The Shakers and Herbs – Part 2 Medicinal qualities in common weeds

Many of the plants we despise as weeds actually have qualities that render them useful as medicines, dye plants or more. Take the humble dandelion, for example. First of all, it is not native to North America but was brought over by the first colonists. The leaves are edible and I’m sure most people have heard of dandelion wine. Using it as a dye produces a reddish color. I’ve also read, although never tried it, that if a woman who believes she might be pregnant urinates on the leaves and they change color, she will know she is expecting.

Medicinally, the dandelion is recommended for diseases of the liver, constipation and uterine obstructions. It should be collected when the plant is young. A freshly dried root can be used as a tonic for stomach troubles.

Broadleaf dock root, a common visitor in my yard, can be used as a purge and a tonic. The Shakers shipped great quantities of this root. In 1889, some forty four thousand pounds was shipped to one firm in Lowell Mass from Enfield, New Hampshire. Since at that time the root was selling for about 50 cents a pound, the community must have made quite a bit.

Skunk cabbage was another plant used successively as a treatment. A stimulant, the root was used for nervous irritability (not sure what this means) and whooping cough, asthma, chronic rheumatism and spasms.

Burdock leaves were used as a cooling poultice.

I’m sure you get the idea. Some of the other weeds they harvested and sold are: Butternut bark (the hulls of the nuts make a yellowish gray dye), elder flowers (tasty as well as medicinal), Yarrow, hoarhown, bugle, crosswort (or boneset) and many more.

They also made combinations as lozenges and syrups. Their cough medicine included wild cherry bark, seneca snakeroot with rhubarb and a tiny amount of morphine. (The Shakers also grew the opium poppy and sold the raw opium at tremendous prices.) Another popular offering was Tamar laxative. Among other ingredients it included Tamarind, prunes, fruit of cassia and sugar. The resulting paste was dried and cut into lozenges.

Interestingly, they also sold concentrated sarsaparilla syrup. Sarsaparilla is also known as wild licorice.

Although the Shakers were a religious community, they were also canny – but honest – businessmen and women. Next up, the marketing and selling of the herbs.

Housekeeping circa 1798 – food preparation

Without refrigeration or canned goods, food was prepared from scratch, usually three times a day. Breakfast might consist of mush, pancakes, eggs – familiar food. Supper was a usually a light meal of leftovers from the noon dinner or mush and milk.

 

So cooking was all day, every day. Churning butter and making cheese, smoking meat (men did the butchering but women took care of the meat afterward) and all the food preservation had to be fitted in around the basic cooking. Churning butter, for example, was a time consuming process. It was usually handed off to a child but since it took skill to pat the butter into crocks this was a task reserved for Mother.

 

Cheese making was another skill. Everything had to be spotless and the temperatures just so.

 

Women prepared meals over an open fire or on the hearth of a fireplace.  (The average household used between 30 and 40 cords of wood a year – equal to about one acre of timber). Stoves had been invented by then. Immigrants who came from countries with wood shortages brought tile stoves. Ben Franklin invented a stove in 1741 – but that were not designed for cooking. The 1800s saw the development of stoves – heavy cast iron devices that h led eventually to the large ranges – but they did not take off until after 1815 or so, until then women cooked over an open fire. If the fire went out during the night, a child might be dispatched to a neighbor for a coal. Otherwise a tinderbox might be used. I’ve seen people demonstrate cooking over an open fire. One woman, who is very experienced at these demonstrations, took three hours to get the fire started.

 

As we all know an even temperature is not possible with an open fire. Some of the early fireplaces had ovens for bread and other baked goods built into the brick surround. It must have been quite an art to determine the right temperature for bread or other food. It also explains the boiled desserts and breads: i.e. Boston brown bread or the boiled puddings. So much easier to boil something in a mold without worrying about the temperature. Think about A Christmas Carol by Dickens and the Christmas dinner at the Cratchit house. The turkey had to be roasted elsewhere and the Christmas pudding was boiled.

 

Baked goods, while I’m on the subject, were stored in crocks but without plastic wrap, went stale pretty quickly. Baking therefore had to be undertaken several times every week.

 

Most women used the hearth as a cook surface and a variety of pans to cook on it near the fire. The spider, a three-legged pan, was one such piece of equipment used to bake food. The Dutch over was another. Placed on the hearth, they baked the food slowly in the heat from the fire. Women could then turn their attention to other chores.

 

Fireplaces had look swinging handles that could be pushed over the fire to heat water or cook stew. Some of the big pots that women were lifting from floor level, however, weighed 60 pounds. Yes, sixty, and that’s empty. Now add water and meat.  Add that to the likelihood of burning, not only the food, but you as well and cooking was certainly a challenge. So much for the weaker sex.

 

A final note: The stoves and ranges, although an advance over cooking over an open fire, were known to be temperamental. Contemporary accounts from that period talk about the necessary training a girl had to have before she could really use one of the stoves.

House keeping 1790s – Refrigeration

Another amazing invention, in my opinion, is refrigeration. We take it for granted but refrigeration, especially mechanical refrigeration, is pretty new.

Ice has been used to cool food for millennia. In 400 BC Persian engineers had already mastered the technique for storing ice. Ice was brought in from the mountains and stored underground in specially designed spaces. The ice was used to chill treats for royalty. (Of course )

In England during the sixteenth to seventeenth centuries in England low lying areas near the Thames were flooded in winter. The ice was stored in an ice house, insulated by sawdust, moss or something similar. As early as 1823 ice was imported from Norway and of course in the US, ice was transported from the North to the South, i.e from Maine to points as far away as South Carolina. This led to a new industry: the ice trade. Ice was cut from frozen ponds and streams and stored in ice houses before being shipped – eventually – around the world. As one would expect, the citizens of New York City and Philadelphia became huge consumers during their long hot summers.

