Breakfast with The Eagle: A home-cooked breakfast with Jennifer Trainer Thompson

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WILLIAMSTOWN — Jennifer Trainer Thompson doesn't have to visit a local market to buy ingredients for a hearty breakfast.

At Hancock Shaker Village, the living history museum that Thompson leads as president and CEO, animals and plants commingle with the religious group's artifacts. Thompson also raises chickens at her home in Williamstown.

More importantly, when she has these resources at-hand, she knows what to do with them. She has authored "The Fresh Egg Cookbook" and, well, how many cookbooks in total?

"10, 12," Thompson said while eggs sizzled (some from her own chickens, some from the museum's) in her kitchen on Wednesday morning. She has lost count.

These natural resources, however haven't always been so readily available.

"My idea of the country was Chappaqua," Thompson said of her younger years spent living in New York City.

Thompson moved to the Berkshires from Manhattan with her late first husband, Peter Wright Duble, Jr., who was working on Wall Street as a shipbroker, more than three decades ago. He wanted to grow shiitake mushrooms on a farm in North Adams.

"He had this crazy idea," she recalled.

Thompson had already demonstrated that she wasn't afraid to take risks herself. After bouncing between the Midwest and New England as a child, she graduated from Tufts University (following a stint at Earlham College) and watched as many of her classmates headed to law school or medical school.

"I hopped on a sailboat," she said.

She helped deliver four boats from Maine to the Virgin Islands.

"It was pretty fun," she said. "That was also part of my introduction to the food world."

One of the other three crew members, Elizabeth Wheeler, was a cook who had worked on writer William F. Buckley's trans-Atlantic trips. Wheeler helped stir Thompson's interest in food, and they later co-authored "The Yachting Cookbook," which features 160 recipes.

When Thompson returned to land for good, she found a job as a food editor's assistant at Simon & Schuster in New York. She was eventually fired.

"Everybody should get fired at some point. ... It was the best thing that could've happened to me," Thompson said.

When her husband decided it was time for a move in 1985, Thompson had authored a book about nuclear power and was working on another about unified field theory. It was difficult to acclimate to her new home with her solitary occupation.

"It was so isolating being a full-time writer in the Berkshires not knowing anybody," she said, now sitting at her dining room table in front of some scrambled eggs, toast, tomatoes (the last of the museum's supply) and bacon. Gracie, a rescue dog, lounged nearby.

Later on, Thompson met Thomas Krens, the former director of the Williams College Museum of Art, at a cocktail party.

"He told me about this wacky idea that he had for a museum," she recalled.

That idea is now known as the Massachusetts Museum of Contemporary Art.

With the shiitake mushroom business struggling, Thompson needed a job, so she applied for one in 1988 with the executive planning group that was working on the project. For the next 28 years, she worked in development, public relations and other areas of the institution, helping the museum grow from its nascent stages into "adulthood," she said. Along the way, she married Mass MoCA Director Joe Thompson, following the death of her first husband. (The Thompsons are no longer together.)

Leaving didn't seem like an option for much of Thompson's tenure at Mass MoCA when there were only a few employees. Even if it wasn't the case, she said, "You always felt like, oh my God, if you left, it's like a three-legged stool, and it would fall."

But when Hancock Shaker Village President and CEO Linda Steigleder announced she would be leaving her post in March of 2016, it felt like the right time for Thompson to pursue a new challenge.

"For the past 20 years, I always said, if there's any place that would lure me away from Mass MoCA, it would be Hancock Shaker Village. And I'm being totally sincere here — I've always loved it, and I've always felt it was a really special place," she said. She would often take her children — Trainer, a 19-year-old sophomore at the University of Vermont, and Isabel, 14, a freshman at Buxton School — to see the baby animals when they were younger.

At the same time, she also thought the museum was "sleepy" and needed some reviving.

"You want something to be vibrant and active, but you don't want to compromise the authenticity or integrity of the place, either, and I thought that was a very delicate balance," she said.

Thompson was officially announced as Steigleder's replacement in September of 2016 but didn't assume her position until January of 2017. With the benefit of hindsight, Thompson wished she had started sooner.

"I probably would've started in October instead of January because to try to prepare for a season in three months was a little nuts," she said.

Thompson's first year focused on enhancing or adding programs that involved food, ideas, art and music. This included opening Seeds Market Cafe and the "Making: Then and Now" art exhibit as well as beginning the Food for Thought author speaker series and Shaker Barn Music Series.

"I really just wanted to shake it up and get people thinking about Hancock Shaker Village and get people to come. And we did that. I don't know if we've had higher visitation than we've ever had, but we did well this year in terms of visitors," she said.

Thompson closely monitors those numbers, meeting every Monday with her chief financial officer to review visitation, store sales and other data. Weather and other factors beyond the museum's control can affect these figures, she reminds herself.

"There are fluctuations. You can become paranoid," she said.

To unwind, Thompson enjoys hiking trails at Mount Greylock with Gracie, biking and kayaking down the Hoosic River near her home.

She also loves hanging with the animals on-site, she said. Museum-goers will have a chance to see some of the farm's heritage turkeys themselves on the day after Thanksgiving (the museum will be open from 10 a.m. to 4 p.m. that Friday). On the Saturday of that weekend, the museum will host a three-course harvest supper by Seeds chef Brian Alberg in the Brick Dwelling. Both days are part of the museum's Hancock Holidays programming that runs through Dec. 17.

Next year, Thompson hopes to build on the museum's foray into music, adding a sound art installation in one of the museum's silos. But food will also be a greater focus.

"I think that food really separates Hancock Shaker Village from other places, that our gardens have been organic for 200 years and that we have a farm-to-table chef and that we're drawing a link between those two," she said.

The museum will also be increasing its summer intern staff from three to seven, two of which will be farm interns learning how to run a business in the agricultural economy.

"In the Berkshires, I think it's really important to train the next generation, so we keep our youth," she said. "And what is the business of the Berkshires? A big part of it is culture, but it's also agriculture, and we have both."

Benjamin Cassidy can be reached at bcassidy@berkshireeagle.com, at @bybencassidy on Twitter and 413-496-6251.


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