A Mess of Thanks-Giving

For every meal the Shakers gave thanks. When you visit the dining room in the Dwelling House, you see two versions of the space: the older taken from an 1880s stereograph view, the newer reflecting Shaker practice in the 1940s onward. The Shakers ate in silence, with dishes of food placed between four people so that no one need speak to ask anyone to pass a dish.

Historically, what was called a mess was defined in two ways: first, a mess was “a mixture of ingredients cooked or eaten together.” It also meant, beginning in the fifteenth century, a group of people, usually four in number, who sat together at a meal and were served and ate, with their hands or wood spoons, from the same dishes.

This was the way early Americans ate. Massachusetts Bay Puritan John Winthrop owned a fork, and for the better part of two centuries afterward only elites really used forks. Well into 1850s, some middling and people ate from a common bowl and used their hands or spoons or spoons and knives.

From his genteel perch in 1892, Canterbury Shaker Elder Henry Blinn describes the humble meals of Canterbury’s first Shakers. The first meal taken together was in 1795 and was “the only one recorded” and “was quite simple”: “It consisted largely, of ‘bean porridge,’ with a small amount of brown bread.” 

Dwelling House Dining Room, 1880s.
Dwelling House Dining Room, 1880s.

This diet continued. Noting their “sacrifice of property” and the expense of constructing new buildings, Blinn characterized the early Shakers were “obliged to live a moderate, though in a comfortable and healthful manner.” 

They raised their own grain for bread, provided their meat for the table and obtained from the maple orchard most of the sugar used by the family. … The furnishings of the table were extremely simple. Breakfast in summer would consist of porridge, or of hash, with perhaps a bowl of milk. In winter a very wholesome and nutritious article of diet was provided, which they termed “Bean Porridge.” The evening meal differed but slightly if any from the above. At noon a liberal dish of meat and sauce was provided with the addition of puddings. ​

Blinn noted, too, that the Shakers were not immune to economic downturns. In 1808, a year in which Americans were greatly affected by high farm prices due to the Embargo of 1807, the Shakers at Canterbury “lived very sparingly.” “A dish of minced meat and potatoes, with a quantity of rye and Indian bread and a mug of old cider served for a meal.” In winter, bean porridge, cooked and frozen in a “large kettle,” would be placed on a sled and sent to farmers working in the woods during the winter. There, amid the trees, they would reheat the porridge over an open fire.

What we should note is that these dishes feed a crowd. These are one-pot meals, shared from a kettle or from a shared serving bowl or platter. The Kitchen Sisters’ work of scouring and washing these pots and pans may have been laborious not for the number of objects but for their unwieldy heaviness. The lack of a convenient water source meant that sand or wood ash may have been used to scour these kettles. We know that many Americans at this time ate from wooden trenchers or pewter. It may also have been the case that individuals kept their own dining utensils.

By the time Nicholas Briggs, then ten years old, arrived at Canterbury in 1852, it appears that the Believers have acquired ceramic plates. Briggs notes that Church Family Kitchen Sisters fed upward to 160 persons in three seatings three times a day, an especially difficult task before plumbing was installed. Each meal’s seating lasted 20 minutes and, with the necessary trooping in and trooping out of Believers and the silent prayer before and after eating, we are seeing an efficient system not only of eating but of serving. All these people were fed within 90-120 minutes. 

Sisters at a meal in Dwelling House Dining Room, 1940s.
Sisters at a meal in Dwelling House Dining Room, 1940s.

How did they do it? They didn’t own 160 place settings, and how could they wash the plates and utensils so quickly, in the first place?

One clue may be found in books of etiquette. Shakers published three children’s books of manners: A Juvenile Monitor (1823), A Juvenile Guide (1844), and Gentle Manners (1899). When the World’s etiquette writers wrote that polite diners tear their bread with their hands and butter each piece before eating, the Shaker writers instructed that bread be taken whole. Henry Blinn includes the instruction to tear bread and butter its pieces only in his 1899 book.

And Nicholas Briggs tells us, 

The first course of food was always one large dish in the centre of the square from which each one helped himself. This was replenished by a sister waiter who paced up and down the tables and who always remained until all had finished eating. Each square had brown bread and one slice each of white and graham bread served on a wooden plate. The white and graham bread was for the purpose of clearing the plates, as it was a serious breach of propriety to leave the plate in a dirty condition, or to leave any food upon the plate. 

Children and adults were to set any bones aside their plates and ensure all crumbs were removed. Then, the Shakers at the table used those slices of bread to wipe their plates clean for the brethren and sisters of the next seating. The practice of wiping plates clean with bread was practiced in Europe and early America, and on the wood and pewter wares then used. In the Village’s collection are examples of these early plates.

The phrase “Shaker your plate” takes on more meaning, doesn’t it? It isn’t only a plea for not wasting food. Rather, it says something more about the history of the sorts of work processes Shaker women invented. When we talk about Shakers’ belief in equality, we need to ask about how equality—or equity—is lived. It is a larger discussion about the social contract, of some giving up some liberty to ensure that of others. “Shakering one’s plate” not only revealed that you did not waste food. It also revealed your recognition of others’ labor.

Let us all give thanks, of course, for what we have, for what those folks in the kitchen do, and for each other!