Chef Paige Keeps Alive Shakers' Refined Cooking

At a New Hampshire museum, he cooks Chicken Loaf, Sage Cakes, and other dishes inspired by his mentorship with the sisters

By , Staff writer of The Christian Science Monitor

NOT every chef swaps recipes with the Shakers. After graduating from the Culinary Institute of America in New York, Jeffrey Paige did just that.

As chef at the Creamery Restaurant in the Shaker's nearly 200-year-old Canterbury (N.H.) village, Mr. Paige did as much listening as swapping when he first arrived.

Eager to learn about their wholesome cookery, he spent hundreds of hours with the community's four remaining sisters, peppering them with questions on topics ranging from their reliance on herbs to their innovative use of wood-fired brick ovens.

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The Canterbury sisters, who have since passed away, welcomed Paige's curiosity and took him under their care. It provided them a welcome break from incessant inquiries about the Shaker rule of celibacy - a favorite topic among tourists at the museum here.

Legacy preserved

Today, Paige cooks Shaker-inspired dishes such as Roast Spring Chicken with Tarragon Butter and Corn and Smoked-Cheddar-Cheese Pudding to guests who visit the community each year.

Since his cookbook ``The Shaker Kitchen: Over 100 Recipes from Canterbury Shaker Village'' (Clarkson Potter, $22) was published earlier this year, business is better than ever, Paige said in a recent interview. Sitting at one of the 16-seat harvest tables in the dining room where he serves visitors, the chef recalls his precious cooking lessons.

During the four years he was mentored by Shakers, Paige learned how to create such dishes as Eldress Bertha Lindsay's unique rose-water apple pie, how to make the most of seasonal ingredients, and how to dry fruits.

But most significant to Paige was the discovery that Shaker cooking rested on an attitude toward food and its preparation that merged grace, flavor, Godliness, good sense, and taste as one.

The Shakers are better known for their stated commitment to ``creating a heaven on earth'' and ``elevating the ordinary to the extraordinary'' in the design and craftsmanship of their elegant, unadorned furniture and buildings than for their food.

But in their kitchens, ``they worked with the same dedication and sense of purpose ... as they did in the fields, workshops, and their house of worship,'' Paige found. ``In Shaker kitchens, meals were planned and cooked to satisfy both bodily and, in a sense, spiritual hunger. The sisters prepared food as efficiently, nutritiously, and tastily as possible. They knew, too, that meals must `create contentment, joy, and satisfaction in those who partake of them.' ''

A Shaker kitchen was no place for a slouch. There, the ``deaconess'' kept a close eye on first and second cooks, the ``potato girl,'' the ``messer'' (she prepared special-diet meals) the brown-breadmaker, and the pastry cook. A job for women while the men worked elsewhere, cooks rotated positions each month and tried to top one another's abilities.

A sense of play

But their orderly, efficient systems by no means ruled out playfulness. While stirring and chopping, they often joined in silly songs or poked fun at another sister's cooking, says Paige, who is quick to debunk the perception that the Shakers were boring or straitlaced.

``Take my earring and ponytail,'' he says. ``My own mother went nuts - she's still waiting for me to grow up.'' Chuckling, he adds, ``the sisters only asked why I didn't wear two earrings.''

Now that they are gone, it is Jeffrey Paige who is playful, who has documented what the Shaker Sisters taught him, and who serves their well-crafted food by candlelight, just as they did, in the old Creamery in Canterbury.

* The Creamery Restaurant is open daily from May through October and on weekends in November, December, and April.

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