One of my family’s favorite summer rituals is a trip to Liberty Hill Farm in Rochester, Vt. Tucked along the banks of the White River, this working dairy farm has about 300 cows, a hayloft with a tire swing and so many kittens the kids never have to fight over who gets to hold them. Friends who grew up in rural America tease me about having a “vacation” on a farm; the thought that we pay to milk cows drives them nuts.
But for us suburban types, it’s about more than being able to say you got mud on your boots. It’s also about the community we find there. And that community meets at the table.
Each morning at 8 a.m. sharp, we gather at the long, wooden table where proprietor Beth Kennett has laid out a spread of eggs or casserole, potatoes, hot rolls, oatmeal, pancakes, sausage and always, always some decadent cake masquerading as a breakfast item (think blueberry coffee cake with cinnamon sugar crumbs). We definitely eat like farmers when we’re there, but Farmer Bob (yes — we really call him “Farmer Bob”) is the only one heading back out to toss hay.
When Beth rings the dinner bell at 6 p.m. — and not a minute later — there might be patty pan squash that one of the neighbors brought by, green beans from the farmers market, berries from every bush in the neighborhood. We’ve had chicken casserole bathed in cream and cheese, apple pie with cheese, and Beth’s famous Shaker Cheese Bread Pudding (Liberty Hill belongs to the Cabot Creamery Cooperative and they practice what they preach). One night, there was a meatloaf the size of a sheet cake. My husband and I shot each other a knowing glance over our daughter’s head: we’re pretty sure she milked that meatloaf the year before.
The food is hearty. And plentiful. Just the kind of farm fare that city slickers imagine. And
as we bow our heads before starting to pass it, everyone at the table — sometimes 20 of us or more — become family. We’ve met travelers from France, families from New York, fun-loving sisters from Boston, gay couples, straight couples, single moms, multi-racial adoptive families. At that big, sturdy table, we pass the rolls and trade stories, often lingering long after the platters are cleared. As children squirm, they’re run through the ritual of asking to be excused, and then they tear out to the barn to cuddle the kittens and help with the evening milking. The parents stay behind and strategize about how to get them that excited to clean their rooms.
It’s always an open, genial bunch at the farm, a self-selected group of travelers who don’t mind the smell of manure and who revel in the prospect of being part of this temporary family. But it’s Beth who brings us together, sharing what the farm and her neighbors have to offer, and folding us into the life of rural Vermont, the life of one American farmer.
One morning after breakfast during our last visit, I coaxed Beth into telling my favorite story, the one about growing up in Maine across the valley from a Shaker community. The 18th-century religious sect was known for simple food: apple pie, switchel, stewed tomatoes, potatoes and peas, and lots of tasty casseroles. It wasn’t until Beth was an adult that she realized much of her cooking — like the cheese bread pudding — came from the Shakers.
Somewhere between a strata and a cheesy spoon bread, this ode to dairy is a favorite at Liberty Hill Farm. Thought to originate with the Shakers in a Maine village, farm wife and innkeeper Beth Kennett says it is also called “Shapleigh Pudding” after Shapleigh, Maine, where her ancestors settled in the 1600s. She writes that there was also a Bertha A. Shapleigh who created recipes and menus during World War I encouraging housewives to serve economical and nutritious meals. This pudding would have been counted among those. Recipe courtesy of Beth Kennett.
- 8 slices firm white bread, buttered well
- ½ pound sharp cheddar cheese, grated to about 2 cups
- 2 ½ cups milk
- 4 large eggs
- 1 teaspoon dry mustard
- 1 teaspoon Worcestershire sauce
Butter the bread on one side, then place buttered sides together to make 4 “butter sandwiches.” Cut sandwiches into quarters.
Butter a 2-quart casserole. Arrange two of the quartered sandwiches in the bottom of the casserole. Sprinkle with half the cheese. Arrange the remaining two sandwiches on top, then cover with the remaining cheese.
In a medium bowl, whisk together the milk, eggs, mustard and Worcestershire sauce. Pour over bread in the casserole. Cover and refrigerate overnight.
In the morning, preheat the oven to 325 F and bake for 1 hour, until top is bubbly and brown. Serve immediately.