Message from the Museum

Dear Friends,

Take a turn around Twitter or Facebook, or catch the news, and you will find evidence of a rapid rise in yeast buying. Raising bread dough is lowering anxiety during our quarantine.

Experts tell us that breadmaking offers us a sense of control and accomplishment, even if the result is a lovingly leavened lopsided loaf. The process requires patience: we can tap our feet waiting for sourdough starter to bubble up enough to shape and bake a crusty round, but all we produce is more wear on our shoes.

My office in the Great Stone Dwelling is located near the Sisters’ bake room. You may know it as the Museum’s orientation room. On quiet days I enter the room and try to imagine a day’s activities within its walls.

In 1853, Enfield Shaker Hervey Elkins admiringly described the Great Stone Dwelling’s baking room: “Solid masonry as high as the room, painted a sky blue, is the only object which distinguishes this room from the others. Within those beautiful polished walls are free stone ovens, seven feet in length.” From these great ovens, Elkins recalled, came brown bread, white bread, and sweet bread.

Look at Shaker “receipts,” and we find all sorts of breads from various flours: loaves, rolls, buns, biscuits, and gems (muffins). Shaker “kitchen sisters” baked for a crowd. They lit the wood in the ovens, then when hot enough baked the bread that had been rising overnight. Flour dusted the air as the sisters kneaded dough on a wood table. Clatter arose from the movement of pans and bowls, balanced by the soft rustling of aprons and towels, and sisters’ chatter. I imagine these women did not tap their feet; rather, they turned to another task at hand.

I like to think that breadmaking is more than therapy. If we pay attention to what we’re making, we need not heed the clock. Modern recipes dictate temperature and time; old receipts required that bakers inspect the dough and fire to assess readiness. Time didn’t dictate; nature did.

Our current quarantine may test our patience, but our patience now saves lives. Nature, it seems, has dictated that we pass the time by pastimes.

Let us know how you are doing and what you are doing to pass the time.

Sincerely,

Shirley Wajda
Interim Executive Director