DAY TRIP: Shakertown at Pleasant Hill is about 75 miles east of Louisville, a pleasant 1 1/2-hour drive through scenic, rolling farm country.|
"October 12, 1862. Colonel Grant of General Morgan's command came and ordered breakfast for 200 troops, which was produced with alacrity ... the Sisters were cooking and baking with all the means at their command to keep a supply till about 400 had eaten."
For nearly 200 years, the good people at Shakertown at Pleasant Hill have stood ready to feed an army on demand, and they did just that on more than one occasion during the Civil War, as this excerpt from the village's journals after the Battle of Perryville reveals.
Originally the communal home of the Shakers, a utopian society that believed the end of the world was near and thus forswore procreation and luxury in favor of hard work and a simple, plain lifestyle, Shakertown is now the largest historic community of its kind in the U.S. It's a beautiful, peaceful place where you can stay overnight in the original buildings and dine very well indeed in the same Trustees' House building that has been offering travelers restoration since the early 1800s.
After the last Shakers died in 1923, the village buildings came into individual ownership and many fell into disrepair. At one point, the majestic Centre Family Dwelling (now Shakertown's main museum building) was used to garage farm tractors and for storing hay. But starting in 1966, the village was restored by a non-profit organization, and it is now a remarkable living-history museum that features 33 original 19th century buildings on 2,800 acres of rolling Central Kentucky farmland.
I've been a great fan of Shakertown for at least the past 25 years and try to get down there at least a couple of times a year. For tranquil, mind-resting peace, it's always a four-star experience. The dining room, frankly, has slipped from a solid four stars to a genteel three over the years, but it's still well worth the trip for dinner alone, a filling, pleasing mix of traditional Shaker fare and comforting Kentucky country cookery.
The red-brick Trustees' House, like all the Shaker buildings, shows a pleasing, elegant symmetry that seems at one with the ages. Noted for the arch of windows over its welcoming front doors and remarkable, hand-built spiral staircases that rise through three stories with no visible means of support, it is the only building on the property with a single large entrance rather than the Shakers' traditional separate entrances for men and women. That's because, from the beginning, it is the place where outside visitors were made welcome, housed and fed.
Its three large dining rooms (we prefer the bright, comfortable "sun porch" with tall windows overlooking the village's vegetable garden) are furnished in spare Shaker style, with bare cherrywood tables and tall wooden Shaker chairs, lighted by candles in tall glass "hurricane" cylinders and set with simple white earthenware.
The daily bill of fare includes appetizer, salad, main course, vegetable and side dishes for one price, making a filling dinner here a better buy than the entree prices make it seem: Full dinners range from $12.50 (for an all-vegetable plate) to $18.50 (for a 12-ounce rib eye), with additional charges only for beverages, desserts and one fancy appetizer.
Because Shakertown is located in "dry" Mercer County, wine, beer and liquor are not sold here; further, the restaurant by policy does not permit patrons to bring their own wine or other alcoholic beverages.
Dinner begins with a basket full of small, crunchy and sweet yellow corn breadsticks, balls of fresh butter, and an oversize relish dish that offers a good selection of veggies and one of the evening's first disappointments: Despite the obvious bounty of the garden just outside the dining room window, just about everything in the bowl is canned, pickled or preserved: red and green cherry peppers, tiny sour pickles, pickled okra and canned baby corn; peeled baby carrots that obviously came from a food-service supply pack, and a single fresh cauliflower floret and scallion.
From the appetizer list, we chose tomato-celery soup, a Shaker dish of salty tomato broth full of celery bits, and a modern Shakertown tradition, egg in aspic on anchovy toast ($1.50), a filling starter that seems more tied to the 1950s than the 1850s, a hard-boiled egg molded in beef-jelly aspic, topped with a thin mayonnaise and perched on a thin slice of pumpernickel toast spread with anchovy paste.
Shakertown's dinner salads recently changed in style, and for the better. Gone are the stale croutons and pale iceberg lettuce, replaced by small glass bowls of "field greens" with well-made dressings on the side. Blue cheese dressing in particular was impressive, thick and creamy with a generous ration of cheese chunks.
Both our main dishes were fine. Pan-fried catfish ($14.75) tasted fresh in its crisp, crunchy golden breading, and was flavorful without the "muddy" earthiness that sometimes makes this rustic specialty challenging for city folks like me. Fried chicken ($14) was tender and flavorful, lightly breaded and just a tad greasy from the frying pan.
The evening's vegetable side dishes, passed by the servers on an all-you-can-eat basis, included perfect boiled red-skin potatoes and two more slight disappointments: A long-cooked broccoli-cheese casserole and pudding-style "fried corn," both of which appeared to be made from frozen or canned vegetables and struck us as more akin to Better Crocker than the Shakers' founder Mother Ann. Also passed were traditional Shaker relishes, pickled beets and watermelon rind.
Overnight lodging in the historic buildings ranges from $60 to $85 for guest rooms and $80 to $135 for suites. Adult prices for the museum and tours are $10 for the village tour only, $6 for a riverboat cruise on the nearby Kentucky River, or $14 for both. Youth and children's prices are available for those under 17 and under 11, respectively; tours are free for children under 6.
A very filling dinner for two came to a reasonable $37.37, plus a $6 tip for friendly (if occasionally forgetful) service. (The historic Shakers declined tips, and for many years, the modern Shakertown dining room continued this policy; during the '80s, however, after a management change that stripped a bit of the charm away from the experience, tipping became the norm, and the servers began introducing themselves.)
A filling buffet breakfast is also available, offering scrambled eggs, bacon, sausage, grits, fruit and dry cereals, biscuits and muffins, for $7.50.
(Little had changed on a follow-up visit in June 2001. If anything, food quality was perhaps a little better, with extra points for grease-free, crispy fried chicken, an unusual Shaker dish of tender baked chicken topped with a creamy white-corn sauce that seemed inspired by old-fashioned corn pudding, and a "zesty carrot" vegetable dish with a near-puree of chopped cooked carrots with a cracker-crumb topping and surprisingly spicy creamy horseradish component that worked very well indeed with the earthy carrot flavor.) $$$