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.




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.


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.



It did not do well.

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


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


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.




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.

Food in the 1790’s

While talking with a friend about early American food, and the divergence between American cookery and British, he said the differences were due to the influx of immigrants with their regional cuisines.

Yes, that is partly true, but more so later on,

The truth is that what was eaten began diverging right away.

Take the word corn for example. In Britain, corn was a general term for grain. (So in the nursery rhyme ‘the cows in the corn’, the cows could have been in the wheat. the term used for corn was the American Indian word maize.

Corn was a staple of the American diet, eaten in a variety of ways: bread, pancakes, pone (little cakes) and so on. Including something called ash pone which was cooked in the ashes. (Yuck?)

Squash, another Indian name for an American vegetable, was an addition to the American diet.

They did have something they called pumpkin pie but we would not recognize it. It was slices of raw apple and pumpkin sugared and cooked in a crust. (Unappealing, I think. I tried a recipe for a Shaker lemon pie which was slices of raw lemon, heavily sugared and baked in a pie. Incredibly sour, despite the sugar. But I digress). What we would call pumpkin pie (stewed pumpkin stewed with sugar and spices) was called a pudding at that time.

Other differences: corn cobs were used to smoke bacon and cranberry sauce accompanied the roast turkey, cranberries being an American fruit. Mince pie, by the way, was made with meat – usually venison, not apples and raisins as it is now.

One of the early recipes gives directions for spruce beer. Yes, it really does contain spruce, but also hops and molasses. And speaking of molasses, this is a word Americans, even from this time forward, have used in preference to the more British treacle.