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.
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.
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.