Allstonian and I were talking as we finished our dinners at the 52nd annual Bradford wild game supper, and we worked out that she started coming to this annual event with her parents somewhere around 25 years ago, and that I've been coming since 1997. As she said, she knew this was a family tradition, but she hadn't quite twigged just how traditional it was.
The Bradford wild game supper takes place every November on the Saturday before Thanksgiving at the UCC church on Main Street in the tiny town of Bradford VT, from approximately 2:30 to 7:30. (Call 802-222-4670 to get on the mailing list for next year. $25 per person, $12 for kids under 10.) Around mid-October, you receive an order form for the number of tickets you want (it invariably sells out well in advance), with instructions not to mail it back before a certain date, usually the Monday after Columbus Day. You get back a confirmation form in the mail, which tells you which of the hourly seatings (2:30, 3:30, 4:30, etc -- you can request first and second choices for seating) you're assigned to. When you get to the church, a lovely old-fashioned New England edifice, you come into the main hall and pick up your tickets, which are numbered in sequence and wait in the pews for your numbers to be called. There's a jumble sale in the back and usually a group of musicians playing near the front. Generally, there's about a half-hour wait until your numbers are called as part of a group of 25, who then troop down the stairs to the cafeteria in the basement.
Along one wall, unfailingly cheerful volunteers dish out small portions of about a dozen different game preparations. For example, venison chili con carne, moose patties, venison steak, bear roast, beaver roast, smoked wild boar, wild boar sausage, braised rabbit, rabbit pie (braised rabbit under a thick biscuit crust), a casserole of wild rice and pheasant, and wild game stuffing. (Every year, there's a special new dish -- this year, it was a meatloaf made mostly out of venison and boar.) Every item has a different colored and/or shaped toothpick stuck in it, and at the end of the line, you're handed a card with a key to what the toothpicks mean. This is useful for about the first two minutes, until you've accidentally knocked all the toothpicks across your plate and you have to just wing it.
More volunteers direct you to old-fashioned lunchtables, where you sit family style amidst platters of mashed potatoes, butternut squash, cole slaw and rolls, along with pitchers of homemade gravy and my favorite part of the entire spread, a wild game pate served with saltines. I usually eat an entire cupful of this stuff by myself. As you eat, volunteers keep your beverage glass filled with a local apple cider, and then when you're done, you're served at table with decaf coffee and a lovely slab of a very plain, old-fashioned, austere Yankee gingerbread.
After that, if you're Allstonian and I, you stumble back to your rental car -- laden with two pounds of fudge from the fudge ladies in a little stall near the door, along with a dozen of the dinner rolls which are in our freezer waiting for Thanksgiving -- and drive drowsily back down to White River Junction to your hotel...except for this year when we got rather insanely lost and ended up in a wide spot in the road called East Corinth, where we stopped at a combination gas station, deli and hunting/fishing shop where I asked one of three brothers who all bore a distinct resemblance to the heavily bearded comedian Zach Galifianakis which way back to Bradford and bought a bag of a surprisingly tasty rice cracker and wasabi pea mixture and a Sunkist Cherry Limeade. See, this is how the world has changed: I was born in the west Texas panhandle equivalent of East Corinth, Vermont, and I assure you, there was no way we could have bought rice crackers and wasabi peas at the Citgo station on the way out of Denver City back then. Personally, I welcome this sort of change.
Even over the 10 years I've been going on this weekend trip, it's evolved a bit, but there are certain essential stops along the way. First stop over the NH border on I93 is the state liquor store, where we stock up on booze for pretty much the rest of the year. (If you've been following another thread on the Spirits board, I went with the suggested E&J XO, thanks.) This is followed an hour or so later by lunch at Hart's Turkey Farm in Meredith, which is never an earth-shattering meal, but it's one of those places that is so successfully caught in a time warp and so comfortable in its stodgy old-fashionedness that I find it really endearing, and besides, the all-white meat turkey dinner with mash and butternut squash is my traditional warm-up for this Thursday, my favorite holiday of them all.
Now that the King Arthur Flour store in Norwich VT has opened a new location just behind the old one and is now open on Sundays, we've opened up our Saturday afternoon by shifting that annual stop to the Sunday morning. This is also nice because the store is all but empty at 8:45 on Sunday morning, which makes it much easier to shop. We also picked up a sticky bun, a cheese danish and a blueberry muffin to tide up over on the moderately lengthy drive down to breakfast at the Chelsea Royal Diner on Route 9 in West Brattleboro, VT. The Chelsea Royal is a moderately new replacement for our old breakfast destination, the Skyline Diner, halfway up Hogback Mountain on the way to Bennington, which is nowhere near its past glories. The Chelsea Royal is a solid, old-fashioned diner of a type I've always loved. This year, I went with a basic western omelet, which was just perfectly executed: a proper flat (not whipped full of air), moist (not over-browned) and perfectly filled (not overflowing) omelet served with some outstanding shredded hash browns. As many good to great breakfast spots as we have in Boston, I always look forward to this breakfast every year. Actually, I always look forward to this entire weekend every year: it's my favorite weekend of the year, without fail.