Birthday Cake for Mother Ann, Leader of the Shakers

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Sometimes a recipe, especially a historical one, is more than the sum of its instructions. It may not even sound mouthwatering—instead, its appeal might lie in a surprising ingredient or method, what it says about the people who developed it, or the paths of inquiry or imagination it sends you on. The recipe for a cake to celebrate the February 29 birthday of the beloved 18th-century leader of the Shakers, Mother Ann, is all of those things.

Modern versions of the recipe don't sound much different from typical birthday cakes, except for the suggested addition of peach jam between layers. But a snippet of the original recipe, repeated in The Shakers and the World's People, by Flo Morse, caught my attention:

Cut a handful of peach twigs, which are filled with sap at this season of the year. Clip the ends and bruise them and beat cake batter with them. This will impart a delicate peach flavor to the cake.

There's something intriguing, even poignant, about the idea of using twigs to capture the essence of a fruit that's not in season: Does it really work? Would it work with other fruit trees? So much more romantic-sounding than grabbing a bottle of flavor extract, don't you think? Some recipes also call for rosewater.

Then there's the history of Mother Ann and her followers, an endlessly interesting subject in itself. Ann Lee was an illiterate Englishwoman who left a disappointing arranged marriage—none of her four children survived childhood—to join and eventually lead a small and persecuted religious sect. Their official name was the United Society of Believers, but they became known as the Shakers for their kinetic form of worship. In 1774, just as American revolutionaries were fighting to form a nation that would enshrine religious freedom within its Bill of Rights, Lee and a handful of followers emigrated to New York. They set up a community near Albany, New York, where they were able to practice, in relative peace (if not always popularity), their beliefs.

Some of those beliefs were ahead of their time, like gender and racial equality. They became known for making goods that were unfashionably plain by Victorian standards. Today Shaker furniture is prized for its elegant simplicity, but that was hardly the case when Charles Dickens visited a Shaker village in 1842, according to a 2001 article in Smithsonian. "We walked into a grim room, where several grim hats were hanging on grim pegs," he wrote, "and the time was grimly told by a grim clock, which uttered every tick with a kind of struggle, as if it broke the grim silence reluctantly, and under protest."

They were (or are, to be precise, for there is one tiny remaining community of believers at Sabbathday Lake, Maine) also pacifists, lived communally, and believed that Christ's second coming would be spiritual, not in the flesh; as the Sabbathday Lake Shakers' site explains: "To Mother Ann Lee was given the inner realization that Christ's Second Coming was a quiet, almost unheralded one within individuals open to the anointed of His spirit."

One Shaker tenet that has yet to find currency, and which ultimately (and perhaps inevitably) led to their decline, was that all believers should follow Christ's example and practice celibacy. The group relied on attracting converts—which they did, for a while, establishing new communities throughout the Eastern United States, especially New England. They took in orphans, who were free to choose to leave or stay when they were of age. In addition to the Sabbathday Lake Shaker Village, which includes a museum, a handful of former Shaker sites are open to the public. In August, the Canterbury Shaker Village in New Hampshire commemorates the anniversary of Mother Ann's arrival in the United States with rosewater-flavored cake. (The Maine Shakers sell rosewater and other flavorings.)

One final note: I was skeptical of the peach-twig story at first, because I used to live about 30 miles north of Albany (which is at the northern end of the Hudson Valley) and never saw or knew of peaches being grown in the area—this is apple country. But in the course of research I found an August 9, 1884, article from The New York Times about that year's dismal Hudson Valley peach crop. The description amused me, so I had to share:

The first consignment of this season's peach crop along the Hudson Valley has been shipped by boat to New-York, and, it is safe to say, a more puny-looking or a worse-tasting lot of fruit was never before grown. The peaches are small in size, and, as a rule, hard as a bullet on one side and prematurely ripe on the other. The fruit also has a peculiar color, and the taste resembles that of an apple that has been frozen and thawed out rapidly. They are fuzzy.

Maybe they should have stuck with twig sap.

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