I'm not a big outdoors person. And I'm not really into hiking, unless there's something promising at the end of the trail — an extraordinary view, a waterfall, a really old cemetery or the remnants of a historical site, such as the "Stairs to Nowhere" in Chesterfield, N.H. (otherwise known as Madame Sherri’s castle ruins).
An invitation, with the promise of touring the remnants of Hancock Shaker Village's South Family farm site, coaxed me into making the trek to Pittsfield early Saturday morning to take a walk in the woods. Seeing the cleared remnants piqued my curiosity, as like most, when thinking of the Hancock Shaker community, my vision of what it was is limited to the living history museum's historic buildings and immediate farm. It's hard, in modern time, to imagine that at its height, the "City of Peace," as the utopian village was called, encompassed some 3,000 acres and had six "families" — communal sections that worked and lived together. At Hancock, there was the Church Family, considered the leaders, along with the North, West, East, South and Second families.
The South Family, said Director and CEO Jennifer Trainer Thompson during Saturday's opening celebration, was founded in 1818 to handle the overflow of new members from the East Family. Here, the new converts, known as the Young Believers' Order, could live as Shakers before fully committing to the church, which required giving up family and possessions, and taking a vow of celibacy.
Little is known of the South Family, Trainer Thompson said, as too few records about the community seem to have survived. In 1849, with only nine members remaining, the site was closed and the members sent to live in other parts of the Hancock community. The buildings were left behind and the forest soon reclaimed and concealed the remnants of a "bank barn," two silos, a farm dell, an ice house and a quarry. All remained hidden from view, until recently. Bill Mangiardi, director of farms and facilities, found the building foundations a few years ago, just off the Farm and Forest Trail, and under his tutelage, with the help of volunteers and the youth group Greenagers, physically cleared the forest from the ruins.
Visiting the ruins, walking the Shaker lands, inspired me to cook a dish made by the Shakers. Fortunately, the gift shop carries several Shaker cookbooks, including "The Best of Shaker Cooking," by Amy Bess Miller, founder of Hancock Shaker Village, and Persis Fuller. Having a fresh Square Roots roasting chicken on hand, I decided to make the chicken fricassee, which the cookbook says was "famous." According to the text accompanying the recipe, the trolley line in West Pittsfield ended a mile-short of the Shaker commune, but the chicken fricassee was so delicious, that "old-timers declared it was worth every step through the summer dust or the frigid blasts of fall weather."
I made the chicken fricassee (my first) on Sunday, with a few substitutions, and served it with a side of drop biscuits. I believe my family would concur with the sentiment of "Pittsfield's old-timers," as there was very little left over after dinner.
SHAKER CHICKEN FRICASSEE
(From the Hancock Shakers, "The Best of Shaker Cooking")
1 roasting chicken, 3 to 4 pounds
Seasoned flour (mix of flour, salt, pepper, herbs de provence)
3 tablespoons clear fat (I used 3 tablespoons of oil)
3 cups boiling water
1 bay leaf
5 peppercorns, ground
1 teaspoon summer savory (I substituted marjoram)
1 teaspoon tarragon
1/3 cup chopped parsley
1 small onion, chopped (I used green onions fresh from the garden)
1 teaspoon each salt
4 tablespoons butter
4 tablespoons flour
2 egg yolks
1 cup heavy cream, heated (I used coconut cream)
Cut up the chicken into four pieces; wash and dry it. Roll in flour and brown to a golden color in the fat in a deep pot or iron skillet. When richly golden, add boiling water (to cover), bay leaf, pepper, herbs, onion. Cover the pot and simmer until chicken is tender, 1 to 1 1/2 hours. Add salt and pepper. Remove chicken from the stock and keep it warm. There should be 3 cups of stock, if not, add heated chicken broth or hot water with butter in it to make 3 cups.
In a saucepan, melt 4 tablespoons butter, stir in the flour, and cook lightly, but do not permit it to color. Stir it constantly, then pour over it, gradually, 1 cup of the hot stock. Simmer a moment, then add rest of stock, stirring constantly. Simmer 10 minutes.
In a bowl, beat egg yolks well and pour the hot cream over them gradually, stirring constantly.
Put the chicken and gravy, back in the pot/skillet, add the egg-cream mixture, and very slowly reheat, but do not permit to boil, as the egg-cream mixture might curdle.
The sauce and the entire dish should be golden and rich in taste.