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“Could we grow fava beans?”
Dylan Kennedy, Shaker Village of Pleasant Hill’s farm manager, smiles thoughtfully at the question posed to him by David Larson, vice president of operations. “I’ve never grown fava beans before, but I’ll definitely look into it,” Kennedy replies. “I love them!”
This sort of exchange was very much the theme of my recent afternoon spent with Larson and Kennedy. The pair make up both ends of the seed-to-table movement at Shaker Village—a dedication to serving what is harvested from the soil of the Shakers to those lucky guests dining at The Trustees’ Table restaurant. Kennedy is a relatively new member of the team at Pleasant Hill, and he clearly is the right man for the job of overseeing the development and day-to-day operations of the farm.
We are sitting in the dining room of The Trustees’ Table, sun slicing through the clouds and pouring in the tall, narrow windows, washing the stark brick walls with light. There is a calmness and simplicity of place that takes over the air when you enter the grounds of Shaker Village. Adornments and decoration are minimal, in keeping with the Shakers’ devotion to a peaceful and honest-to-goodness way of life. Embellishment is purely unnecessary, however, as the straight lines and uncomplicated, flawless structure of the buildings peppering the undulating landscape present an idyllic picture.
The Shakers of central Kentucky formed the Pleasant Hill community in 1805, and their knack for discerning and perceptive farming practices soon became an object of admiration throughout the region. Their morals, trade and general way of life have been immortalized in the present-day Shaker Village, and this same devotion to perfection in the form of simplicity can be found in the food served at The Trustees’ Table.
Larson spoons house-made coleslaw into a small bowl as he tells me about the history of the restaurant. The coleslaw is a signature dish of The Trustees’ Table and a recipe that has been used since the dining hall’s opening in 1968. Larson speaks of Elizabeth Kremer, the kitchen’s first chef, with great veneration. She laid a foundation that honored the Shaker heritage, establishing a mission of excellence in both cooking and serving the food. The focus has always been to serve good, plain food that is nicely prepared and served hospitably.
Do not let the word “plain” fool you, however. There is nothing bland about the recipes handed down and the food cooked at The Trustees’ Table. The focus is on the ingredients provided to the kitchen, which Kennedy has grown using biodynamic practices, the concept of homesteading ever present.
The coleslaw is a model of this practice, which, based upon appearance alone, is a seemingly standard recipe. The brightness and vinegary bite are anything but ordinary, however, and I find myself quickly going back for more. The carrots and cabbage from the garden are tossed in a boiled dressing—egg yolks and vinegar spun together in boiling water with a touch of cream to round out the edges. This is a dressing of the South and a method that has been used for centuries. The coleslaw pairs perfectly with the warm-from-the-oven corn bread served alongside, the sweetness of the corn bread a perfect counterpoint to the bite of the coleslaw.
Following the coleslaw and corn bread, we are served a largely traditional Southern lunch—fried chicken, corn pudding and beans—along with The Trustees’ Table’s signature salsify casserole, a cheesy and crumbly blend of this relatively obscure root vegetable. The recipe has been a menu classic since it first graced diners’ plates in 1968, and Larson and Kennedy are quite sure it will always have a place at The Trustees’ Table.
I inquire if this was how the Shakers made their fried chicken, as I indulged in the seemingly effortless union of salt, pepper, flour and buttermilk making up the impeccable chicken on my plate. Larson says a lot of what the restaurant serves is recreated with minimal to no historical support. While fried chicken has been on the menu since Kremer took the reins, we actually know little about how the Shakers of Pleasant Hill cooked and consumed their meals. Meticulous records and diaries share their farming practices and beliefs but largely in terms of yield records and export notes. Being the model agricultural businessmen that they were, the people of Shaker Village were much more concerned with noting what was going out of the Village rather than what was kept in house.
Sadly, one of the original buildings at Pleasant Hill burned to the ground in 1930, and countless journals and various documents were destroyed. What we do know is that the Shakers lived with the principles of community, sustainability and ingenuity ever present, and these lessons form the foundation of the Village today as it moves forward in our modern world.
“Do you grow corn?” I ask Kennedy, the sweetness of the corn pudding elegant and addictive. He says he hopes to, but will need to expand the reach of the garden first, where sweet potatoes, sunchokes and an endless variety of beans and greens already flourish. While the garden is large by any homestead garden standard, it is contained within the confines of a half-acre plot, and, at this moment, he intends to keep it that way. “The Shakers were the first recyclers,” he tells me. “Everything they produced served a purpose, and they were dedicated to leaving the ground as though it had never been touched.”
The garden at Shaker Village has gone through many forms of oversight through the years, some more successful than others. With Kennedy’s presence, the Village is more dedicated than ever to becoming a zero-waste operation—from recycling the cooking oil to the practice of companion planting, ensuring that every seed planted in the soil of the Shakers has a job and a purpose, a reason for being.
This lesson in sustainability and respect for the land on which we live is timeless. However, Kennedy and Larson are keenly aware of the present, allowing for adaptation when necessary. This aligns with the Shakers’ dedication to ingenuity. The addition of a greenhouse to the property is a perfect example of expanding the reach of the farm, while bearing the core principles in mind.
It is time for dessert, and my choice is simple: Shaker lemon pie. It is one of the few specific recipes handed down by the Shakers of Pleasant Hill and now adored by its many modern-day visitors. Within the flaky crust resides a harmonious blend of three timeless ingredients: lemons, eggs and sugar. With my first bite, I am taken aback by the acidic punch, but the lemons quickly mellow, and I am reminded how beautiful a dish can be when left simply to celebrate one solitary item. Larson tells me the lemon is thinly sliced, rind and all, for the pie, giving it a full lemon flavor. It makes perfect sense. For why let the rind go to waste? It has a purpose, as do all things in this world, and you need not look any further than The Trustees’ Table at Shaker Village for this delicious reminder.