This time of year, when the harvest is over and darkness comes early, Brother Arnold Hadd is extra busy in the dwelling house kitchen at Sabbathday Lake Shaker Village.

He has spent countless hours over many weeks canning vegetables that the Shakers and staff grew in their large garden. For Thanksgiving, he baked six pies to serve with the meal he cooked to share with 12 others. And then it was time to bake for the annual Christmas Fair, a popular tradition for families who flock to the village for warm biscuits, fruitcake and stuffed dates made from old Shaker recipes.

During the first weekend of December, Brother Arnold baked 800 biscuits and 200 cinnamon rolls, rolling dough out on the same marble slab that Shakers have used since the dwelling house was built in 1883. He has baked more than 80 fruitcakes so far this year, plus coffee-can and beer-batter breads.

“Food really is important to the Shakers. It always has been,” Brother Arnold says as he moves around the kitchen with the ease that comes from cooking here for more than four decades.

Shakers have lived at Sabbathday Lake in New Gloucester since 1783, when a group of Shaker missionaries from Alfred came to what was then called Thompson’s Pond Plantation. The community grew to over 200 people, but over time the number dwindled. Today, the three Shakers who live at Sabbathday Lake are the only active Shakers in the world, but they believe that if they live faithful to what they have professed, there will always be others who will join.

The United Society of Believers in Christ’s Second Appearing – more commonly known as the Shakers for the ecstatic bodily agitation that was once part of worship – was founded in Manchester, England, in 1747, and was brought to the U.S. in 1774 by Mother Ann Lee. Shakers practice communal living where all property is shared. They are pacifists who live a celibate life in imitation of Christ and practice social, economic and spiritual equality for all members. Worship and work are deeply entwined. They sit down to share meals at the same time each day.

Kitchen work at Sabbathday Lake was always orderly, with teams of Shaker sisters rotating into the kitchen for weeks at a time to cook three meals each day for the community. At age 10, girls started in the kitchen by washing dishes. Another girl was tasked with preparing vegetables and potatoes. One sister served as cook, overseeing the whole kitchen and preparing the main course, while a second baked pies, biscuits and bread.

Sister Frances Carr, who lived at Sabbathday Lake until her death in 2017 at age 89, compiled a book of traditional Shaker recipes and traveled the country speaking about cooking with herbs. During a presentation about traditional Shaker cooking for the New Gloucester Historical Society in 2012, she described it as “simple, wholesome food, well-prepared.” It was made different, she said, by the use of herbs grown in the Shaker gardens.

“Shaker cookery and Shaker kitchen practices are, like so many aspects of Shaker life, centered down upon doing all things well, upon taking fruits and vegetables, fish and fowl, and bringing the very best out of them through the use of what tools one has and through the right use of whatever talents God, through his grace, has given one,” she said. “A cake or a pie, a loaf of bread, indeed, a meal well made and well presented does, I feel, result from putting hands to work and hearts to God.”

These days, Brother Arnold, 65, is the only cook and baker.

Brother Arnold grabs one of the Shaker cookbooks in the kitchen at Shaker Village. Brianna Soukup/Staff Photographer

IN THE SHAKER KITCHEN

When Brother Arnold joined the Shakers at Sabbathday Lake in January 1978, men weren’t typically allowed in the kitchen. But he was invited in to help and, over time, became known for his baking.

“Somehow, from the time I arrived here, it became my job to provide birthday cakes. That was my introduction to the Shaker kitchen,” he said. He still makes around 40 birthday cakes each year for friends and relatives.

Brother Arnold grew up in Springfield, Massachusetts, where he learned to bake by watching his mother and paternal grandmother in the kitchen. Both were talented bakers, he said, but his grandmother was “secretive about her stuff because she didn’t want anyone to be as good as she was.”

“You just had to sit around and talk to her while she cooked and figured out what she did,” he said.

