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.
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.