Ginny CallanApril 10,2005
Ginny Callan hasn't served up a plate of tofu cutlets with mushroom sauce since 1990, at least not in a restaurant. She sold her legendary Horn of the Moon Café in Montpelier, where those cutlets were a big seller and the business eventually passed into history.
But the restaurant and its founder/chef/owner lives on in the memories, taste buds and home libraries of thousands for whom it was the first experience of "natural" or vegetarian food. Callan had a 13-year run and locals of a certain age remember her restaurant fondly. You can now get vegetarian food in several places in Montpelier, but Callan's was the first. Now in her fifties, she is still full of the pep and drive that made her a successful businesswoman. Only she spends her working days involved in the social activism that brought her from New York City to Vermont (Goddard College) in the first place.
The restaurant started small, growing out of a sandwich business that she and a friend had started. It opened in 1977 in a small, cramped building on East State Street. It seated about 15 people and grew as locals became aware of it. Montpelier was not considered a prime restaurant location then. Today's local dining choices are almost Parisian by contrast. Callan started by offering cheese, black beans, sprouts, humus, lentils and other exotics, but the menu got larger and better. It graduated into fresh breads and vegetable lasagnas.
Once in high gear, Horn of the Moon became a hotspot for vegetarians and political progressives. If you ate at Horn of the Moon, you probably also shopped for seitan and yogurt at a food co-op, voted Democratic or worse, didn't trust anything remotely connected to nuclear power (Does the name Seabrook ring a bell?) and habitually felt like making the world a better place to live.
Callan says the restaurant really started to take off in 1979. That was the year it was moved to Langdon Street. Customer capacity increased to 50. Even non-vegetarians became regulars. They learned to use raw brown sugar in their coffee and enjoy whole-grain bread and tempeh recipes. Even thick vegetable stews, Eastern flavors and tahini-based sauces became a draw for omnivores. Callan was learning, too, she says. She didn't have a food background, but she did have a knack for cooking, and for listening to patrons. She liked the social side of running a restaurant as well as the cooking side.
Restaurants are hard, though.
If she had listened to the people with money, she would never have gotten into the business. She got some advice from the Small Business Administration when she came looking for a loan.
"They asked how much money I had," she said in a recent interview. "'Three thousand,' I told them," she said. "'Three thousand? … Don't even try unless you have at least $10,000,' they said." But she went ahead and started slicing and dicing, anyway. "It was pretty seat-of-the- pants in those days," she said. Her first full-scale entrée was a corn and cheese chowder with a tabouli salad. It was a hit, and until she sold the Horn in 1990 it was on the menu every May 2, the café's anniversary.
Callan and her restaurant became local institutions. The place had political and culinary spark. The café was a place to gather – a center for what Callan now calls "socialness." It wouldn't, she suggested, have been worth doing otherwise.
Not only did her friends and socio-political bedfellows show up on Langdon Street every day, but Callan learned a lot more about vegetarian cuisine, restaurant management, keeping the health inspector happy and hiring waitstaff and dishwashers. She also wrote a couple of cookbooks and stayed active and involved in social causes.
She learned to make bagels "because there was no place to get them around here," and tried recipes her friends and patrons suggested.
For the longest time, the restaurant staff multi-tasked. "If we needed more help to wait tables, people did that. Dishwashing … the same."
The café wasn't universally applauded. Politics aside, it would be fair to say Horn of the Moon might be remembered more for its robust breakfasts than its fine desserts. But it did have ice cream. Callan remembers serving it according to how well the freezer was working. "If the Hagen Daaz was soft enough to scoop, the Ben & Jerry's was hard as a rock. … You learn," she said.
But after more than a decade, Callan called it quits. Not because she was sick and tired of running the Horn of the Moon. Rather, she says, it was just time to move on to something else. "It was time to pull back. I wanted to be with family.
"The restaurant was always my baby, but parenthood, actual parenthood, gave me different priorities," she said.
She had married in 1981 and then the children arrived. Nothing gobbles time like running a business, unless it's raising kids. The camaraderie she enjoyed as a byproduct of operating the restaurant became secondary, Callan says. She moved on.
She went to work for the Vermont Cancer Society, and a year and a half later she found what she calls "a perfect outlet" for her energies in the New England Grassroots Environment Fund. She calls it a "small grants program for New England activists." Now she travels the region helping environmental and social projects get organized and find funding. She still keeps her hand in cooking, though, and has been working – at a slow walk, she admitted – on a third cookbook.
Steven Wallach is a Times Argus reporter and editor.
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