His mother, Margaret, didn’t know how to cook growing up, but learned quickly after marrying a man “who was the ultimate foodie before there was a foodie,” Brother Arnold said.  She later became known for the dozen flavors of fudge she would make, package in coffee cans and hand out each Christmas.

Each Christmas, she also made plum kuchen, a dessert that became Brother Arnold’s favorite. The origin of the recipe is unclear, but Brother Arnold says his mother most likely clipped it out of a magazine. For Christmas dinner, she also baked pies and a birthday cake for her husband, but Brother Arnold only had eyes for the plum kuchen.

“As much as I loved everything else, I knew that was my one and only opportunity to get that. I would forgo any other pleasure to make sure I got plum kuchen,” he said as he baked the dessert on a recent quiet afternoon.

Brother Arnold adds the preserved plums to make his holiday plum kuchen. His mother always made the dessert at Christmastime and he continues his family’s holiday tradition at Shaker Village. Brianna Soukup/Staff Photographer

Brother Arnold made plum kuchen on his own for the first time after he moved to Sabbathday Lake and has since adjusted the recipe to make the buttery crust a bit softer than his mother’s version. It’s become harder to find canned plums locally, so he orders them by the case from Amazon.

A slice of Brother Arnold’s holiday plum kuchen. Brianna Soukup/Staff Photographer

The recipe is simple: a crust made of sugar, flour, cinnamon, baking powder and butter pressed into a pie plate and topped with a layer of canned purple plums. The fruit is topped with a simple custard made of heavy cream and egg. As it bakes, the scent of cinnamon and plums fills the dwelling house kitchen, evoking the coziness of the holiday season.

“It tastes like Christmas,” Brother Arnold said.

He still makes plum kuchen every Christmas, along with other recipes brought to the community by Shakers and folded into their holiday meal traditions.

The meal served on Christmas at Sabbathday Lake was never set in stone. A hundred years ago, Shakers may have had goose for Christmas dinner, or it might have been chicken or oyster stew. For the past 10 years, Brother Arnold has made a tenderloin and grilled salmon for Christmas dinner, which is served at noon and shared with friends.

“Everything in Shakerism evolves and changes and goes with time,” Brother Arnold said.

After Brother Theodore Johnson joined the Shakers in 1961, holiday meals at Sabbathday Lake evolved to include a Christmas Eve smorgasbord and a “divine” custard sauce served over a traditional fruitcake, Brother Arnold said. Brother Ted was an extravagant cook with a tendency to dirty far too many dishes while cooking and was allowed in the kitchen only at Christmastime.

Brother Ted died unexpectedly in 1986 at age 55, but the Christmas Eve smorgasbord continues. This year, it will include Brother Ted’s Swedish meatballs – a favorite at the village – along with other hot and cold entrees. They long ago ditched the lutefisk, a Scandinavian dish of dried whitefish pickled in lye, because “it was not a big hit here,” Brother Arnold said.

But there will, of course, be custard sauce for the fruitcake.

“It’s central,” Brother Arnold said. “In Brother Ted’s family, your piece of fruitcake was the size of a quarter, but you had a whole bowl of sauce. It’s not much different today.”

CONNECTING THROUGH FOOD

Those fruitcakes, baked using a recipe from the Alfred Shakers and decorated with neat rows of walnuts and cherries, are a staple at the Christmas Fair, a beloved annual tradition that began in 1978 when the Shakers were in the throes of financial troubles. For the first fair, Sister Elizabeth Dunn, who was taken in by the Shakers as a child and stayed until her death from cancer in 1979, baked her famous biscuits and Brother Arnold made apple pies. They also made stuffed dates and sugared walnuts, a Shaker tradition that goes back more than 150 years.

“We weren’t expecting much, but were overwhelmed by the local population,” Brother Arnold said.

Within a couple years, thousands of people annually were coming to the fair, standing shoulder to shoulder in the trustee’s office to buy baked goods, cheese, pickles and other handmade items. Some would show up hours early to be the first in line. It was not uncommon for people to wait around for an hour to get warm biscuits fresh from the oven.

