13 June, 2010

Vintage Sunday: Switchel and Honegar

In the year of my 22nd summer, I suddenly became unemployed.  To keep some money coming in, I signed on with a temporary labor agency to tide me over until I could find another full-time job.  One of the jobs that was assigned was painting aircraft hangars at a local Air Force Reserve base.

It was hot work: summer in my part of New England can be pretty brutal, with temperatures and relative humidity levels both in the 90s.  I was on a rope scaffolding (similar to those used by window washers) in full sun.  I was miserably unprepared for the heat and by the time I was done for the day, I had broad white salt lines sweated into my T-shirt and I was weak from the heat. 

My grandmother had invited me for dinner that night, and when I told her about how hot and sapping it was on the scaffolds, she told me about "switchel," a drink her grandmother had prepared for her grandfather to drink in the fields during haying season.  She made up a gallon of it in a plastic milk jug, mixing half a cup or so of apple cider vinegar with about a cup of honey and water sufficient to fill the jug.  She finished it off by adding a couple of spoonfuls of grated ginger ("to settle your stomach when you get gorky in the sun," she said.)


The next day, I brought a "sweat towel" and the bottle of switchel with me to work.  The day was no less brutal for the heat and the humidity, but I was a lot more comfortable, being able to take a drink of the switchel every now and then when the sun became just too much for me to take.  The job lasted a week, and I had a gallon of switchel with me every day.  By the end of the day, some of the other guys working with me were bringing some of their own.  There just wasn't anything else like it.

Dr. Jarvis mixing a batch of honegar.
No discussion about switchel would be complete without mentioning Dr. Deforest Jarvis of Vermont, who in 1959 received some publicity for a switchel variant he called "honegar."  Dr. Jarvis mixed equal amounts of good apple cider vinegar with native Vermont honey.  He considered honegar to be a folk remedy for aches and pains and thought it was especially useful in treating arthritis pain.  Although honegar has a more or less permanent place in folk medicine today (just Google honegar to see how many people hold it in high regard) it has shown up on at least a couple of internet-published "worst inventions" lists - lists written, no doubt, by people who have probably never tasted either switchel or honegar.

Dr. Jarvis, an early-20th century country doctor, was inspired by the rugged health of so many of his patients: hard-working Vermont farmers who often used switchel to stay hydrated while working in the fields.  And despite the scribblings of various Internet wiseasses, Dr. Jarvis may have been onto something: not only did he live to be 85 years old, but modern medical research has begun to investigate some of his claims about apple cider vinegar.  Although I'm not tempted to take a straight spoonful of honegar, it does make a pretty decent base for a tall cool drink of switchel.

Trivia:  Dr. Jarvis died in Vermont in 1966.  After his death, the Shelburne Museum in Shelburne VT carefully dismantled his doctor's office and rebuilt it at the museum, where it is still on exhibit as an example of a Vermont country doctor's office.
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7 comments:

Lynn said...

Perhaps I spent too of my childhood immersed in the world of Laura Ingalls Wilder, but your visit to your grandmother immediately caused me to remember a scene from The Long Winter:

"Ma had sent them ginger-water. She had sweetened the cool well-water with sugar, flavored it with vinegar, and put in plenty of ginger to warm their stomachs so they could drink till they were not thirsty. Ginger-water would not make them sick, as plain cold water would when they were so hot."

tree ocean said...

I thought of the Little House books, too. Always wanted to try it...mmmm ginger water.

dale said...

Reminds me of the "Jogging in a Jug" mixture I used to make -- honey, raw apple cider vinegar with mother, apple juice. It definitely helped with a cronic knee ache -- but also probably contributed to acid reflux over time.

allison said...

I come to your blog a couple times a week to read your update and visit some of the links you posted. I noticed the Ridiculous Food Society one wasn't showing up and I went to find the blog and cannot....any tips?

Thanks, and sorry to leave this as a comment, I couldn't find an email link.

Dave said...

Allison - The Ridiculous Food Society is back under a new title: Lady Giblet of the Capital Region. Check it out.

Anonymous said...

My grandmother lived to 96 and never developed diabetes or cancer the docs warned her of. The neighbors took the tablespoons of honey and apple cider vinegar daily as well and all lived old and not overweight and active in their yards or gardens.

Anonymous said...

Mom taught me about honegar although I didn't realize it had any name besides the one my son gave it - on a hazy hot day in Arkansas he was "firsty" and wanted some of my drink. One long swig and then "Oooh, that's Icky Water!"
Good to the last drop!