Oneida Community Cooking or “A Dinner Without Meat”

In the 1870s, the Oneida Community kitchen prepared and served twice-daily meals, mainly vegetarian, for more than 200 men, women and children.  In addition, the Community hosted, entertained and provided food for visitors from near and far who flocked to Oneida, not just out of curiosity related to their rather bizarre social arrangements, but to sample its renowned cooking.  The O.C. strawberry shortcake was famous in its day.  The public clamored for its recipes, and it is no surprise that the O.C. produced a cookbook and that Harriet Skinner was its voice.  Her culinary philosophy is strikingly modern; she believed that local fresh ingredients are the key to delicious food and healthy eating.  As she famously remarked, “freshness is the sauce and seasoning for everything.”  This new edition of Oneida Community Cooking first published in 1873, includes footnotes and many photographs from the OC photographic archive.

In July 2010, I moved with my husband, Frank Christopher, to the Oneida Community Mansion House.  We spent hours everyday reading through the fascinating letters, journals and documents that reveal the personal stories and history of the Oneida Community.  One day, I discovered a folder of menus from 1877 in the treasure trove of papers. I was intrigued by questions of what this remarkable and little known community of so-called Bible Communists ate and how they prepared meals for a family of 200.  Surely, they must have had recipes and cookbooks.

I mentioned my interest in Oneida Community cuisine to Patricia Hoffman, Executive Director of the Oneida Community Mansion House, and she unearthed a photocopy of “Oneida Community Cooking” that sparked my imagination.  Her enthusiastic support of my endeavor to produce an updated version of the book was critical to its creation.  Anthony Wonderley, Curator of the Collections and Interpretation of the Oneida Community Mansion House, provided access to the Oneida Community photo archive.

Victoria Carver, editor of Oneida Community Cooking

1-Front Cover Tiff

 

Oneida Community Cooking is available for purchase in the Oneida Community Mansion House gift shop or by mailing a check payable to Subpix for $20 (shipping via US First Class Mail to continental US included) to the following address:

subpix

108 No. Allegheny Street #4

Bellefonte, PA 16823

 

 

Fruits of Fall

Last night I made poached pears with chocolate sauce and  though the dessert was delicious I have to agree with Harriet Skinner that “it is a poor pear that can be improved by any cooking.”

It is not surprising that in Oneida Community Cooking Harriet lists no recipes for pears, but pays great attention to apples as in:  Apple Pudding. ~  Pare and quarter apples enough for two layers on the bottom of your pudding dish – which we will suppose to be a yellow nappy (a round, shallow cooking or serving dish with a flat bottom and sloping sides) – the bottom about the size of a breakfast plate.  The apples should be sour and juicy, and the quarters should be nicely packed in, one by one.  Add a table-spoonful of water, half a cup of sugar and a little piece of butter; a little salt; spice to your taste.  Make a paste exactly like what you make for strawberry shortcake, spread it on the apples and bake.  When done, cut around the crust and turn the pudding over, apple upward, on to a plate.  Eat with wine sauce, or with sugar and cream.  We prefer the latter.  When baked the apples should be perfectly soft, but unbroken and adhering to the crust.  Do not spread the crust too thick; half an inch is thick enough.  The crust is sometimes shortened with chopped suet instead of butter.

Do German Soldiers Eat More than Perfectionists?

In a letter to her brother John Humphrey Noyes in 1869, Harriet Skinner ruminated on the “alimentive history of the Community.”  She observed that there was an “ill-defined impression among people at large, that they eat too much, and that they eat the wrong things.”  The question about whether Americans eat too much meat was a hot topic even in the 19 century.   The Community diet was mainly vegetarian, so the question of meat consumption was abstract.  However, Harriet set about to determine the per capita consumption of food in the Community.

She (and her kitchen helpers, no doubt) weighed everything that went to the table and everything that was left over.  She discovered that per capita the family was consuming approximately 2 pounds 10 ounces of food per person, per day.  To determine whether this was a large or small amount compared to other populations, she consulted  Liebig’s Chemistry. She learned that the daily consumption for German soldiers was nearly 4 pounds per man, approximately one third more than the average consumed by each person in the Oneida Community. Harriet observed that the family consumed more milk (by weight) than any other food, and the next most common foodstuff was potatoes.

She credits the values and life style of the Community for the shift to a mainly vegetarian diet declaring that it is “the power of our principles and institutions” [that] produces radical changes.”

The Art of Mush

Graham Mush. ~ And here you will say, Give flour and water and any body can make Graham mush.  No, even Graham mush has its points.  It may be light or soggy, smooth or lumpy, cooked or raw.  If you want it light, smooth and well done, check out the recipe section!


Culinary Insights

If the way to win someone’s heart is through their stomach, perhaps the Oneida Community cuisine, as much as their religious philosophy, was responsible for the loyalty of so many ardent members.   It was a simple and mostly vegetarian cuisine based on fresh ingredients  grown in the fields and orchards of the Community.   I’ve been hungry to learn about their crops, recipes, menus and methods of preserving and preparing their food.

At Syracuse University Library, where the Oneida papers are archived,  I discovered a menu planner from November 1877, a time when four meals a day were served.   It provided an interesting snapshot of a month where potatoes were served in some form with nearly every meal.   But I wanted more detail!  A  couple of weeks ago Frank and I met with the Executive Director of the Mansion House, Patricia  Hoffman who gave me a photocopy of a cookbook compiled and edited by Harriet Skinner, a sister of John Humphrey Noyes and an early convert and member of the O. C.  What a goldmine of all things culinary in the O.C. !   Follow along on Harriet’s Food Blog for more on O. C. cooking and cuisine.