Simple Shaker Fare

Seasonal ingredients and unfussy food reflect the Shaker way of life.

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As a Shaker cook, Lindsay bridged the 19th and 20th centuries. She was placed at Canterbury as an orphan in 1905 and learned the culinary practices from older Sisters, starting with cooking potatoes. A typical Shaker meal might consist of soup, meat, bread, several kinds of vegetables, and at least one dessert. Pie and applesauce were often part of every meal. (When she was a teenager, it wasn’t unusual for Lindsay to bake 25 pies in a weekend for Shakers, hired hands, and visitors.)

One meal she shared with me started with tomato-rice soup, which she had learned to prepare 65 years earlier. Parsnips were baked with brown sugar and butter, the way she had mastered as a teenager. She also prepared pot roast, and dessert was a chocolate steamed pudding from a 19th-century recipe with a sauce she learned when she was 20.

Fresh fare

I’d never spent much time in the kitchen before meeting Lindsay, and from her I learned cooking could be an art. She believed a fine meal should be "eye-appealing" as well as delicious. Meals changed according to the seasons and to what the Shakers could grow, preserve, and store. Cultivating their own produce was always a source of pride. The early Shakers ate simple New England fare: minced meat, bean porridge, ­potatoes, Indian bread, cider, and, occasionally, milk, butter, or cheese. As their orchards and fields expanded, so did their food choices. They eventually raised seeds for vegetables, herbs, and flowers, which they sold. They were not the first to develop a seed industry in America but were probably the first to sell seeds in individual packages.

The Shakers also grew and sold herbs. Canterbury Shaker physician Thomas Corbett established an herb garden in 1816. By 1841 the Shakers began selling sweet marjoram, summer savory, sage, thyme, and horseradish for culinary use. Parsley, mustard, and cayenne were later added to recipes, along with nutmeg, cloves, allspice, ginger, and mace. They sweetened food with sugar, as well as maple sugar and honey (which they also cultivated). Today the still-active Sabbathday Lake Shakers in Maine list 20 culinary herbs in their catalog.

The Shakers’ diet changed as their physicians learned more about nutrition, and Lindsay kept abreast of the latest trends in healthful eating. In the 1930s she began making salads, and in the 1950s ­reduced the use of animal fats.

I learned much from Lindsay about respecting the old and embracing the new. We developed an excellent partnership while working on her memoir. As a trained cook, she rarely had to measure ingredients but knew instinctively how much to add. As a novice, I obsessively measured everything. I had to convince her that readers would probably be more like me and need the instruction. She finally agreed to include quantities. Lindsay also was accustomed to cooking for a crowd, so we needed to adapt the recipes to feed a family. I organized a team of volunteers to test the recipes for her. We took turns arriving at Lindsay’s door, while she tasted our efforts and advised us to add a little of this or that. It was a privilege to test her recipes, and we share adaptations of recipes by Lindsay and other Shaker cooks here.

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