HARRODSBURG — The Shakers' quest for simplicity, reflected in beautiful architecture and finely crafted furniture, is sometimes misinterpreted as part of an austere lifestyle.
Actually, the Shakers liked their comforts — particularly at mealtime, said David Larson, vice president of operations at Shaker Village of Pleasant Hill in Mercer County.
"Shakers probably ate better than many of their neighbors," Larson said.
In that spirit on Saturday, Larson used ingredients from the Shaker Village's 3-acre vegetable garden in a cooking demonstration called "Gifts from the Shaker Garden" — a modern interpretation of culinary life at the village, founded in 1805. After the class, guests who paid $65 each enjoyed lunch featuring the morning's recipes.
Shaker Village, about 25 miles south of Lexington, was restored 50 years ago. Like other historical sites and living history museums across the country, the village has faced challenges of declining attendance and shrinking financial reserves. Saturday's demonstration was part of an expanded calendar of activities to attract a wider audience.
The Shakers at Pleasant Hill raised large vegetable gardens, tended orchards, and kept cattle, chicken, turkeys and sheep.
Today's vegetable and herb garden might be smaller than the Shakers', but it offers a midsummer bounty of 38 varieties of tomatoes plus varieties of squash, corn, beans, eggplant and okra. Shaker Village chefs use the vegetables while serving more than 50,000 people each year, Larson said.
Neither the food served in the Shaker Village restaurant nor the dishes Larson prepared Saturday were authentic to the Shakers. One reason is that the Shakers at Pleasant Hill left no recipes. "We have lots of journals of what they raised and how they stored meat and vegetables, but no recipes," Larson said. The only authentic item on the menu is lemon pie from a Shaker community in Ohio, he said.
The up-to-date cuisine fits with the outlook of the Shakers, who embraced change, Larson said.
"Shakers were very innovative. They were interested in technology," Larson said. "They were great entrepreneurs and had active commercial ventures, taking products from here to New Orleans using the Kentucky River."
On Saturday, Larson made homemade ricotta cheese, yellow squash soup, eggplant cannoli with fresh tomato sauce and lemon ice cream. Shakers had lemons, brought from New Orleans. "They were considered a great delicacy," he said.
Guests caught delicious scents of squash, and tomatoes pierced with stems of rosemary.
"We have a huge garden, and this was a perfect way to get some new ideas for things to cook and have a weekend getaway," said Connie Bowman of Cookeville, Tenn., who attended the demonstration with her husband, Bruce.
Shaker Village has 73 guest rooms with modern amenities, each with a private bathroom. The dining room serves three meals a day.
A few hundred acres of the 3,000-acre property are leased for commercial farming. Prairie grasses and wildflowers, similar to what the Shakers might have seen, grow on more than 1,000 acres. There are 38 miles of hiking and equestrian trails.
The Shakers, so named because of their ecstatic form of worship, were a well-known communal society in 19th-century America. Their movement in the United States began in New York shortly after the Revolutionary War. By the 1840s, nearly 3,500 Shakers lived in communities from Maine to Kentucky.
The sect chose a peaceful way of life, believing in equality and freedom from prejudice. Values of simplicity and perfection were reflected in their handmade furniture, which brings hefty prices at auctions and antiques stores.
In 1805, a group of Shakers came to Central Kentucky and established Pleasant Hill. The population peaked at almost 500 in the 1820s. The Shakers believed in celibacy, so their numbers could grow only through conversion. After the 1860s, changing social attitudes and the Industrial Revolution contributed to the community's decline.