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Shaker Village dining series centers on its garden

Mercer County blackberries starred in the trifle that Kelly served for dessert.
Mercer County blackberries starred in the trifle that Kelly served for dessert. HERALD-LEADER

There's plenty to see and do at Shaker Village of Pleasant Hill that transports a visitor back to a simpler time. Referred to as "an outdoor living history museum," the village features costumed interpreters demonstrating life in the mid-19th century.

Now, that experience is even taking place at al fresco tables where chef Patrick Kelly is sharing a meal of locally produced food, which was planted, grown, harvested and prepared only steps from the table.

Using culinary ideas that meld a contemporary quest for locally produced foods with the traditional Shaker heritage, Kelly is producing a menu using heirloom vegetables grown on the village grounds, and grass-fed meat, poultry and other produce from nearby farms.

Kelly and his seed-to-table team of gardeners, historians and chefs have been scouting daily for vegetables that are perfectly ripe for the picking.

"There is nothing like the flavor of freshly picked fruits or vegetables," Kelly said. "They are totally different from the taste of something bought from the grocery store. Having the ability to dictate what we grow for use on the menu is one thing, but being able to pick only what we need is fantastic.

"Take the rib dish on the summer menu. The ribs are really good, and I'm very proud of them, but the star of the dish has wound up being the fennel slaw that is served on top."

Just outside the Trustees' Office Dining Room — within view of the orderly vegetable garden that was tilled by resident Percheron mares Blue and Ivy and tended by the village's expert gardeners, often using hand-held hoes — tables are being set up on the lawn for the al fresco meals.

Fare for the first seed-to-table lunch this week included roasted Detroit dark red beet relish, and a salad created with Early Flat Dutch cabbage, both heirloom varieties grown by the Shakers and still cultivated. The menu also included chicken from Garrard County, and Mercer County blackberries in a dessert trifle. Ralph Ward, program planning and agri-tourism manager at the village for 16 years, was on the seed-to-table team that developed the program.

"We wanted to bring the Shaker traditions of history and hospitality together," he said. It brings to life what the well-known Shaker catchphrase, "We make you kindly welcome," implies, he said.

Shakers, a communal religious group, were centered in the Northeast just after the American Revolution, then spread toward the Midwest, establishing the Pleasant Hill settlement in 1805. By the 1820s, there were about 500 believers and 4,000 acres of land being cultivated at this wilderness utopia. Wheat, oats, flax and other grains and fibers were shipped as far away as New Orleans from Shaker Landing on the nearby Kentucky River, and overland to Louisville, Lexington and Maysville.

Tenets of the Shaker society included striving toward simplicity, order, perfection, celibacy and a strong work ethic. Founder Mother Ann Lee admonished followers, "Put your hands to work and your hearts to God."

They did, crafting beautifully designed furniture and architecture, and inventing practical and useful objects such as the wooden clothespin, the flat broom, an apple corer, and even a mechanical washing machine.

Most influential, however, were their agricultural endeavors.

Susan Hughes, who directs the village's crew of interpreters, says that each of the five family groups at Shaker Village kept its own garden in a plot near their communal house. In addition to the field crops, animal breeding programs and many orchards were kept by the Shakers.

Hughes adds, "The Shakers were pioneers in the field of seed production, and the first to market seeds for sale in packets," she says.

Displayed in flat wooden boxes in stores, the Shakers' seeds were well known for their quality and reliability. Paper seed packets for herbs like caraway and chives, and vegetables like Large White Marrowfat peas and Early Long Blood beets were printed with cultivation information and advice.

Shaker seeds remained popular until after the Civil War, when advances in industrialization and increases in urbanization resulted in more sales competition and a decline in the general Shaker population.

At Pleasant Hill, the community was dissolved in the early 1900s, and it was not until 1961 that preservationists initiated a restoration of the village that continues today.

Proceeds from the garden-side meals will be used for this non-profit organization's work in sustaining the National Historic Landmark.

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