Shaker Herbs Part Four – Culinary Herbs

The Shakers served plain food but it was nourishing and, from the recipes I’ve tried, flavorful. There was some overlap of course. Basil, for example, was used as a tea and an aromatic to prevent excessive vomiting. Rosemary was also used as a tea and its oil was made into a liniment.

Some of the other herbs are not so unsurprising. One of my favorites is for a Dandelion salad. (Seriously!) The mixture includes dandelion leaves, simmered until tender and drained, then put into a saucepan with egg yolks, cream, butter and other herbs such as mint, lemon thyme and so on. The mixture is put on slices of stale bread and fried and then seasoned with oil and vinegar and parsley.

Fish was poached with chamomile leaves or covered with chamomile sauce. (Make a roux with butter and flour (2 Tablespoons each), add a Cup of chicken stock, parsley, the chamomile leaves and add salt and pepper to taste,) Marjoram, basil, parsley and basil went into meatloaf, tarragon, summer savory, marjoram, chervil and thyme into chicken fricasee.

Hancock Village served an herb soup made up of chopped sorrel, chopped shallots, chervil, mint and parsley boiled in milk. Butter and salt and pepper are added to taste and the whole mixture poured over squares of toasted bread.

I want to add a note about the Shaker’s recipe for bread which I found in a James Beard bread book. It is so delicious I could eat an entire loaf. But I digress.

Another soup is apple soup, so tasty on a cool fall day. A quartered apple, cored but unpeeled, a quartered onion and a herb mix of marjoram, basil, summer savory and more combined with cinnamon is cooked in the top of a double boiler. The apple is removed when soft and the soup is strained. Cider and cream is added when ready to serve.

Some of these herbs and herb mixes can be purchased in the gift shops of the various museum communities and at Sabbathday Lake. Hancock Village had a mix that includes basil, parsley, marjoram, oregano, tarragon, thyme and more. It has been several years since I purchased my supply so I am not sure it is still available.

More about food – Garden Sass

Women in the cities might not be responsible for smoking and drying game and pork as well as preserving other types of food but women on farms and certainly on the frontier were.

Most homesteads owned pigs and even in cities the pigs ran free. Chickens might be in coops or be truly free range, foraging for themselves. (That must have made hunting for eggs fun).

And, no matter how much acreage was in corn, rye or other grains, housewives always had a small patch of vegetables. (Many of them must of had flowers too since lists of seeds and bulbs that were brought over included seeds for peach, apricot, apple, plum and cherry trees as well as seeds for snapdragons, peonies, morning glories and tulip bulbs.)Wheat bread was expensive although wheat was grown in Pennsylvania. In Maine rye and buckwheat were the common crops. Most people ate a bread called ‘injun loaf’, a combination of rye and corn.

Vegetables grown included spinach, rhubarb, several kinds of peas, beans as well as turnips, carrots, cabbage, beets and cucumbers. In more southerly climates than Maine artichokes were popular. A variety of herbs were also grown and had to be tied to the rafters and dried every fall.

Where are the potatoes? Although a new world crop (the Incas had thousands of varieties), potatoes did not get to the colonies until late in the 1700s. They quickly became a popular crop. And where are the tomatoes? Considered poisonous a hundred or so years earlier, they were still suspect.

All the vegetables were lumped together under the term garden sass.

Sugar and salt were both expensive. Salt especially was valuable and desperately needed for food preservation. Honey was the most common sweetener – ironic since bees are not native to the New World. They were brought over with the first colonists, however, and quickly became wild. The other common sweetener was from the sugar maple – maple sugar and syrup.

One final comment: the immigrants to this country brought their own eating habits with them so there were variations in what the colonists ate, depending on country of origin. The Scottish, for example, had to give up oatmeal porridge and switch to cornmeal mush for a time.

 

 

 

Shakers and alcohol

With a group, particularly a religious group, that has had such a long history, I think there is a tendency to see them as they are and extrapolate backwards. Attitudes toward drinking alcohol have changed so dramatically in the intervening few centuries that that approach is impossible.

Rees’s period, the Federalist period in American History, was a hard drinking age. Ale was used almost like water and was consumed by women and children as well as by men. Cider, which was usually hard cider (it could hardly be anything else without refrigeration) was a common breakfast drink. Many of our founding fathers took a glass of cider first thing in the morning in the same manner we drink our orange juice. Rum was used as part of sailors’ wages. (Rum is made from molasses, a byproduct in the refining of sugar. The more molasses in the sugar, the browner. Sugar has a dark history. Planting and harvesting the cane required more slaves. Cane exhausts the soil so more land was needed. And of course we are all familiar with the health risks of sugar. But I digress.) In any event, rum was the drink of the Colonies. After the Whiskey Rebellion of 1793, whiskey became more popular, more American if you will, just like coffee did in comparison to tea.

The Shakers brewed cider and like the society around them drank ‘spirits’. It was the custom for every Brother and Sister who wished to take a glass in the morning before breakfast and then through out the day. For dinner the Brothers were permitted two gills and the Sisters two thirds of a gill. (Does anyone but me wonder about the livers of all those drinkers?)

But with the Millennial Laws, especially from 1845 (and the rise of the temperance movement) the drinking of spirits (along with coffee and tea – that would have killed me) was forbidden. No cider was made and no liquor was brewed. One of the primary sources I read discussed the struggle among the Family about brewing beer for the hired men.  (More about hired men in another post.)

Eventually spirits had to be offered medicinally from the Doctor and then were banned all together. Like other cultural changes, however, this prohibition changed again and later on the Shakers both made and consumed wine with meals.

So the Shakers, like the World around them, changed as prevailing attitudes changed.

What did they eat in 1797?

With Thanksgiving coming up, my thoughts turn naturally to food.

One of the first things that strikes a modern person when one researches food from this era is how meat heavy it is. The American plate for the last fifty or so years has been meat, a vegetable and a starch like potato or rice.

Johnny cakes or cornbread would have more likely been the starch on the table. And while vegetables from the garden would be available in the summer and early fall, people would have been limited to good keepers like cabbage apples, and carrots after that.

Refrigeration was primitive. Root cellars, holes dug into the ground and cool, were further cooled with ice covered in sawdust for insulation.

But meat, both from domesticated animals and whatever a hunter could bag, was available all year. (Assuming enough wealth to own animals or the skill to hunt successfully.)

Here is a list of some of the animals eaten:

The regular domesticated: beef, pork, mutton, lamb and chicken.

Fish: salmon, shad, Hannah Hill (sea bass), oysters, lobster, cod, haddock, perch, eels

Wild: ducks, geese, partridge, deer, snipes, pigeon, hares and rabbits, turtles and of course turkey.

Recipes included many herbs.

No wonder people longed for greens in the spring.