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A chef's Thanksgiving

Three decades of cooking hasn't dulled innkeeper Sissy Hicks's taste for turkey sandwiches

There isn't any way that Sissy Hicks hasn't thought of to use up leftover turkey. She has so many plans for it that the day after Thanksgiving at the Dorset Inn in Vermont - after staying up half the night to roast free-range turkeys raised nearby - she starts all over again. She needs the leftovers.

Cutting off a knob of butter for her cast-iron skillet, Hicks begins building the ultimate club sandwich, made with turkey, of course. She layers Vermont Cheddar cheese and sliced turkey onto two thick slices of bread. Bacon and tomatoes go into the center, then she closes the sandwich and transfers it to the skillet. When the bottom is golden, she flips the sandwich over and transfers the skillet to a hot oven until the Cheddar melts over the moist white meat and the whole thing is a big, crusty, messy joy to eat. "It's also great with stuffing in the middle," says Hicks.

Hicks, 49, has been cooking at the Dorset Inn in Dorset since 1983. As innkeeper, she also oversees the Dorset's 31 rooms. She was a chef across the road at the Barrows House when she heard that the Dorset Inn was for sale. She and a small group of partners bought the place (she's sole owner now) and transformed the 1796 house. It used to be three buildings, two of which she sold off.

When the construction crew arrived, they came in with their equipment and couldn't figure out how to level the old floors. "After two hours, the levelers went out," says Hicks. They left the original pine floors intact, creaks and all.

She went to salvage companies all over Vermont and found an old bar, which was installed in the room beside the dining room. She bought a tin ceiling and made a dark, clubby room where the locals hang out and eat supper. "It's like the hub of the community," says Hicks.

And Hicks, with only one other cook, is running the whole show. "My menu is based on what I can do myself," she says. The Dorset Inn hosts lots of private parties, and all winter it's open Wednesday to Sunday for dinner (plus Friday, Saturday, and Sunday for lunch). She offers lunches because many of the locals, an older clientele, no longer drive at night.

She cooks the kind of old-fashioned food they like. "You serve the basic food," she says, "you serve good quality, and people always come back. We do everything from scratch, even corned beef hash. A lot of people come for my style."

That style includes Welsh rabbit, the cheese sauce made with beer and dry mustard served over toast. She likes to steam mussels in white wine, wrap tenderloin in puff pastry for the classic Wellington, glaze corned beef and cabbage in a pot with root vegetables, and grate local sharp Cheddar for New England cheese chowder.

"I make all my own stocks. My own jams. If the dishwasher doesn't show up, I wash the dishes."

She has always worked at this pace, she says. Raised on a dairy farm in Chester County, Pennsylvania, Hicks found this southern corner of Vermont when she was 22. "I came up to ski. I'd never been to Vermont before - and I never left." She began as a chambermaid at the Barrows House, then began helping prepare vegetables. She knew nothing about cooking. "I started doing a lot more in the kitchen. Then they lost the chef." Hicks took over.

What she knows about cooking, she says, came from Marilyn Schubert, Barrows's innkeeper at the time. After 10 years, Joe Allen, a guest who stayed at the inn often and who owned the Joe Allen restaurants, hired Hicks away. She worked in London, New York, and Los Angeles on and off for two years, then headed back to the Barrows House. That was when she heard about the Dorset being on the market.

Last year, after 27 years at the stove, Hicks put her recipes together in a self-published book, Flavors From the Heart: The Dorset Inn Cookbook. It's her home-style cooking, and she includes dishes based on leftovers. She uses the corned beef and roast beef the following day not only because she's thrifty but because she thinks some of the great dishes in the world are based on what's in the fridge.

Thanksgiving offers lots of leftovers. "It's one of my favorite dinners," she says. She likes the local turkeys she gets. "I roast 10 20-pound turkeys with Pepperidge Farm stuffing. I add mushrooms, onions, and celery. I cook all night."

She does her own cranberry sauce, broccoli, green beans, succotash, candied yams. She bakes pumpkins for pies and does an apple cranberry crisp as well. About 200 people come through the inn that day.

By 8:30 p.m., she's so tired and hungry, she has to sit down and eat dinner. But after all those turkeys, she can't touch any. "I always feel like a good bottle of wine," she says. With it go the vegetables. Then pie.

The next day, she gets into the kitchen early. "I have to cook a turkey," she says, "just for sandwiches."

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