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Cookbook serves up Blueberry Hill memories

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By MEGAN JAMES

BRANDON — Laurey Master-ton was 12 years old in 1966 when her parents died and she and her sisters moved from Blueberry Hill Inn in Goshen to New York City. But her memories of the tiny mountain town, especially of her mother’s kitchen, are as rich as her sour cream biscuits, still hot from the oven.

Now the owner of a successful catering company and restaurant in Asheville, North Carolina, Laurie’s Catering and Gourmet-to-Go, Masterton returned to Vermont last week to share excerpts from her new book, “Elsie’s Biscuits: Simple Stories of Me, My Mother and Food,� at the Brigg’s Carriage Bookstore in Brandon. In September, she plans to visit the Vermont Book Shop in Middlebury for another author event.

Masterton’s parents, Elsie and John Masterton, owned and operated the Blueberry Hill Inn from the early ’40s to the mid-’60s. Elsie, a gourmet chef, ran the restaurant, cooking every part of every meal for her guests. In her spare time, she wrote cookbooks peppered with stories.

Masterton’s book is similar. More than a cookbook, it is a celebration of food, family and rural Vermont, a collection of short stories, from tales of trout fishing in Goshen to catering disasters in Asheville.

To whet her readers’ appetite in the prologue, she serves up a story about catering for the cast and crew of “Prairie Home Companion� when the public radio show visited her North Carolina town last year. A longtime fan of Garrison Keillor’s, she recalls giddily stumbling into his dressing room before the show, introducing herself and then blurting out the details of her forthcoming book.

Before she knew it, she had explained to him the origin of both her names: Laurey, as in the protagonist from the musical “Oklahoma� — her father had been reading a review of the show while her mother was in the delivery room — and Masterton, a Scottish name meaning master of the town. Keillor was so charmed by this chatty fan, he dedicated the intermission sing-along to her, the whole audience singing “O-K-L-A-H-O-M-A� in her honor.

She took this as a sign that something good was going to happen. And sure enough when the show was over, Masterton got a call from her agent; she wanted to publish “Elsie’s Biscuits.�

The rest of Masterton’s stories return to Blueberry Hill. At the reading on Thursday, she shared a chapter about the Fourth of July.

The anticipation of the holiday at the inn was almost unbearable for Masterton, the youngest of three sisters, who remembers waiting all day to see the fireworks at the Brandon Training School. In the story, she is eight years old, and her parents have made her a deal: She can stay up to go to the firework show as long as she takes a nap in the afternoon.

She didn’t sleep a wink during that nap, she recalled, just counted the seconds and fantasized about the minute-long stream of explosions she knew awaited her in the show’s finale.

After the nap, there was only one thing on her agenda: Make it through dinner with the inn’s guests.

“At a snail’s pace, my mother cooked shrimp tempura,� Masterton recalled. “And then at a crawl, it seemed, the guests got up, moved into the dining room and one guest at a time, helped themselves to my sisters’ offerings of my mother’s salads and her sour cream biscuits.�

She remembered endless courses: chicken baked in wine, noodles with sherry, tomatoes drenched in herbs, broccoli drizzled with brown butter, “which my father served ever so slowly, his movements seeming to say, ‘What’s the rush?’�

They would finish off with fruit compote and blueberry pie and countless other decadent desserts.

Finally, the family and a few guests would pile into a car and barrel down the eight miles of dirt roads to Brandon, reaching the training school fields just in time as the sun went down.

Brandon only had a few thousand residents at that time, Masterton said, but the small show was more than she could have dreamed.

“A spring of Roman candles lit off,� she said. “A few red, oval rings of stars flashed, some screaming orange things whirled around us dropping tiny cinders onto our heads. I burrowed into my mother’s lap, waiting for those painful white ‘kablam’ things that usually made me cry.�

In the book’s title story, Masterton recalls the most lasting memory of her mother’s kitchen: the way she made biscuits.

“My hands now make my mother’s biscuits,� she said. “And when they do, it is as if she were inside me, guiding my hands, making me move. I know, of course, that they are my hands. But when I look down, they could very well be hers.�

Masterton describes the loving process her mother went through to make those biscuits, a treat she provided her guests every single night.

Whenever she made those biscuits, she would first remove her wedding ring and hang it on a nail on the upright support at the side of the faded yellow work counter her husband had built when they were just getting started at the inn.

“It was not a perfect counter,� Masterton said. “It was very homemade. But it worked well enough, and it had been made with love, and it had a nail just to hold her ring while she made biscuits.�

Masterton loved watching her mother make those biscuits. She watched as she used a two-knife method to cut the flour and margarine together to make “cornsnow.� Then she would mix in milk and sour cream to make them light.

Masterton’s job was to cut the biscuits out of the dough, a duty she took very seriously.

“I was thrilled every night to be a part of it,� she said. “I grinned, catching my mother’s eye. I was a big help, I could see.�

If she sat very quietly, she said, she could often stay next to her mother’s counter past her bed-time, almost always long enough to get a couple of biscuits back from the dining room, still warm, “my mother’s biscuits, made by her and me,� she said.

“Now I do it all, just me. I measure, mix, pat, scrape, coax, flour, cut, shape and line up and then I bake and serve. Just me. Just me and my mother’s hands. Just us.�

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