Even if you haven't ever been to Vermont, you've got some Green Mountains in your mind. I know you do. There's that image of a town with candles in windows. There are those trees tapped for sugaring. And there's that swirling nighttime snow.
Up-north country store images pop to mind as easily as anything: the pot-bellied stove, the barrels of pickles and crackers, the ring of pipe-puffers huddled around jawing about the dopey things city folk do. The Vermont Country Store is one of the few places left which remember how these village stores were ground zero for both socializing and shopping -- even though it now sells most of its products via catalog and online.
When Vrest Orton started the business in 1946, he tried to bring back whatever products he could find from the North Calais, Vt. store the family had run in the late 19th century. This makes The Vermont Country Store the first "restored rural store in the nation" and, you'd bet, one of the inspirations behind Restoration Hardware and other big-time hawkers of nostalgia.
Since The Vermont Country Store goes by the principle that everything sold "must be useful, work and make sense," I thought it might be fun to test out a typical selection of their old time products to see if they're as good as -- or better -- than some contemporary brand-names found in Wal-Mart or CVS. (Note: Not all of the following are guaranteed to be in-stock.)
Here's a hot-off-the-stove report:
1. Scottie Dog Licorice Tin
Scottish Terriers are big here at The Vermont Country Store. Click the Scottie Dog Licorice Tin on the store's website, and it used to inform you that "You might also like our Lanz of Salzburg Scottie dog pajamas in 100% cotton flannel or our Magnetic Scottie Tricky Dogs." You can't have too many dog-themed products I say, and when a friend of mine tried feeding one of these little black licorice treats to her West Highland Terrier, it was eagerly snarfed down without any breed jealousy. I liked the taste, too, though some of the candies are slightly disfigured and there's a too-soft Gummy Bear texture. Compared to the Twizzlers name-brand licorice I tried, the Scotties are spicier. The shiny tartan tin should keep these Scotties fresh for years to come, unless you discover (like me) that you've reached the bottom of the one-pound container in a couple of hours.
2. Vinolia Boracic & Cold Cream Bath Soap
Loaded with cold cream and some stuff that you can't pronounce ("boracic" is British for boric acid), Vinolia brags that it was the one and only bath bar supplied to first-class cabins aboard the Titanic. "Some marketing angle," snapped my wife as she filled our tub for a showdown versus Dove and Camay. "It's probably unlucky soap." As things turned out, Vinolia lathered better, felt smoother and had a much less sickly scent than either of its modern competitors. And while Titanic passengers had only a couple of days to benefit from Vinolia's complexion-pampering formula, Kathy's now convinced that this mammoth (5.9 oz.) slab is worth ordering again -- if it ever runs out. (An extra bonus: Since boric acid kills ants, it should keep the bathroom insect free.)
3. Original Bozo the Clown 3-D Bop Bag
Okay, so this isn't your classic country store item. Last seen in the 1960s, not 1860s, Bozo's still a lot more interesting than a canvas punching bag you might find at Sports Authority, so I couldn't resist. It took me almost an hour to huff and puff Bozo into prime boxing condition, but once I did he measured up at an imposing 46" tall and it was a pleasure to nail him again and again on his squeaky "3-D" nose. Take that! My cats, Emily and Betty, enjoyed the sound of Bozo's sand-filled base and the base swung him upright again and again to receive even more punches. Wait! Betty, stop. Bozo isn't a scratching post! Pop. Warning: Be sure to keep Bozo the Clown 3-D Bop Bag away from household pets.
4. Hobo Soup
According to legend (okay, the story's on the can label), Hobo Soup was discovered in 1953 by a small-town newspaper reporter from Minnesota who was scouring hobo camps in search of a story. Instead, he got soup: this almost frosting-thick concoction of beans, more beans, potatoes, bacon, carrots, tomatoes, celery, onions and turnips. Yep, I know hobos are hungry, very hungry, and it's key that a good hobo soup stick to the ribs. But, ulp, all this mush topped off with the "Added Smoke Flavoring" kind of got to me partway through the 15-oz. can. This is sure to bring angry letters from hobos coast-to-coast, but I ended up preferring the Campbell's Select "Vegetable Medley" that I tried. A boring soup, but no Navy beans and, well, the stuff slides down.
5. Ipana Wintergreen Toothpaste
This tasty old-fashioned toothpaste pretty much went off the radar after the 1970s and I, for one, am glad it's back. Hate to brush? Using Ipana Wintergreen Toothpaste is a bit like cleaning your teeth with a Life Saver. I'm told that some Ipana fans have to remind themselves not to swallow, though to be honest I don't recommend eating it. It's hard to find any other wintergreen flavored pastes, so I took a crack at comparing Ipana to Crest "Cool Peppermint" paste. Although the tube tells you it's full of the same stuff Crest is, including sorbitol, hydrated silica, fluoride and the like, Ipana foams a lot less in your mouth and, hey... I wonder if they make this stuff in butterscotch or wild cherry?
Peter Mandel went to Vermont's Middlebury College and his family is originally from Montpelier. He's an author of picture books for kids, including his read-aloud bestseller: Jackhammer Sam (Macmillan/Roaring Brook), and his newest about zoo animals passing on a very noisy sneeze: Zoo Ah-Choooo (Holiday House).