"Our home grew by leaps and bounds," says Doris Simpson, who was married to the late Ed Simpson for 58 years. "We've been residents of Ringoes, and a vital part of the grange (a fraternal organization that advocates for farmers' economic and political well-being) for 35 years. My daughter Barbara and I judged the baking contest held on the outskirts of Ringoes."
A former home economics teacher who honed her skills in the demonstration kitchens of Public Service Gas and Electric (PSE&G) in Newark during the 1950s, Doris Simpson became a stay-at-home mom after moving to Clark to raise her four children.
"Ed and I truly enjoyed cooking and entertaining," she adds with a gleam in her eye.
In 1973, after searching the countryside, the Simpsons purchased an elderly farmhouse in Hunterdon County. They named their future home after the local railroad stop on the line from Lambertville to New York: Muirhead. Taking a y ear to renovate and completely restore the old homestead, the family constructed the kitchen to conform with health department standards and Ed and Doris opened their restaurant, also called Muirhead, in 1974. There, on the first floor of the house, they operated one of the area's most renowned restaurants for two decades.
Self-taught chefs with a profound interest in fine dining, the couple focused their energy on good food and comfortable ambience. Legend has it that they were famous for preparing cherries jubilee long before the dessert became popular.
"My parents loved to cook and entertain friends and family," recalls Barbara Simpson, who now shares the responsibility of running Muirhead's food-products business with her mother, "and during the '60s early '70s, they both believed there weren't any special, fine-fining establishments to rave about. So they decided to start one. They also decided that--in order for them to be with their family--their new restaurant would only be open on Friday, Saturday and New Year's Eve. Advanced reservations were required, and all reserved tables were guaranteed to be "yours" for the evening, assuring our guests that a visit to Muirhead would guarantee a fine-dining experience."
As executive chef and proprietor of Muirhead, Doris was responsible for the menu. She enlisted the assistance of local folks, along with her children Robin, Mark, Neil and Barbara, who were happy to help out in the kitchen and as waitstaff.
"It wasn't unusual for cars to get stuck in the mud after a heavy snow or rainstorm," Doris recalls. "We could always count on the kids to come to the aid of our clientele. Together, they'd drag the vehicles out of the mud and help them get back on the road."
Visitors entering the Muirhead dining room were mesmerized by the tables set with Colonial-blue linen, white ironstone dinnerware and pewter flatware. Adding to the ambience were walls painted soft white, sparkling hurricane lamps and tall tapers set in pewter candlesticks.
"We served delicious appetizers like clams Muirhead, and blue-cheese cheesecake," continues Doris. "Guests loved our onion-and-goat cheese tarts, our fresh garden tomatoes with pesto sauce, our smoked fish and our freshly prepared soups. With our seasonal menu, we served squash soup in the fall and winter, and a lovely cool lemon soup in the spring and summer. naturally, we'd revised our recipes with new ingredients, and each time we did, the food was more delicious.
Salad courses always included fresh lettuces and herbs from the garden. House specialties included Beef Wellington, rack of lamb served with Ed's special Muirhead mustard, sole en papillote, cioppino (a fishermen's stew with shellfish), duck with either an orange or cherry sauce, and chicken Muirhead. Prepared in-house, desserts featured praline cheesecake, a raspberry and an apricot mousse, chocolate pots de crème, a Black Forest torte and seasonal fruits. A full-course meal cost $50 per person (excluding tax and gratuity).
"As we were one of the first to offer BYO, reservations were a must," adds Doris. "For 20 years, we enjoyed a fabulous reputation. But in the back of our minds we nurtured the idea of having our own unique line of food. We decided to close in 1994, and proceed with our 'new' prepared-food business."
"Truth be told, the Muirhead clientele served as guinea pigs," continues Barbara, with a smile. "While my mother was busy cooking, my dad was creating his own line of food products. Because of continued customers requests, he developed a line of Muirhead salad dressings. From his famous Buttermilk Dressing, to Grandma Hazel's Sweet and Sour Dressing, to Balsamic Vinaigrette and Herbes de Provence, customers craved samples.
"They'd frequently ask for a jar of salad dressing to go," says Doris. "This led Ed to formally bottle some of our items for retail sales."
Anchored by their most popular product, "Muirhead Pecan Pumpkin Butter, Ed Simpson began his entrepreneurship by visiting local merchants and food purveyors. He knocked on neighborhood doors and set up booths at country fairs.
"That is a funny and interesting story," says Barbara. "The Grange holds a Pumpkin Festival every year. One year, Bertha Umstead of Lambertville made the pumpkin butter. My dad liked it so much, he thought it would taste even better with pecans. So he created his own recipe. Would you believe it won an award at the Fancy Food Show? Williams-Sonoma continues to carry it on their shelves." Today, Muirhead products are available in specialty grocery stores and markets, and online at their website.
Along with butters, dressings, chutneys and more, the Simpsons prepare wine jellies from grapes grown at Unionville Vineyards, located a few miles away. "Cameron Stark, the winemaker, discussed making wine jellies with me one day," says Barbara. "To find a good flavor match, we sample several varieties. Turns out Chardonnay, for light jelly, and Chambourcin, for dark jelly, were the winners."
"When asked what makes our products extra special, I always reply [that] our products are prepared with wholesome ingredients. [They're] made with a lot of care and attention to enhancing the flavor of the key ingredient and we do not use preservatives, gums or colors.
"I am ever so grateful for the experience of working with my dad," she continues. "He taught me the mechanics of creating and running a small business. My customers are like my family."
MUIRHEAD OF RINGOES
43 Route 202/31, Ringoes
Mustards, salad vinaigrettes, barbecue sauce, tomato sauce, fruit butters, tomato marmalade, raspberry chocolate sauce, and wine jellies.
Note: The Ringoes location is not a retail store. products are available at area gourmet and specialty food shops, by mail order, and online only.
FALL 2009 edibleJERSEY