Editor’s note: Merry Post lives on Flanders Pond in Sullivan. A member of the Culinary Historians of Boston, she is currently researching and writing a book on New England recipes and food fads of the 19th century.
By Merry Post
“The Shakers felt that teaching a little girl of 10 or 11 to cook potatoes would be valuable for her, as that is the age in which she can learn easily,” recalled Shaker Eldress Bertha Lindsay in her 1987 memoir “Seasoned with Grace: My Generation of Shaker Cooking.” “The little girls were first taught the different ways of cooking potatoes so that by the time they were 13 they had mastered the art and were moved on to some other task, like making pies.”
The Shakers were a religious sect who practiced ecstatic worship and celibate communal living. They wrote many hymns and spirituals and practiced choreographed dance as part of their worship. The Shakers actively promoted pacifism and practiced racial equality, admitting members regardless of their ethnic background.
Founded in America by an Englishwoman, Ann Lee, Shakerism perceived the Supreme Being to be equally female and male in nature. Shaker women occupied important leadership roles as deaconesses and eldresses.
The tidy Shaker farms featured many labor-saving devices and highly organized work details. Shaker kitchens had large rotating pie ovens, boilers, running water, mechanical apple peelers and other conveniences that most farmhouse kitchens lacked. Repetitive daily tasks that were performed by the sisters and older girls were rotated so that no one got stuck doing laundry or washing pots indefinitely.
Renowned for their spare and elegant furniture and architecture as much as for their herb and seed businesses, quality canned goods, and ingenious inventions, the Shakers flourished in the 19th century in about 20 communal villages in New England, upstate New York, the Midwest and Kentucky.
Maine had three Shaker villages in Gorham, Alfred and New Gloucester. New Gloucester is the site of the last active Shaker village, Sabbathday Lake. With the passing of Eldress Frances Carr this January, only two Shakers remain.
Though the Shakers were celibate, many had been previously married and joined the Society with their biological families. The Shakers also took in orphans as well as children of families that had slipped into poverty. The children attended Shaker schools and learned practical skills working alongside adults.
The following Shaker recipe for potato pie is similar to early American savory pies that might include onions, carrots, parsnips, or potatoes. Potatoes and carrots also featured in sweet pies. Lacking modern refrigeration and food distribution systems, all 19th-century New Englanders relied on long-keeping root vegetables through the winter.
The Shakers would have produced the ingredients themselves for the following recipe. Shaker farms had dairies, orchards, and vegetable plots, and most Shaker villages grew medicinal and culinary herbs commercially.
Shaker Potato Pie
1 lb. russet potatoes (about 2 large) peeled and cut into 1-inch chunks
cold water for cooking
1/3 cup milk
¼ cup butter
sea salt to taste
freshly ground black pepper to taste
3 cups sliced onions
1 to 2 Tbsps. butter
1 Tbsp. oil
1 tsp. summer savory or ½ tsp.
dried thyme and ½ tsp. dried rosemary
pinch of sea salt
Pie pastry for a double-crust 9-inch pie
Put the potatoes in a medium saucepan and add enough cold water to cover. Bring to a boil then lower heat and simmer the potatoes until fork-tender, about 15 minutes. Drain thoroughly and return the potatoes to the pot over low heat, adding the milk and the ¼ cup of butter.
When the butter has melted, mash the potatoes thoroughly with the milk and butter. Season with salt and pepper to taste.
While the potatoes are simmering, sauté the onions in a mixture of oil and butter until they are translucent and lightly browned around the edges. Crumble and stir in the herbs with the salt, and turn off the heat under the onions.
Preheat the oven to 375 degrees F. Mix the onions into the mashed potatoes and pile into the pie pan lined with pastry. Smooth with a spatula, allowing it to mound a little in the center.
Cover with the top crust, trim excess pastry, and crimp the edges together. Cover the edges of the pie with aluminum foil. Bake 35 minutes or until light golden brown.
Two-Crust Pie Pastry
2 ½ cups white flour
½ tsp. salt
½ cup cold, unsalted butter
½ cup cold shortening or non-hydrogenated lard
¼ cup ice water (or half cold vodka and half ice water)
Whisk together the dry ingredients in a large bowl. Cut the butter and shortening into pats of about 1 tablespoon. Add the butter and shortening and cut in with a pastry blender or a knife and fork until crumbly.
Then add the ice water and lift and press with a rubber spatula until the mixture barely comes together into balls. If it is too dry to form into a ball, add a few more drops of ice water. Press all the dough into one ball and cut it in half. Pat each half into a disk, wrap each disk in plastic wrap, and chill at least 30 minutes.
Coat a Pyrex pie pan with vegetable oil spray. Roll out one disk for the bottom crust to a circle 3 inches wider than the pie pan. Roll up the crust to drape on the rolling pin and gently unroll onto the pie plate. Trim the edge and refrigerate the bottom crust until ready to fill.
Roll out the second disk to a circle about 11 inches wide. Gently unroll the top crust over the filled pie. Trim off the extra pastry, allowing a 1-inch overhang to fold under the bottom crust. Crimp the edges together.