It started with the Commerce Inn. Jody Williams and Rita Sodi — two wildly successful NYC restaurateurs responsible for a parade of West Village hits including Via Carota and Buvette — announced last year that their latest project was going to be taking its cues from the Shakers, a religious group that historically farmed much of their own food.
The months-old restaurant, which is already drawing praise, is decked out in minimalist wooden Shaker-style furniture. Bound like a prayer booklet, the menu advertises bowls of beans, lobster chowder, and pickled beets. Then, Clare de Boer, an owner of snug Soho spot King, took over the kitchen at an actual inn, the Stissing House in Pine Plains, New York. She told the New York Times that she, too, was particularly inspired by the Shakers and their no-frills, regional cooking. In her interpretation, that meant dry-aging pheasants and cooking duck fat cornbread.
The interest has been amusing, if not unexpected, to actual Shakers. The Christian group, or, more specifically, a monastic sect of Protestantism, was founded in England in 1747. They practice communal living, don’t own personal belongings, and commit to celibacy when they join the faith. At the religion’s peak in America, from the late-1700s to mid-1800s, there were over a dozen Shaker communities in multiple states, including Massachusetts, Kentucky, and Maine. Today, there are only two practicing Shakers — Brother Arnold Hadd and Sister June Carpenter — and they both live in the one remaining active Shaker village, in Sabbathday Lake, Maine, which sits on 1,800 acres of land. Hadd joined the faith the way that anyone (still) can, by accepting their beliefs and joining the community, in 1978, when he was 21 years old.
Eater spoke with Hadd over Zoom about the NYC chefs that have recently taken an interest in the Shakers’ cooking and eating habits. He notes that this isn’t new — an NYC restaurant focused on early American cooking once invited a Shaker from Sabbathday Lake to share her cooking techniques with the team in the 1980s, Hadd says — and, for the record, he and Sister June aren’t hunting pheasants and dressing up their chowder with lobster. They eat Yankee food, Hadd says, the same as any other Mainer who’s a farm-to-table enthusiast: clam chowder, biscuits, and more apple pie than he cares to count. The Shakers eat dinner — their main meal of the day — at noon, with two other people who live on the grounds full-time, plus four employees during the weekdays, and a regular cast of visitors. The community hosted 18 people for Easter dinner.
But the restaurateurs’ interest in the Shaker community, while perhaps leading some to learn more about Shakers, isn’t so much celebrating the living people as it is playing on century-old tropes, according to Hadd. “Any of these things, by people who aren’t Shakers, I think, doesn’t add to the sum total of who we are, or what we believe,” Hadd says. “It only tends to marginalize us as a religion itself.”
Eater: So, what is Shaker food? Is that an actual term?
Arnold Hadd: Nay. It is not. I know that there are a lot of cookbooks — in fact, Sister Frances of our community, who just passed five years ago, she wrote a perennial bestseller, Shaker Your Plate. She was a Shaker. She made food. I guess we can call that Shaker food? But you can’t [do that].
The Shakers just created food, regionally. I mean, we’re Yankees. When I came here, they boiled and they baked everything to death 100 times over. Salt was the only thing they used for seasoning.
What did you eat today?
Well, every Friday is omelet day. That went into effect about 20 years ago. And Friday noon is leftover day. So everything we’ve been having we spread out and it’s put on a buffet and we have an employee who then takes [home] everything that we have leftover so we waste absolutely no food at all. So it’s consumed again by somebody else.
What do you like to cook?
I don’t cook for myself. I cook for the crowd, and I cook what people like, and so that’s what I’m trying to do. Their favorite meal right now is roasted baby potatoes and mayo chicken, usually with green beans. When people have their birthdays and they’re allowed to choose, that’s almost always what they want.
Mayo chicken. Very simple. Two parts mayonnaise, one part parmesan, and a teaspoon of oregano. That’s it. You just coat it all over, hot oven for 20 minutes, and you’ve got it. It’s beautiful. It’s mahogany and great. [Editor’s note: The recipe is for one half of a chicken breast sliced horizontally.]
What is your favorite food?
I don’t really have one. I mean, if I were to make a meal for myself — what is the ideal meal for me? Veal marsala with white spaghetti.
And then my favorite dessert is something called a plum kuchen. I have no idea where my mom got this recipe. We only were allowed it on Christmas. That was it. It’s a very simple kind of custardy thing with purple plums in it. It’s not really sweet. But it is so delicious. And that’s my favorite thing.
What else did you have for your birthday meal this year, aside from the marsala?
We had salad and bread. That’s it. Oh, and I use chicken now. I don’t use veal. So we had chicken marsala. It’s not as good, honestly.
What are your staple foods?
Staples would be things like chowder. Corn chowder, clam chowder. So the fish man used to come here [and] deliver on Mondays. [From the mid-1800s to the mid-1900s] they always had baked fish on Mondays because of that. They would also get clams. And the clams will always be made into clam chowder.
And then normally if you couldn’t get that then then corn chowder was always an option. And so those two things always happen.
Beef was kind of scarce because with so many people [to feed], it took a lot of beef. And they were generally tough old cows because we had the dairy herd. So when they were put down, you know, that would have to go into hamburger, basically, if it was going to be edible.
