Behind the Story
When most people think of the Shakers, they envision elegantly simple furniture. But the Shakers, who were arguably the most successful communal religious group in American history, strove for perfection in all aspects of their lives as part of their goal to create heaven on earth. They paid as careful attention to the quality of their diet as they did to building a table or chair.
In our pursuit of healthy living, we can learn a great deal from them. Much as Shaker craftsmen used quality wood to build furniture, Shaker cooks believed that the way to a good meal and health was to start with fresh ingredients.
The Shakers are often described as simple folk, but they were shrewd observers of changing markets in America. At their peak of nearly 6,000 members and 19 communities in the mid-1800s, they were renowned for the level of detail they brought to most everything they did, from designing a building for one of their communities to preparing a meal. They were eager to adopt new methods to increase efficiency, whether it was designing a tool for woodworking or building a special oven to accommodate baking dozens of pies at once.
"While the Shakers are particularly famous for beautiful furniture, equal attention should be given to our cooking," my friend Eldress Bertha Lindsay stated in her memoir, Seasoned with Grace: My Generation of Shaker Cooking.
A lifetime of great cooking
Lindsay, Lead Eldress of the Shaker Ministry from 1967 until her death at 91 in 1990, exemplified the Shaker ideals of humility and order. Although blind in later life, she could recall precisely where items were located throughout the Canterbury, New Hampshire, community where she lived. Trained as a cook, she maintained high standards by serving wholesome, flavorful food. After the village became a museum in 1969, she made all guests "kindly welcome," as she called it.
I first met Lindsay in 1979 while working on an exhibit on the Shakers at the New Hampshire Historical Society. She and Eldress Gertrude Soule, who lived with her, arrived at the opening reception unannounced to critique the exhibit. I was surprised, a little intimidated, and honored they felt my work was worthy of their review. Both women were tiny―I’m five-foot-three and towered over them―but they stood out in their colorful dresses, Lindsay in pale pink, Soule in lavender, and both wearing bonnets made of straw or sweetgrass. While Soule bustled off to inspect my work, I led Lindsay to a sofa, where we chatted. Little did I know that four years later I would be curator at Canterbury Shaker Village. We formed a bond, and she later asked me to help her compile a cookbook. It was soon evident that her stories about harvesting, processing, and serving food were as important as the recipes, and the cookbook evolved into a lively memoir.