The historic Salem Cross Inn sits along Route 9 in West Brookfield, MA, like a welcoming stop for travelers en route in a horse and carriage. At this season’s Fireplace Feast, the horse and carriage really is part of the experience.
This season of the Fireplace Feast dining event started in November 2016 and runs until April 2017, providing guests with traditional, homemade New England fare in a warm 18th century setting. “It’s just kind of a fun way to get together!” says Martha Salem-Leasca. As the daughter of co-founder Henry Salem, she has been working at the family restaurant since she was in second grade delivering relish to guests—even Julia Child. “That was my big thrill!” she says of remembering the moment when she was in fourth grade.
The Salem Cross Inn restaurant was founded in 1961 and the historic building sits on 600-acres of land. The Fireplace Feast has been running for over thirty years, partially inspired by her father’s love for antiques and one of the pieces in his collection–the roasting jack that dates back to the 1700s. This unique antique takes the starring role in roasting the prime rib—the Fireplace Feast’s main course. “That roasting jack was a bugaboo! He couldn’t find one in forever. He would find pieces of it, but he couldn’t ever find [a complete one.]” says Salem-Leasca. Serendipitously, a friend in Maine managed to find a mostly-complete roasting jack for Henry Salem. Soon after, Henry and his brother, Dick Salem, managed to get the roasting jack to work and began roasting different meats until they perfected the slow-roasted prime rib.
Upon entering the downstairs tavern, Salem-Leasca greets everyone in a big, friendly voice, almost as if she was welcoming guests for a dinner party in her own home. She advises guests to take in the horse-drawn wagon ride (or sleigh ride during snowy weather) before reentering to warm up with hot mulled cider or mulled wine (she was right). After a short ride in the wagon drawn by two Belgian horses across the vast land behind the Inn, the steaming cup of hot cider is the best way to warm up. The spices meld together as if you are drinking apple pie–perhaps a nod to the dessert that is yet to come in the Fireplace Feast. True to the historic nature of the event, the drinks are prepared with traditional mulling irons. “We have these big pitchers with the wine or cider and you plunge the [hot] poker into the drink. It heats it up for you and marries all the spices together. The steam comes out, […] you can smell it—it’s delicious!” she adds.
The flames in the fireplace crackle but are barely audible over the energetic chatter in the room. The main course, prime rib, cooks to perfection on a spit as the room is filled with the earthy wood burning smell. The roast is turned by the famous roasting jack on the wall. “It is the only known operating [roasting jack] in a public place that can roast that amount of food,” Salem-Leasca says of the two-tiers of prime rib that roast for the Fireplace Feast.
While the prime rib roasts, diners take the opportunity to also watch a local baker prepare the Fireplace Feast dessert–a massive apple pie made with local apples from Breezelands Orchards in Warren, MA. Not to miss another antique in the Salem Cross Inn’s collection, the apples are cut with an antique peeler and corer. “The apple peeler dates back to the Industrial Revolution,” says Salem-Leasca.
Part of the Fireplace Feast tradition is to involve guests in preparing the meals. When the roast finishes, a large cast-iron cauldron is hung in the fireplace over a roaring tower of flames to make the seafood chowder. A sharp sizzling radiates from the cauldron as Salem-Leasca’s brother, Bo Salem, adds each ingredient and guests take turns stirring the bubbling stew. The high temperature of the fire cooks the chowder within minutes and the fresh scent of the seafood and spices tantalizes the guests as the finishing touches are added to the recipe.
Venturing upstairs to the rustic dining room for the main event, the feast, guests sit at long tables, since the Feast is served family style, perhaps like the historic feeling of a New England tavern’s tables. The cauldron makes the first appearance and guests begin with bowls of piping hot chowder. The addition of Pollock and two different types of clams, quahog and sea clams, give the traditional New England recipe a flavorful twist. And just as in a family dinner, seconds are offered to make sure no one goes away hungry. When the prime rib is served, it is easy to see why the roasting jack is a prized piece of cooking equipment. The slow-roast takes about 2 1/2 to 3 hours total, and it’s worth the wait. The prime rib is served well-done or medium rare and is succulent and juicy. The meat melts-in-your-mouth with robust sweetness. Alongside the main course are a selection of fresh dinner rolls and true to the farm-to-table sensibilities, local roasted potatoes and butternut squash. “We’ve always done the prime rib and we’ve always done the apple pie. We wanted it to be a real New England menu,” says Salem-Leasca. “We’ve always done the chowder. Those are kind of New England staples.”
The Fireplace Feast piece de resistance could easily be the prime rib, however the show-stopping gigantic bowl of whipped cream is paraded around the dining room like a prized holiday confection. Guests line up for a slab of the apple pie that, much to their delight, disappears under a dollop of whipped cream the size of a small snow-drift.
The Fireplace Feast guests eat like a New Englander from the past, but with modern comforts and conveniences. “[Guests] get to truly experience part of history, blending the old with the new,” says Salem-Leasca. “And just to have some comradery with the people around you. We’ve ha d some people who’ve actually met each other at the Fireplace Feast, and then they meet [again] the following year at the Fireplace Feast,” she adds about the convivial feeling in the community-oriented dining experience. It seems that with the Fireplace Feast, celebrating traditions here in New England is American as the enormous apple pie we ate.
For more information, visit the Salem Cross Inn website here.
© Chelsea E. Dill 2016