Wednesday, December 3, 2014

Before It Was Safe to Drink the Water: Amherst Historical Society Teaches You How to Drink Like a Colonist

The annual meeting of the Amherst Historical Society typically includes a guest lecture. This year, at the suggestion of visiting curator Marianne Curling, we combined the talk (at the Jones Library) with a subsequent event (at the History Museum next door) that was at once demonstration, experience, and fundraiser. As the description put it, "Before it was safe to drink the water, tipples at breakfast, lunch, tea time and dinner were the norm in Colonial New England, and low-alcohol hard cider was sometimes a part of even children’s lives." Who would not be intrigued?

Our guest speaker was Corin Hirsch (@latesupper), author of Forgotten Drinks of Colonial New England: From Flips and Rattle-Skulls to Switchel and Spruce Beer, who has been presenting her first book to considerable acclaim elsewhere in the region and beyond. (Here's a podcast from my tweep @marianpl over at Fieldstone Common.)

Ms. Hirsch, humbly describing herself as a foodie rather than a historian and characterizing her book as "a romp" rather than a "scholarly" work, was an engaging speaker who took the audience on a sort of guided tour of the region's early drinking habits. The book is divided into four parts: Why They Drank, Where They Drank, What They Drank, and How They Drank, though the latter two overlap as part 4 consists of recipes with descriptions. The lecture began with the "Why" and "Where" but focused on the "What," conducting us from drink to drink in a manner that also roughly followed chronology.

It began with Hogarth's famed etchings of "Gin Lane" and "Beer Street," to illustrate the contemporary views on dangerous (foreign, newfangled) vs. healthful (traditional, national) drinking habits. Although the social and medical consequences of gin-drinking among the poor became a cause for concern, steady consumption of other forms of alcohol was simply a normal way of life. As Ms. Hirsch reminded us (and many of us know), the Pilgrims and Puritans were plenty fond of their drink. In fact, one of the reasons the Pilgrims finally picked a settlement site in 1620 was because their beer supply was running low. The Mayflower had also carried hard spirits and probably wine. By the time the newcomers celebrated that first Thanksgiving in 1621, they had already brewed their own beer.


Although beer-brewing was an almost universal practice in English farms and villages, it was not without its challenges in America. Hops grew well: the first plant was imported in 1628, Ms. Hirsch explained. But growing good barley for the malt was more difficult in the North American climate, so the colonists used any substance that was handy to produce the necessary sugars: potato, pumpkin (yes, pumpkin ale is nothing new)--even berries, birch bark, maple syrup, or spruce tips; the latter imparted a favored hop-like bitterness to the brew.


Hard cider was also ubiquitous: the value of traditional apple varieties lay in their suitability for long winter storage--and production of alcohol. And even the wild varieties, which made for poor eating, served perfectly well as a source of fermentable juice. (It was not for nothing that Leominster native Johnny Appleseed was later so popular.) As historians of early America and material culture can tell you, John Adams knocked back a pint (the equivalent of two pints of typical modern beer, Ms. Hirsch explains) at breakfast every day. Children drank a weak version--and sometimes even the strong stuff. And we were none the worse for it. Sometimes it even led to victory (or at least did not prevent it).

The "Stone-Fence"--a blend of hard cider and rum--seems to have inspir(it)ed Ethan Allen's Green Mountain Boys prior to the capture of Fort Ticonderoga. As Ms. Hirsch puts it in her book, "Drunk, hung over or just a combination of the two, they found a slumbering guard to Ticonderoga, and the American militiamen claimed their first victory of the war."


By contrast, the wine trade was slow to develop. Despite high hopes occasioned by the prevalence of wild grapes (the east coast was the fabled Viking Vinland, after all), European varieties suitable for making fine wines did poorly in the climate of both New England and Virginia. This did not stop the colonists from making wine from wild grapes (and, well, almost anything and everything that would ferment) for personal consumption, but wines of quality remained an imported good for the elite, which gave it an undemocratic taint in the Revolutionary era and beyond. That, too, did not stop the greatest of the Revolutionary leaders from indulging their taste for it. In the book, Ms. Hirsch aptly characterizes Thomas Jefferson as "perhaps the most famous colonial oenophile," and Ben Franklin as "a sot, marinating in porter, Champagne, brandy, Madeira and the fine wines of France." And as for Washington, "He was a man of all things alcoholic, but he was not an alcoholic." In the book, she calls him "a fanboy of small beer . . . and enthusiastic swiller of porter" as well as a failed vintner and very successful distiller.

