’tis a gift to be simple

Most people think “Shaker cooking” means simplicity, and though they are able to appreciate the aesthetic in architecture and furniture, when applied to cooking the ideal of simplicity suggests boring restrictions, as though a meager bowl of gruel would be the daily fare. Such assumptions could not be further from the truth. For the Shakers, “simplicity” in cooking came in the preparation: the use of their own freshly grown vegetables and herbs, novelty of combinations and their technological innovations — the revolving oven; corn sheller; apple peeler, corer and quarterer; taffy hook; egg skimmer; tin rising box, large enough to hold 40 loaves of dough; applesauce tub; double roller rolling pins (that cut rolling time in half); and even the flat broom.

They all helped to make the everyday chores of the kitchen more efficient, freeing time for creative pursuits that make a joy of cooking.

As far back as the early 1800s, the Shakers were cooking dishes that might easily appear on the most sophisticated menus of today: creamed radishes in a spinach mold, sweetbreads in a cider cream sauce, and baked oysters with pork sausages.

They had concocted an instant coffee mix for cold or hot weather, grape catsup and 49 different recipes for the apple.

I had the privilege of meeting the last Shakers to live at Canterbury, on my first visit to the village in 1975. Eldress Bertha sat elegantly dressed in her best Shaker attire in the hallway of the visitor’s center greeting the few tourists, who, like myself, had the good fortune to visit the community. I was amused and terribly flattered when the Eldress recognized me from my guest chef appearances on the Boston morning show “Good Day.” I hadn’t thought of Shakers watching television.

Some weeks later the Eldress invited me to a lunch: a blue flower chive omelet in a foldover pan, a score of yeast-risen squash biscuits and, for dessert, her remarkable rose water apple pie. Though she was in her late 80s, her cooking was completely on target. Even in her 90s, she took an active interest in the menus I created, with the able assistance of Chef Jeffrey Paige, after I was invited to cook at the village’s Creamery Restaurant. Using all the same foods, spices and herbs the Shakers had used, but in brand-new combinations, we eventually compiled our experiments in a book titled “Cooking in the Shaker Spirit.”

Sadly, the Shakers have all passed away from Canterbury Village now, but something in the spirit of their cooking has come to life again at the museum’s new restaurant, The Shaker Table.

The Shaker Table is housed in a historically sensitive replication of the old Church Family Blacksmith Shop, which was demolished in 1952. Under the general management of George Shattuck, Executive Chef Tim Dodd, sous chefs Chris Pasternak, Eric Whitten, Mike Woodward, and their most talented head baker, Debbie Durkee, will be continuing the Shaker tradition of innovative and simply delicious combinations.

It is my privilege to be assisting this talented team as menu and creative consultant, using our own homegrown organic produce with regionally supplied meats, poultry and dairy products to ensure a dining experience of the highest quality, served in a room of comfort and grace, with remarkable views that overlook the surrounding hillsides, Shaker fields, apple trees, and the inimitable architecture of the Canterbury Village.

The last of the Canterbury Shakers have all left the kitchen, but The Shaker Table will be picking up where they left off. NH