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.

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Shakers and Herbs Part 3 -Marketing and Sales

Although Waterlviet (just outside of Albany) was the Shakers’ first home, the herb business there began after the business in New Lebanon, New York – now known as Mount Lebanon.  The community began with a few farms and later expanded to become the largest, most prosperous and most influential. It was considered the most ordered and became the Central Ministry.

Until 1821 only wild herbs were gathered but they were gathered in such enormous quantities that many disappeared and quite a few are on the endangered list. In January of that year they began selling herbs to the World, i.e. to people outside the community. After that they began planting physic gardens.

Waterlviet began selling in 1827 and by 1830 had produced a printed catalog.

The Mount Lebanon catalog soon followed, along with Sabbathday Lake (established in 1794 and the last of the Eastern communities to be established), and the New Hampshire,  the Connecticut and finally the Western communities in Ohio and Kentucky. By 1840 the catalogs were four pages long.

But how did they market? We know they did so (and very successfully too). The market they were entering was sated with exotic elixers and medicines and wild promises to cure every malady.

First, their herbs were marketed as pure and, as their reputation for purity of medicinal herbs grew, the business expanded. (Competitors began advertising their herbs as ‘Shaker’ seeds and herbs.

The catalogs, as mentioned above, became larger and with more material and information in each new edition. Like marketers today, they began offering discounts. An account book from the late 1830s offers a discount of 25% for 25 dollars purchased.

They direct marketed to physicians and included samples.

Their ‘territory’, if you will, was world-wide. They imported coriander to sell and by the mid-1800’s were shipping to London, England and San Francisco. They had a busy river trade up and down the major rivers, the Red River, the Ohio River and the Mississippi peddling brooms, straw hats, socks and jeans as well as seeds and herbs.

After the Civil War, and especially toward the early 1900s, the Shaker membership declined. The herb business also began slipping and many of the business were closed. The Sabbathday Lake herb industry was closed in 1911. Some of the others hung on a little longer. The Sabbathday Lake community is unique in that the herb industry was reestablished in 1960 and I was able to purchase a packet of lavender, packed in Sabbathday Lake, in a gift shop attached to the ruins of the community in Albany.

And most people know the Shakers only for their furniture!

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.

Shakers and Herbs, Part One

The Shakers arrived in the New World in 1774. Like most of the new colonists, they brought some herbal knowledge with them. Yarrow, boneset, dandelion (which is not native to North America) are some of the plants brought over from Britain. Although there were doctors, most of a family’s medical needs were served by a wife or mother, midwife – not the doctor. But I digress.

Again like many of the new colonists, the Shakers drew upon the knowledge of the local tribes to learn about the herbs in the woods. At first, the Shakers wanted the herbs to treat the illnesses in their own community. Later, they planted physic gardens to meet their needs. As farmers everywhere do, if they grew a surplus, they sold it. This was the beginning of a thriving  and very profitable business.

Although Watervliet was the first Shaker community, (just outside of Albany several of the old fields now lie under the Albany airport), the Central Ministry was located at New Lebanon in New York (west of Albany.) The herbal trade began here and soon spread to several other communities, Canterbury, NH and Union Village near Lebanon, Ohio among them. AS we all know, the health business is rife with quackery, The snake oil salesman is a caricature of reality for our early history. The Shakers, despite the fact they were considered religious oddities (almost cultists) brought herbal medicines to respectability.

It was also incredibly lucrative. At its height, the business grossed $150,000 annually. This in a time when an experienced carpenter might make four shillings a week. In today’s money, that $150,000 a year would be worth upwards of 2 million.

The Shakers, by the way, kept meticulous records. Besides commercial transactions , they carefully documented what herb was shipped where and what it cost, they kept records of every aspect of Shaker life. The health of every individual was of prime importance. In fact, the Millennial Laws decreed that “As the natural body is prone to sickness and disease, it is proper that there should be suitable persons appointed to attend to necessary duties in administering aid to those in need.” In health care, as in so many other practices, the Shakers were well in advance of the society that surrounded them.

A quick review of the records pertaining to the deaths of these community members and in an age when the life span was between 40 and fifty, it is not surprising to find Shakers passing away at 87, 88 and even 101.

I based my primary Shaker community Zion on Sabbathday Lake which is located in Alfred, Maine. It is still home to the last remaining Shakers. (Three at last count. When I first began my research several years ago there were ten.) A visit to any of the gift shops in what were once thriving Shaker communities reveals packets of herbs for purchase, all packed at Sabbathday Lake. The remaining Shakers continue to labor exactly as they always have done.

Next: a review of some of the less common herbs used and sold by the Shakers.

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.

 

 

 

Gardening catalogs arrive

One of my favorite times of the year is this one – when gardening catalogs begin to arrive3 and I can start planning my summer garden. I always plant veggies like peas, broccoli, tomatoes. But every year I also add something new. One year I tried broccoli rabe. I got so little before the weather turned and the heat came in.  One year I tried bok choy. I quickly discovered that I don’t like bok choy enough to eat it several times a week. (Come to think of it, I even get tired of tomatoes.)

One year I tried patio corn.

stalks

corn

It did not do well.

Beets, however, were such a success I plant them now every year.

beets

I always plant lots of beans, too. Green beans that is. They freeze beautifully and I always have a wonderful harvest.

beanstalk

One of my New Year’s resolutions was to try herbs other than basil and rosemary. So I plan to plant oregano and tarragon.

What new vegetable am I going to try? I think kidney and pinto beans. We’ll see how they work out.

When I have something that fails I always think how lucky I am to live when the crop does not feed my family. I belong to a CSA and I can always go to the local supermarket. Even as recently as 70 or so years ago this was not true, a crop failure might mean hunger or starvation.

 

 

Winter?

We are almost into January and the warmth continues. Thus far, even in upstate New York, we have not had a killing frost. I still have beets

beets

and kale

kale

Moreover, my poor dog is suffering. She grew in her winter coat. And now it looks like her April hair; ragged as she sheds. This is her flank one day after brushing.

shelby fur

I, however, am not complaining. Maybe this year I will actually get my peas in to the ground mid-March instead of being held back by snow.