And then chicken — chicken was not common [to eat]. They cleaned out the hen house twice a year. So we had two sets of chickens always working their way through. They would take a whole day off — the men would cut off the chickens’ heads and the sisters and the girls would gather in the washroom. They would pluck them and dress them and they would go down the hall to a separate room called the canning room, and they were put up in 2-quart jars.
I see! Is that still happening?
Nay. The sisters got out of the egg business [and the chicken-canning business] in 1959, to the joy of them all. It’s kind of funny because buildings kind of linger around here. Well, that hen house — as soon as they got rid of the hens, they had it torn down. They did not want that business coming back.
So what do you think of this recent rise in interest in Shaker culture?
Well, you know, I mean, it’s not new, actually. Think about it. It’s been going on since the 1930s, probably. There was a huge thing — the 1980s in particular seemed to be an apex of all of that, where Shaker design was becoming very, very important. It’s always been a part of my life here, knowing that. It ebbs and flows and it seems like for some reason, it’s coming back again. I don’t know specifically why.
I think maybe with the food, it’s because people have gone as haute cuisine as they possibly can. It’s sort of almost a reaction, down to “Let’s get back to what’s basic and real people eat.” But let’s do it in probably a better way. [...] The whole thing about sustainability that’s been with us for over a decade, and that’s all part of that, you know, farm-to-table kind of movement thing that continues to be very profitable [for restaurants].
Have you specifically heard of a restaurant drawing on Shaker cuisine or Shaker culture before?
Several of the museums have had restaurants, like Pleasant Hills [in Kentucky] has probably the most long-lasting restaurant drawing on Shaker cuisine, but other ones have tried it, or they do it for special events and things like that. But not disassociated with a Shaker site.
Well, wait a minute — let me take that back for one minute. There was a restaurant called the American Harvest, I think. It was in New York City. It was in the hotel that was between the Twin Towers. They wanted to feature American food. And they sought Sister Frances out and they had her come down and live there for a month.
She helped the chef [as an unpaid consultant] with figuring out, you know, what would be a kind of Shaker thing. And she would greet people every night in the dining room and the whole business. So, they did show some interest but that obviously didn’t catch on. And she got to meet James Beard, Nika Hazleton, Robert Mondavi — all these folks. She was flying high, I’m here to tell you. It was hard to get her back down on the farm after that.
Wait a minute, why didn’t any of these new restaurants reach out to you?
Well, you know, Shakers are marginalized. Frankly, we are. That was an unusual fluke. That’s why. I mean, even the museums don’t really check with us, primarily. It’s more or less their own thing. Because Shakers can say things that they’ll disagree with, and take away from the focus of where they want to go.
Do you feel any sort of way about not being involved in the conversation with these restaurants?
[Laughs.] Well, I mean, I think that they feel that they did their due diligence and they read their cookbooks. And it came from an authentic site and they can interpret them and I think that’s legitimate.
I would hate to think I’d have to micromanage their outlook in life or their presentation of food. So I mean, you know, in one sense, that part of our life — like furniture — is well beyond us. You know, it’s just become a style. It’s there. And it’s public domain when it’s all really said and done. I mean, if it gets the word Shaker out there, maybe it gives a broader appeal. And maybe people would want to seek something else besides just a chair or a beef brisket.
Do you think this interest is overall helping or hindering the evolution of the Shakers? Looking at the way these restaurants present themselves?
Well, I don’t think it helps. Any of these things, by people who aren’t Shakers, I think, doesn’t add to the sum total of who we are, or what we believe. It only tends to marginalize us as a religion itself. Because they stand as the experts. They stand on the front line. And they may or may not say we’re alive — which certainly is a definite hindrance.
The specific dishes on these restaurant menus, the one in the Hudson Valley, there’s dry-aged pheasant with juniper and vermouth —
[Laughs.] That’s not…
Can you explain why?
Well, because vermouth and juniper berries would never have been used, period. [This is] Yankee cooking, and those two items were exotic. Salt was used freely, pepper sparsely, and parsley was a garnish. I mean, it was plain food.
And then at Commerce Inn, the menu has Shaker beans on it, which is specifically a bowl of beans. It has pork belly and molasses in it, and they call it Shaker beans.
Well, that’s literally what we made — but I mean, who didn’t?
Commerce Inn also has a chowder on the menu. It’s a lobster chowder, though.
Ah, that would not have been. [Laughs.] Lobster’s too expensive. We only have lobster when it’s a very special occasion.
If you could talk to these restaurateurs about their intentions with building Shaker restaurants, is there anything you’d want to ask them?
I would want to ask them why? Why were you drawn? Why do you think this is what an authentic Shaker experience would be? And being very open to hearing why they thought it. Whether I agree or not, doesn’t really matter. I think that if their motivations are correct, you still have to give them points for that.
That seems like such an easy conversation for them to have with you.
Well again, I don’t think that we’re important to them at all. That’s not the bottom line and that’s not what they’re there to do. It’s not to have a dialogue with the Shakers, or that’s where they would have started. Right?
I think somebody found a cookbook and saw some stuff in there they really liked and thought, “Well, you know, I can wiggle around with this pretty well.” So they tried it, and they liked it. And I think that’s more likely going to be the basis for it than anything else.
If you were to open a restaurant in New York City, what would it look like?
[Laughs.] Well, I wouldn’t. I know New York’s a wonderful place, and I’ve been there many times in the past. I have no desire to see it again. It’s too many people.
This interview has been edited and condensed for length and clarity.