Before the Civil War, the gardens at Shaker Village in Pleasant Hill, Ky., sustained up to 500 religious zealots who believed in celibacy, separation from the world and community of goods. Shoot, they didn't even talk at the dinner table.
And given the bountiful selection of food at those tables, it's easy to see why. The Shakers' austere surroundings--ladder-back chairs, simple sconces on the walls, the plain, utilitarian tables--set the mood for good, simple, southern food at its freshest.
The Shaker colonies have disappeared, victims of the stringent philosophy. But the culinary legacy lives on at Pleasant Hill's Shakertown restaurant in the restored village, where women dressed in Shaker bonnets and plain Shaker garb welcome guests with baskets of hot corn sticks. Later, the women pass large white ceramic dishes of coleslaw, corn pudding, baked apples and creamed peas, home style, to accompany an entree, which could be roast beef, country ham or lightly fried fish.
It can't be said that the food at Shakertown is perfectly pure. Flipping through the two Shaker cookbooks produced by the historical committee at Pleasant Hill, one notices recipes that require canned mushroom soup or prepared salad dressing. But the foods come fresh from the oven--the proverbial piping hot--nothing is too anything and it's probably one of the last restaurants where a glass of cold whole milk looks at home with the meal.
The most famous Shaker dish is lemon pie, which is hard to duplicate--maybe because the tour through the Shaker buildings works up the appetite to just the right pitch for pie; maybe because the workers in the kitchen know just how thin to slice the lemons. One thing that helps is allowing the filling contents to set overnight.
The following Shaker meal can be reproduced with a quick trip through the express lane of the local supermarket, provided you have flour, sugar, salt, pepper, and butter/or oil on the shelf at home. We ask you to make your own pie crust (and use vegetable shortening to replace some of the butter in the pie crust, if you have it). A commercial crust may be substituted for a sacrifice in flavor, texture and ecstasy. EXPRESS LANE LIST: fish fillets, corn, eggs, milk, kale, ham hock, lemons. SHAKER FISH (4 servings) 1 1/4 to 1 1/2 pounds fish fillets (trout or perch fillets, for instance 1 egg beaten with 1/2 cup milk Flour Vegetable oil
Cut fillets into serving portions. Dip in egg mixture, then in flour to coat well. Refrigerate until ready to fry. Heat 1 inch of oil in large skillet until very hot. Fry fish until crispy browned (for trout or perch, this takes about 5 minutes). Serve at once. SHAKER CORN PUDDING (4 to 6 servings) 3 tablespoons butter 2 tablespoons sugar 2 tablespoons flour 1/2 teaspoon salt 3 eggs 1 3/4 cups milk 2 cups corn (fresh, frozen or canned, drained)
Blend butter, sugar, flour and salt. Add eggs and beat well. Stir in corn and milk. Pour ingredients into a buttered casserole and bake 45 minutes at 325 degrees. Stir once halfway through cooking. When done, the pudding will be golden brown and a knife inserted will come out clean. The Shaker cookbook says, "We use frozen corn which we chop a little. Also delicious with fresh corn."
Note: The mixture can be prepared ahead of baking time and kept in a jar in the refrigerator. Shake well and pour into baking dish when you want to use it. --From "We Make You Kindly Welcome" by Elizabeth Kremer SHAKER KALE (6 servings) 1 ham hock 1 pound kale greens Freshly ground black pepper
Place ham hock in 2 cups of water and simmer, uncovered, about 30 minutes. Add kale greens and simmer until leaves are flavorful but still have some bite, or until desired doneness (this varies depending on the time of year and the maturity of the greens). If desired, remove ham pieces from hock, chop and add to greens. Serve with slotted spoon. SHAKER LEMON PIE (6 to 8 servings) 9-inch double-pie crust 2 large lemons 4 eggs, well beaten 2 cups sugar
Slice lemons as thin as paper, rind and all. Combine with sugar; mix well. Let stand 2 hours or longer, preferably blending occasionally. Add beaten eggs to lemon mixture; mix well. Turn into 9-inch pie shell, arranging lemon slices evenly. Cover with top crust. Cut several slits near center. Bake at 450 degrees for 15 minutes. Reduce heat to 375 degrees for about 20 minutes or until a knife inserted near edge of pie comes out clean. Cool before serving. -- From "We Make You Kindly Welcome," by Elizabeth Kremer