When the recession hit in 2008, sales at the annual fair slowed. In recent years, attendance has been similar to the old days, with the 2019 fair netting more than $30,000. But like with so many things, the pandemic forced the Shakers to change the Christmas Fair to keep themselves and others safe.

The Christmas Fair moved into the virtual realm last year, with customers ordering baked goods online and picking them up at the village. Brother Arnold hopes it will be safe to return to the traditional format next Christmas.

A view of Shaker Village from the kitchen window. Brianna Soukup/Staff Photographer

While the Shakers, staff and volunteers miss seeing visitors at the fair, they are making meaningful connections in other ways. In the past few months, Brother Arnold has started offering online cooking workshops, an idea that came about because of the stories he shares with staff during meals.

With the uptick of home baking and cooking during the pandemic, offering online workshops seemed like the perfect fit, said Jamie Ribisi-Braley, the officer manager at Shaker Village who produces the workshops.

“Food is something that absolutely unites people here at Shaker Village. It’s a relatable way into Shaker culture,” she said.

The response to the workshops was immediately overwhelming. The first workshop featured Brother Arnold baking Sister Elizabeth’s biscuits, a staple in the Shaker kitchen for decades and the perfect complement to the baked beans served every Saturday night. The second workshop focused on apple pie, a Shaker favorite that used to be served for breakfast alongside a baked potato, oatmeal and toast.

The workshops, which Ribisi-Braley hopes to offer monthly in the new year, include a pre-recorded segment of Brother Arnold preparing the recipe followed by a live question-and-answer session. Throughout, Brother Arnold shares stories about the Shakers and their lives.

“Brother Arnold is very passionate about being a Shaker, and he’s also very passionate about baking. When he’s doing both of those things at once, it’s magical,” Ribisi-Braley said. “He naturally weaves the stories of people he knew and people who were before him. The things he tells you when you stand next to him at the kitchen counter you may not have the opportunity to hear elsewhere. You really feel like you get to know them personally because he did.”

For Paul and Sally Wells of Kennebunk, the workshops and virtual Christmas Fair have been a welcome way to stay connected to Shaker Village. The couple belongs to Friends of the Shakers and, before the pandemic, attended Sunday morning meeting once a month to worship alongside the Shakers.

During the apple pie workshop in November, they tried to bake along, but couldn’t peel apples nearly as fast as Brother Arnold. They were taken by the stories Brother Arnold shared about the Shaker way of life and the people who have lived at Sabbathday Lake.

“It really brings those people to life. They were people who meant a great deal to Brother Arnold and still mean a great deal to him,” Paul Wells said. “It’s just wonderful.”

“As he makes biscuits or he makes pies, he is doing it in memory of people who have done it before him and he’s doing it for the people who are listening and learning,” Sally Wells added. “That’s the true spiritual value of food.”

BROTHER ARNOLD’S PLUM KUCHEN

Adapted from a recipe from his mother, Margaret

3/4 cup flour
1/2 cup sugar
1 teaspoon cinnamon
1/4 teaspoon baking powder
6 tablespoons butter
1 large can of purple plums (canned apricots may be substituted for plums)
1 cup heavy cream
1 egg

Heat oven to 400 degrees F.

Sift flour, sugar, cinnamon and baking powder together into a bowl. Cut in butter until well incorporated.

Take half the mixture and press into the bottom and sides of a 9-inch pie plate. (Use glass if possible as the acid from the plums tends to react to tin.)

Pit the plums and arrange them over the dough in the pie plate. Sprinkle the remaining mixture over the plums.

Bake in the preheated oven for 15 minutes.

Meanwhile, whip the cream. When the cream is whipped, add the egg and mix again.

Remove pie plate from oven and pour cream mixture over the plums.

Reduce the heat to 350 degrees F. Bake for another 35 minutes or until the custard is set.

Cool completely before serving.

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