Blue Plate Special: A touch of class: The Trail TOC diner
Bonnie Brown of the Trail TOC Diner on Rt 2 in Shelburne makes her Baked Potato Caserole.
Baked Potato Caserole from the Trail TOC Diner in Shelburne
The Trail TOC Diner on Route 2 in Shelburne is a bright space. The walls are a vivid green; the menus come in day-glow tones.
The proprietress, Bonnie Brown, tends to sport bright colors as well. On the day I visited her nails were painted a vivid gold with multi-colored specks.
Brown’s mood is bright as well. Despite putting in 12 to 14 hours seven days a week at the diner, she wouldn’t want to be anywhere else.
“I just love what I do!” she said between bites as she nibbled on a late lunch across the counter from me one afternoon after closing the diner, which serves breakfast and lunch.
“I love meeting people, and I love to cook. People who know me say (the business) is ME. I just want someplace homey where you can get a homemade meal.”
Brown grew up “kind of all over” but often seemed to end up in New England. Her mother was in the food business and tried to discourage her daughter from embarking on a culinary career.
Brown cooked anyway.
“I have been in the food business probably for 35 years,” she said. “I’ve done everything from being an executive chef to swabbing the decks.”
A few years ago, after camping at Springbrook Campground in Shelburne, she decided to make Franklin County her home. “I just fell in love with Greenfield and Colrain and Shelburne,” she said.
She began by catering under the name “Touch of Class” (the “TOC” in the diner’s name). She briefly ran a small restaurant, “TOC of the Town” in Greenfield, before settling a little over four years ago into the diner on the Mohawk Trail. She continues to cater even as she runs the diner.
Brown has some part-time help, but she is often the only person working at the diner. Aside from Christmas Day, her yearly holiday, her business has been closed for only seven days in the four years she has been open — most recently when she had surgery for a tendon problem that forced her to cook with only one arm for a while.
“I never take a vacation ’cause I hate the idea of closing the doors,” she said with a sigh.
During major snowstorms Brown keeps the diner open 24 hours a day for the people operating the snow plows. She curls up to sleep in one of the diner’s booths and if necessary uses flashlights to light the eatery.
“I did Cub Scouts (with my son) for 12 years so I’m prepared,” she explained cheerfully.
The Trail TOC Diner features daily breakfast and lunch specials. Although Brown doesn’t feel comfortable cooking vegan or gluten-free dishes she is generally flexible about honoring the requests of her patrons.
“I always tell the customers, ‘If you want something, and it’s not on the menu, ask. If I have the ingredients, I’ll make it,’” she noted. She happily takes orders on the telephone so her customers can enjoy their food as soon as they get to the diner.
Her desire to please customers extends to opening the diner on Thanksgiving Day, where she prepares a classic holiday meal for customers who don’t have a large family or don’t want to cook.
The dish Brown made for photographer Paul Franz and me is one of her lunch specials, a rich potato casserole inspired by the stuffed potatoes so popular at country fairs.
“For me, fair time can be any time of year,” she said. She encourages home cooks to add any item they like either in the casserole or as a garnish to “stuff” this comfort food even more.
BAKED POTATO CASSEROLE
for the casserole
3 red onions, sliced paper thin
3 pounds broccoli, chopped into 1-inch pieces and parboiled
1-1/2 pounds cooked, diced bacon
butter as needed for sautéing
6 medium potatoes, thinly cut
2-1/2 pounds cheddar-jack cheese
salt and pepper to taste (the salt should be very light)
for the cream sauce
1 cup (2 sticks) butter
1/2 cup flour
salt and pepper to taste
1 dash dry mustard
1 pint heavy cream
1 quart milk
for the garnish:
sour cream and crumbled bacon
Preheat the oven to 350 degrees. In a frying pan or skillet sauté the onions, the broccoli, and the bacon pieces in a little butter until they are warm.
In a large casserole dish layer the ingredients in this order: potato slices, onion/broccoli/bacon mixture, cheddar–jack cheese, salt and pepper.
Next, make the cream sauce. Melt the butter. Whisk in the flour, salt, pepper, and dry mustard. Continue whisking over low heat for a minute or so; then slowly whisk in the cream and milk.
With the end of a spoon poke at least 12 holes in the mixture in the casserole dish. Drizzle the sauce over the top so that it covers and flows into the other ingredients.
Bake the casserole for 1 hour. Cover it for the first 1/2 hour and then uncover it so that it will brown and bubble.
Each serving should be garnished with 1 teaspoon of sour cream and a bit of crumbled bacon. Bonnie Brown says that this serves 4 — but for home consumption I would suggest serving 8 as a main dish or 12 as a side dish.