner low so that not a drop of steam gets in." I'm sure she didn't forget to tell me. She was just that kind of person. She only spanked me once but I never told a lie to her again.
Q: Describe your mother's kitchen?
A: It was chestnut wood and cupboards from top to bottom and she always had the ability to arrange things so that they'd be where they should be. This was long before you had lessons on how to do this. She had the sink closest to the window with the best view and then right behind it was a round kitchen table. You could sit there and watch the Amish people farming across on the other hill. We had the most beautiful view of the mountains over the one side and the other view was our meadow which wound around and was the old swimming hole.
The kitchen was simple but it was just absolutely immaculate and the tile on the floor was white with a blue edge, and then the light was a white light with a blue border. We had a little bulletin board and tiny little mirror -- just to check to see if your hair was in good shape before you took off for school. And a couple of calendars. All the farm people had calendars hanging on the wall. And there were my brother's favorite picture and my favorite picture.
There were cupboards on the other side just to match, and baking boards. And you could move the round table into the center to work so that we could both work around and make the doughnuts. Some of my earliest memories were making doughnuts and covering them with a nice tablecloth so that they could rise while the sun shone through the window.
Q: Are you still a Mennonite?
A: We're Presbyterian now. The Mennonites were a very strong- willed, opinionated group of church people. Very earthy. Very, very conservative.
When we bought the inn, we went for a liquor license because we knew that in the middle of 15 acres, people wanted a bottle of wine. For a few years the Mennonites knew that we gave people tastes of homemade wine at our restaurant. And many of them were our fellow Mennonite people. A lot of them were ministers. Some of them did taste. The Mennonite always said that wine was for medicinal purposes. I would always laugh and say that's why everybody has colds in the winter.
We felt that the church had grown and they would not put someone out of the church (for serving liquor).
They told us that they couldn't give us communion. They said they would ask us to leave. We said we wouldn't. We're not going to leave the church because there was nothing in the scripture that said that you couldn't have a drink. It was the abuse. Therefore it was not scriptural. They used the fact that it was a church family and church rules have the opportunity to tell you when and when not. So they chose to not give us communion.
The very next week we went over to the Presbyterian Church. I always said that my uncle was very much on the cutting edge of the church. He was always ahead of his time in his thinking. When I had a problem with the plain dress, he'd say, "Betty, it's people that don't understand, it's not the church. Don't blame the church. You can look so plain and drab and you can act like you're very pious but if you can't live it inside and if you can't live it then it isn't worth a hoot."
I'm not bitter. Sometimes I still want to cry a little bit and you'll catch me saying "we" when I'm talking about the Mennonites. I can't stop talking that way because I've been a Mennonite all my life. I guess I'm a Mennonite in Presbyterian.