The ice trade revolutionized the U.S meat, vegetable and fruit industries. It led to the invention of ice boxes; yes, wooden boxes lined with zinc or tin and other insulators like moss, sawdust or cork, with a box for ice. A drip pan underneath caught the melted water. The horse drawn wagons of ice and the ice man became a familiar sight. By 1907 81% of the households in New York City had ice boxes and they are widely credited with a drop of 50% of infant mortality in the summer.

Mechanical ice began to be produced in the late 1800s but was chancy and the process used toxic ammonia gas. Mechanical refrigerators did not go to the homes until the various fluorocarbons were developed.

Prior to refrigeration milk spoiled quickly; in fact, all perishable foods spoiled quickly. People had cold cellars to cool food and tried putting milk down the well to cool it. I read that cheese was an attempt to use milk before it soured.

So, to my way of thinking, the refrigerator is even more important than indoor plumbing.

Housekeeping – 1797 Food Preservation

I was buying cans of beans and diced tomatoes to make chili (a winter staple in my house) when I paused and really looked at the can. We take canned food so much for granted I doubt we ever really think about how wonderful it is. Oh, I know canned spinach is limp and I don’t care for canned green beans BUT before the 1800s there was no such thing as canned food or refrigeration either for that matter.

Food has to be preserved to last over the winter – unless you follow the birds south or plan to starve. Methods for preserving food prior to canned food and refrigeration amounted to pickling, think sauerkraut, drying, salting or smoking. Sugar can also be used but sugar was very expensive then.

People knew keeping the air away from food kept it from spoiling but not why.  Louis Pasteur would not be born for another almost twenty-five years so no one even guessed there were microscopic microbes everywhere. So when was this modern marvel invented?

Well, in 1795 Napoleon Bonaparte offered a reward for anyone who find a reliable method for preserving food for troops on the move. (I imagine he was already dreaming of military glory and world domination). It took fifteen years but one Nicholas Appert figured out a way to seal food in glass jars. Ten years later an Englishman named Peter Durand invented a method using unbreakable tin cans. At first these tinned foods were luxury items for the wealthy but by the end of the nineteenth century they were available for everyone.

Ironically, while the invention was spurred by Napoleon and his wars, the use of canned foods exploded during our own Civil War.

 

Beignets and sugar

A beignet is a square of fried dough sprinkled – or in some cases dredged – in powdered sugar. These are a specialty in New Orleans and very good they are too.

But they are also a feature of French Canadian cooking and are eaten in Maine. Because of the Arcadians (who were expelled and went to Louisiana. Arcadians = Cajuns. Does anyone remember the poem Evangeline by Longfellow?) French cooking went as well. There it combined with some Spanish but mostly African cuisine to make Cajun food.

But surely beignets were not eaten with powdered sugar in the 1790s? Well, you can make powdered sugar from regular sugar with a mortar and pestle so yes, probably they were. However, beignets are delicious with regular sugar too. And sugar has been around for millenia. It was discovered/invented in India and went from there to the Middle East. In the Middle Ages it was considered a fine spice and was wildly expensive. The transformation of sugar cane (growing, harvesting and cooking down to the granulated state) is very labor intensive. But, by the early 1700s, plantations – worked by slaves – were already being set up in the West Indies.

From there, sugar cultivation went to North America, primarily southern Louisiana. The slave trade from Africa, already begun in the West Indies, went to the South of the colonies. One of the tour guides said that sugar cultivation – so labor intensive and so lucrative, was primarily responsible for the explosion of slavery. (I would guess cotton comes in second.)

From 1710 to 1770, sixty years, the per capita consumption of sugar went up five fold. Today we eat many tons.

Potatoes

Potatoes are a New World crop. Developed in Peru and thereabouts, the Incas developed potatoes. Not all of them are edible for humans. They come in a variety of colors, including purple. But I digress.

Potatoes were still rare and not frequently planted. One story out of Colonial times says if a man ate potatoes he would not live seven years. During the 1790s more farmers were beginning to plant potatoes but they were still rare.

Potatoes were exported to England and were called Virginia potatoes. As we all know, they went to Ireland and became a staple in their diet. They returned to this country as Irish potatoes. A fashionable way of cooking them included butter, sugar and grape juice and then mixed with dates and lemons and seasoned with cinnamon and nutmeg. They were finally covered with a layer of sugar. Calorie overload!

More popular were sweet potatoes. It was roasted in the ashes, boiled, made into puddings, and eaten instead of bread. And of course, made into pie which tastes, like pumpkin.

A-Maize -ing Corn

When most of us think of corn, we think of fat golden ears or popcorn covered with butter.

When the first colonists came to this country, corn was much different. And Indian crop along with squash, corn had to be ground and cooked to make it palatable. Dishes had names like suppawn and samp as well as the more familiar pone and hominy. Corn had to be steeped or parboiled in water for twelve hours and then ground. Samp is corn pounded to a coarsely ground powder and then made into porridge.

Every household had a mortar and pestle or some approximation of such. The Native Americans also had something called a sweep and mortar mill. The pestle was a heavy block of wood shaped like the inside of the mortar and fitted with a handle. It was attached to a sapling which gave it some spring when it was lifted. The sound could be heard a long distance. One story, maybe apocryphal, says sailors in a fog always knew they were approaching Long Island because they could hear the poundings of the samp mortars.

Suppawn was an Indian dish. It was a thick corn meal porridge made with milk. And of course, it was made into cakes.

After the corn was scraped off, the cobs were used as light wood for the fire and also to smoke hams and bacon. (That’s what cob smoked means.)

Pumpkins (or pompkins to use the colonial spelling) and other forms of squashes were also native crops. The potato known to the Colonists at this time was most likely the sweet potato.