Simple, honest meals fed many generations of Shakers

Thursday May 3, 2010

When Amy Bess Miller and close friend Persis Fuller - Hancock Shaker Village's kitchen director - finally got " The Best of Shaker Cooking" published 40 years ago, they probably didn't realize they were writing a classic that would keep American cooking traditions alive from our earliest days as a nation.

For, as Miller's daughter said when speaking about the recipes her mother and Fuller collected, "People would come to join the Shakers and they would have brought whatever their cooking skills were."

"Every home cook in that era had a wrinkle," Margo Miller said. "There were a lot of women who joined with their whole families and whatever the local food was - New England, Kentucky, Indiana."

When the Shakers emigrated to America in 1774, the Revolutionary War was changing the new land from an English colony into the first modern democratic nation. Shaker communities developed as the country and a new cuisine using new American foods were being born.

Each woman brought her food history to the Shaker communities, and, since Shakers were perfectionists, they brought out the best in each dish. Cranberries, corn, potatoes, tomatoes, vanilla, oranges, lemons and other new foods were used.

Most early American settlers came with Northern European tastes after having lived on farms for a generation or two. When they became Shakers, they still cooked simple, hearty, working farmers' foods. Even cooking with the herbs they raised did not change their homespun cookery.

"When people became Shakers they brought everything they had with them ... mainly English country cooking," Margo Miller said. "They had wonderful dairy, eggs and meat. I guess they must have baked; everyone baked back then. And they were feeding a couple of hundred people a day, but it was good plain cooking."

"The Best of Shaker Cooking" gathered recipes that had been used and time-tested - some for close to 200 years - and presented them in one volume. What might have been historically curious recipes hidden in manuscript cabinets are now in a book that has stayed in print for nearly a half-century.

Its publisher, Macmillan, came out with a new hard-cover edition just last year.

Both Margo Miller and her brother, Michael, agreed that their mother included recipes that were of the era, but not necessarily from Shakers.

"Not all of them [the recipes] are authentic Shaker," Michael Miller said. "John Persip's corn fritters are not a Shaker recipe, but the vast majority of them are."

Margo Miller pronounced those fritters "absolutely wonderful!" and explained that the Persips were Pittsfield caterers her mother used for big parties.

"The Best of Shaker Cooking" is still timely.

"I use [it], " said Charles Flint, a Lenox antiques dealer and Shaker artifact expert. "I got their bakingpowder biscuits out of it. I love the cookbook."

Michael Miller said his mother was "a very good writer and always did it in longhand."

"I remember when it came out, it was a very big deal," Flint recalled.


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