Unique 'Vermonter' somehow works as a sandwich

Ham, cheese, apple concoction has hallowed past as Burlington staple

Posted: Thursday, February 24, 2005

Korry KeekerJuneau Empire

There's this fuzzy memory I have of being back at the county fair a couple months, or maybe a year, after I graduated from high school. It seems like we were hanging out by one of those strongman poles - the type where you hit the bell with the hammer to gauge your strength.

The only thing notable about this particular recollection is it was a completely incongruous group of friends: myself; two close friends who seemed to be growing apart from each other; this random guy whose distinguishing characteristic was his inability to read; and this Hispanic kid whom none of us knew very well, but whom all of us regarded as the most logical, savvy person we knew.

This mismatch - five of us in a hayfield as dusk fell - should have made for an awkward silence. Instead, it was completely natural, as if we were starring in some young director's independently produced coming-of-age film about our lives.

I don't know what brought this memory on, other than I've been ruminating about The Vermonter - the catch-all surprise at the top of DocWater's sandwich menu.

I say surprise because I was reading the menu one weekday afternoon about two months ago when The Vermonter's description jumped out at me: ham, melted cheddar cheese, fried apples, apple butter and raisin bread.

I've been a fervent supporter of delis and sandwich shops all my life, but is this some kind of traditional fare with a rich historical background? I imagined a young Chester A. Arthur (the pride of Fairfield, Vt., and our nation's 21st president), crossing Lake Champlain in a ham-and-cheese canoe, with apples and raisins for the orphans of Grand Isle.

I assumed the Vermont Historical Society could tell me more.

"I've never heard of a sandwich of that type," said Bob Murphy, a researcher at the society's headquarters in Montpelier. "It's not a traditional sandwich."

That did little to explain the dozens of hits I received for the combination of "The Vermonter" and "sandwich" typed into Google.

At Basil Tree Catering in Somerville, Mass., The Vermonter is a roast turkey, cheddar and apple sandwich on cranberry bread. At Ken's American Cafe in Littleton, Mass., it's two eggs, any style, with bacon, sausage and three pancakes. At The Pizza Joint in Stowe, Vt., it's a specialty pizza with ever-changing ingredients. Tuesday's were broccoli, ham and pineapple on a multi-grain crust.

Such an incongruous assortment of ingredients. Perhaps the concept of a Vermonter is some sort of broad metaphysical observation on the state's inherent blend of functional utilitarianism?

As it turns out, The Vermonter was a specialty sandwich at Sweetwater's, a bar/restaurant in downtown Burlington, when DocWater's co-owner Jason Maroney attended The University of Vermont in the 1990s. He worked in the kitchen, and as a waiter.

"We were building the menu at DocWater's, and I was looking for something that you don't see everywhere else in town," Maroney said. "(The Vermonter) was something we could add that could provide a different element. Not a lot of people do things with apples.

"I've had people say it doesn't sound that appetizing. It doesn't to me either, to be honest with you. But it's that really unique combination of flavors that makes it appealing."

Sweetwater's uses Cabot cheddar, made by the Cabot Creamery in Montpelier. Of course, that's price-restrictive. DocWater's uses Tillamook. Otherwise, Juneau's Vermonter is practically the same as Burlington's. The ham is honey-smoked, the apples are either Gala or Red Delicious and the cinnamon-raisin bread is bought commercially and deliberately thick-cut to give the sandwich a "hearty structure," according to Maroney. The apple butter is made in-house, with maple syrup imported from one of his friends who owns a sugar farm in Vermont. (You may have also tasted the syrup in the baked beans.) The whole thing is grilled on the broiler.

In my first experience with The Vermonter, the sandwich was served closed, a daunting challenge. The last two times I've ordered it, it's arrived open-faced, making it appear a little less coy.

"When we first sat down, I wrote a draft of the menu, and The Vermonter was sort of on the back burner," Maroney said. "It's a much better fall sandwich, when we don't have the volume that we do in the summer. We sell quite a few of them, which has been neat to see. Nobody's ever heard of it, but there's been a pretty broad reception to it."

Indeed, it seems like this particular mismatch has no trouble getting along.

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