In early August, we had the pleasure of attending the annual fundraising Gala at Hancock Shaker Village (hancockshakervillage.org). One of the more prosperous of Shaker communities in the Northeast, “The City of Peace,” as its inhabitant called it, reached its height in the 1830s. More than 300 Shakers worked 3,000 acres of land just west of Pittsfield, Massachusetts, in the heart of the Berkshires. Since 1959, the community has been a history museum with 20 original buildings, a working farm, a wealth of Shaker artifacts, and many excellent interpretive programs. The village’s signature building is the Round Stone Barn, pictured at the top of the post. It’s a landmark structure in America vernacular architecture. We ate dinner at tables in the hayloft level.
Shaker beliefs about simplicity and the nutritional benefits of whole foods fit right into modern trends in diet and nutrition. Consider that Hancock Shaker Village’s CEO and president, Jennifer Trainer Thompson, happens to be an avowed foodie and the author of several cookbooks, and it’s no wonder that food is front and center in the museum’s programs. She has a perfect collaborator in Brian Alberg, executive chef of the Main Street Hospitality Group. His team caters many events at Hancock Shaker Village, including the Gala. A pioneer of local sourcing and seasonal menus in the Berkshires, Alberg creates food that shows a reverence for the animals and plants while honoring diners with beautiful yet straightforward presentations. It’s a very Shaker sensibility. The photo above left shows Alberg stirring a cauldron of ratatouille that will serve 200 guests.
Shaker simplicity meets the community of donors
The meal began with passed hors d’oeuvres as we sipped wine and cocktails from the bar and milled about on the lovely lawns near the Shaker herb patch and the vegetable garden. A couple of musicians played traditional fiddle and guitar tunes beneath the shade of a low tree. Nearby, sheep grazed within a roomy pen surrounded by white painted fences. Although it was after the museum had closed for the day, the art exhibitions were open in one of the buildings. After morning thunderstorms, the skies cleared and the temperatures dropped to the balmy high 70s. All in all, it was a summer idyll in the City of Peace.
The hors d’oeuvres embodied a Shaker spirit. They were simple, often ingenious, and eminently practical. The young lady above left was passing around cherry tomatoes stuffed with goat cheese whipped with red pepper. It amounted to perfect finger food—one explosive bite of sweet tomato and tangy cheese.
The filmstrip below shows some of the other passed plates.
The first was a brilliant take on deviled eggs. Instead of slippery egg whites, the deviled yolks were piped into tiny profiteroles. The center image shows a one-bite BLT. Half a strip of cooked bacon is sandwiched between some iceberg lettuce and a half cherry tomato—all impaled on a wide flat wooden toothpick. Who needs bread or mayo when the lettuce and tomato are that fresh? The most conventional of the passed items were the slices of garden cucumber serving as handheld plinths for a teaspoon of crab salad. How could Alberg resist, given this summer’s bounteous cucumber harvest?
We expect to shamelessly steal those hors d’oeuvre ideas for our next gathering.
Farm to table in the Round Barn
Alberg’s crew cooked the entire meal outdoors over open wood fires—on grills, griddles, and in cauldrons hung over coals. Some dishes didn’t require so much cookery as assembly. The stunning appetizer dish consisted on a single slab of fresh beefsteak tomato under mixed Asian greens with some crumbled farmer’s cheese. The dressing was simply a Hancock Shaker Village herb pesto. It was almost enough to make us think about trying to grow beefsteaks again next summer.
The grilled ratatouille that Alberg is stirring near the top of the post was a huge hit, as was his sweet corn and chick pea salad. The meats—grilled and braised lamb and grilled chicken—were cooked over an open wood fire. That’s one of Alberg’s crew salting the lamb as it grilled. Each meat came paired with a vegetable—charred greens with the lamb, fire-roasted peppers with the chicken.
And since it was August, dessert meant macerated seasonal berries paired with a small bar of chocolate ganache and topped with lightly whipped cream from the nearby High Lawn dairy. The kitchen sisters of the Shakers couldn’t have done better themselves.
FYI, although each restaurant has its own chef de cuisine, Alberg oversees food operations at one seasonal and three year-round restaurants at the Red Lion Inn (redlioninn.com) in Stockbridge and at Eat on North (hotelonnorth.com) in Pittsfield. He also oversees the food and beverage operations at The Porches Inn (porches.com) in North Adams, The Williams Inn (williamsinn.com) in Williamstown, and Elm Street Market (elmstreetmarket.com) in Stockbridge. Now you know where to taste more of the food that he’s influenced.