Shake Inn: Clare de Boer on Shaker Cuisine at Stissing House

old Stissing House exterior photo

When Clare de Boer, chef and co-owner of King in SoHo, decided to reopen Stissing House in Pine Plains, the choice of what sort of food she’d serve was obvious. After all, Stissing House is country tavern in an 18th century inn in Upstate New York. To honor the historic building in context—the land it sits on, its seasons, and the food available nearby—Shaker cuisine fit the bill. After all, she says, “These are the food experts from the area that Stissing House is in.”

In her cooking, de Boer draws inspiration from all over, and the menu at Stissing House is no hidebound Shaker recreation, but some underlying tenets of Shaker cuisine made sense for Stissing House’s place and time. She explains, “My approach is that anything one does needs to be contextually effortless—it needs to fit in. And in the case of Stissing House, you know, it’s a tavern that’s a stone’s throw from Hancock Village where there is a deep, deep, deep culinary tradition. We’re sharing the same produce, the same seasonality, and the same basic kitchen layout. In terms of the tools that we have, it’s not like I even have to try to do Shaker cuisine. There’s just an alignment, because it’s obvious.”

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Though she is quick to call herself an admirer rather than an expert, de Boer is an avid collector of all sorts of cookbooks; she came to appreciate the Shakers not through their history or material culture, but through their recipes. Going through cookbooks written not far from Stissing House, de Boer found that the Shakers  were talented farmers and gardeners, were thrifty, practiced nose-to-tail cooking, and were active preservers and fermenters. “So, so, so much of it makes sense. It’s the kind of cooking that’s all about being sensitive to your environment, taking what’s growing in seasons and making the most of it.” She continues, “And the Shakers take that to the next level with everything they do—like, everything. Everything is super functional. And I find that when you really lean into functionality, there’s so much beauty in the simplicity.”

It’s easy to assume that Shakers, a celibate community that produced material goods free of unnecessary ornament, would be acetic when it came to food. “It’s not the case at all,” de Boer laughs. “They eat so many desserts! Like, in a Shaker cafeteria, dessert is not considered a special-occasion thing. They have so many recipes for these really rich, dense, squidgy gingerbreads that are exactly how I want to cook and eat.”

“The restraint is in keeping the food simple. It’s not in keeping it lean,” de Boer says.

De Boer felt an affinity for the Shaker recipes that bridge the cuisine of her native Britain and the American Northeast. Her grandmother may have shared an Apple Charlotte recipe with the Shakers. But a through-theme in contemporary appreciation of Shaker life is noticing its prescience: Their designs anticipated modernism, and so did their food. Sure, Shakers practiced farm-to-table, nose-to-tail, pickling and fermenting—but any rural community did that. But Shakers also grew and used copious herbs that made their food sprightly. Says de Boer, “They grow so many herbs that their beverages are insane: like a gingerade and an herbade that’s a sparkling lemon balm and mint drink. It’s so alluring today.”

“I mean we all like Shaker design—it’s incredible, spectacular. But it can feel slightly uncomfortable because its priority was never indulgence,” says de Boer. “But when it comes to the food, I find that because of the good housewifery and not wanting to waste anything, it’s in fact incredibly rich and generous.”

This story was originally featured in our Summer 2022 issue.

Featured photo courtesy of Rural Intelligence.