Dining

A New England Original

At holiday time, the Salem Cross Inn in West Brookfield comes into its own.

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Wednesday, November 27, 2013
paul shoul |
Salem Cross Inn salmon with yello beans and boiled potato

The Salem family got into the restaurant business in a unique way: Martha Salem’s father bought a “rundown, ramshackle farmhouse” in the 1950s as a wedding gift for his brother.

“Once he got in the house, which he figured was a fixer-upper, he found hand-planed old boards, some over 20 inches wide, including pumpkin pine, which is extinct,” Salem recalls. “The farmhouse is set on 600 acres. He said to his brother that the house was too much for a wedding gift and really needed to be something more.”

The brothers, partners in a small trucking business, initially considered a golf course before they settled on the idea of a restaurant they first called the Peregrine White House. Salem explains that they had no experience with historic restoration or the restaurant business. What they did know: the house had been in the White family for eight generations. The Salem family was the first to inhabit it after that.

A lucky break for her father and uncle came when George Watson happened by and offered some advice on restoration. Pleased to see that the brothers followed his advice, he jumped in with more counsel and mentored them through the process. That was fortunate because Watson had played a key role in famous historic restorations, including those of Sturbridge and Winterthur.

“He guided my father and uncle through the renovation,” Salem explains. “He made sure they did things properly. Renovation and restoration are very different. I remember as a kid that everyone helped, even the little kids. We’d do things like take the crooked nails and straighten them out. Then the adults would re-sharpen them and the nails would be reused.”

As the brothers learned more about the place’s history, they made the connection between fear of witches and Salem—coincidentally the family’s surname—and the fact that the house had crosses on the doorknobs to ward off evil influences from witches. Hence the name Salem Cross Inn seemed to speak both to family and to history.

From the moment the restaurant opened in 1961, Salem says, it’s been a family operation, including its working farm, with Hereford and Black Angus cattle. There’s always been a small kitchen garden for the restaurant. This year, chef Rob Thackaberry has upped the garden’s influence. An avid gardener, he has expanded the garden and grown more for the restaurant’s use. Newer menu items, and staples as well, take advantage of the garden’s bounty. Martha Salem and two sisters work full-time at Salem Cross Inn, and the brothers pitch in, too. Before Thackaberry came on board, the restaurant’s longtime chef was Salem’s brother–in-law Alan Drake, who recently retired.

Thackaberry continues to prepare all the traditional “comfort food” the Inn has always offered. He has made certain recipes healthier without sacrifice to their familiar taste. Along with the tried-and-true, he’s brought a more seasonal slant to the menu. He’s experimented each season with new ideas that add a twist here and there and that make use of the produce he’s grown.

“There are people who come for the food they always have here and stick to that,” Thackaberry says. “That’s great. There are also people interested in the gourmet offerings, and they rave about the food.” New additions include a sharing plate and, for the autumn and winter months, a pumpkin risotto.

Incorporating twists on the usual menu items is another way Thackaberry expands the restaurant’s reach without making fundamental changes to what’s on offer. For the autumn-into-winter menu, the duck will be served with a Concord grape sauce made with local grapes. Thackaberry has kept baked haddock with breadcrumbs on the lunch and tavern menu; for the dinner menu, the seasonally inspired twist on this mainstay will include cranberry orange in the breadcrumbs.

Thackaberry arrived at the restaurant after searching for a restaurant that would match his skill set. The chance to establish the garden alongside his kitchen duties was a draw; he wanted not only to cook with local food, but to grow it. While that pairing of goals seems quite homey, he didn’t find his way into the restaurant business because of his devotion to cuisine or to home. Quite the opposite: a longtime ski bum, Thackaberry worked as a chef in Colorado and at beach resorts in the off season to support his passion for skiing. Later he noticed that experienced cooks took their kitchen skills onto yachts, so he hopped on a boat. He logged about a dozen years primarily between resorts and the sea. Newton, Mass. served as home base through those years.

With a wife and child, the idea of an actual home and community became more appealing than the peripatetic life. While he reserves his ski energies for a brief annual Colorado getaway, the very active Thackaberry goes mountain biking and rock climbing and plays on a hockey team. He has a garden at the 300-year-old home he purchased on 29 acres. At the house he has a Rumford fireplace and a beehive brick oven. “I live a similar life to the restaurant’s in terms of the fact that I do a lot of wood-fired cooking at work and at home,” he says.

With its historic roots, traditional architecture and bucolic setting, the Salem Cross Inn is a natural to offer traditional New England-style experiences along with New England cuisine. “There’s a fireplace big enough to walk in,” Salem explains. From November through April, there are regularly scheduled fireplace feasts.

“The only known roasting jack in the area is here,” she says. “It works like a grandfather clock does, with weights that operate the flywheel to turn the skewer. We can roast up to eight prime ribs at a time. We use an old recipe with herbs and spices, hardwoods and fruitwoods.” They serve clam chowder, which guests help to make. “The quick chowder heats in a caldron and we have the guests shake in the spices,” says Salem. “It’s a lot of fun.” Another New England offering: butternut squash. Deep-dish apple pie and a bowl of freshly made whipped cream complete the meal.

These wintry New England-style evenings include sleigh rides if snow accommodates, or rides in horse-drawn carriages when there’s no snow on the ground. The Inn serves a traditional Thanksgiving meal with all the trappings, including turkeys roasting in the fireplace and music in the Tavern.

“We get entire families. The Inn becomes the place where they celebrate the holiday,” Salem explains, “and we get couples whose kids are grown, and rather than travel or go to other big gatherings, they choose a quiet meal they don’t have to cook.”

Though the restaurant is closed Christmas Eve and Christmas Day, there are occasions throughout December to stir up holiday cheer. During a dinner, actors from a repertory theater in Sturbridge may perform a play based on A Child’s Christmas in Wales that Salem describes as “instant Christmas spirit.” The big maple tree outside, ablaze with blue and white lights, is a festive centerpiece for the community each year.•

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