Rum etc.

For then there was the hard stuff. Every schoolchild is (or was, or should be) familiar with the notorious "triangle" or "triangular" "trade" involving the circulation of captive Africans, Caribbean sugar or molasses, and New England rum. Although distillation of whiskey began in the early seventeenth century, it became the quintessential American and frontier drink only when the Revolution interrupted the rum trade.

It was ironic, Ms. Hirsch noted, that, in 1794, George Washington put down the Whiskey Rebellion that arose in opposition to the new federal tax on spirits, and then went on to become a distiller himself (of course he paid his tax). Between 1797 and 1799, his production rose from 600 to 11,000 gallons, making him one of the leading producers in the country.
During the question-and-answer session, former Jones Library Trustee and (before that) Washington litigator Sarah McKee recalled having seen George Washington's original still--confiscated during the charade of Prohibition--in the ATF (Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives) museum near her place of work in the nation's capital. This got me curious, of course. I had been to most major Washington museums (though not that one) as well as Mount Vernon in the past few years. The old still now appears in the collections of the Smithsonian. As for Mount Vernon and the ATF, they have made their peace, for the latter granted the former a permit to conduct distilling in 2001. The site, several miles away from the mansion, near a good source of water, was excavated between 1999 and 2006, and reconstructed from 2007-9. And, nota bene: if your timing is right, you can still buy its new product.

Ancestors of the Cocktail

Many popular Colonial drinks were also mixtures involving some elements of the above. Each often had several variants, depending on one's taste and the availability of the ingredients.

Among the most famous (and most misunderstood; we all read pirate tales as kids, right?) is grog: essentially, a dilution of rum including water, citrus, and a sweetener.

Syllabub might consist of "cider blended with cream, rum and sugar, although wine could be used in place of the cider."

Flip was "a blend of beer; rum; a sweetener such as molasses, sugar or dried pumpkin; and occasionally eggs and cream." (Ms. Hirsch recommends a light brown ale rather than a porter or other darker brew). It could be expensive: in at least one town, it cost more than a night's accommodation. I myself have always admired the large glasses in which it was traditionally prepared or served.

flip glass from the collections of Historic Deerfield
It also made history. As Ms. Hirsch tells it: the Minutemen of Lexington dutifully assembled when the first alarm was sounded in the wee hours back in 1775, but after they were dismissed at around 2 a.m., some eighty of them repaired to the Buckman Tavern (rather than their homes), where they continued to drink flip until they stumbled out to confront the British regulars toward daybreak. As more than one commentator has noted, the guns were not the only things that were loaded on that famed April Morning.

Punch--derived from the Hindi "panch," or five--referring to the number of ingredients (which varied considerably) was, in Ms. Hirsch's words, "quite a democratic drink in a way." It was meant to be shared communally, after all. It was thus a serious business and once again confounds simplistic stereotypes of religious Christians. As the book notes, "At the 1785 ordination of a Beverly, Massachusetts, minister, the eighty attendees drank seventy-four bowls of punch as well as twenty-eight bottles of wine and eight bottles of brandy." Not exactly your stereotypical evangelical buzzkills. I'd wager that the congregants of Amherst's First Church (separate story on that institution to follow) could come nowhere near that achievement nowadays, for more than one reason.

As Ms. Hirsch explained, "Drinking in America really exploded after the [Revolutionary] War."

Per capita consumption for every person over the age of 15 amounted to 5 gallons of spirits, 34 gallons of beer, and 1 gallon of wine. Today, by contrast, the US has the lowest per capita alcohol consumption in the developed world. Even at a respectable 14th place in beer consumption (20.4 gallons), for example, we lag well behind not only our forebears, but also the second- and third-place Germans and Austrians (28 and 28.5 gallons, respectively), and the world-leading Czechs at 39.3. But our founding fathers would have earned us a clear second place.

Oh, yes, the infamous, intriguing and appropriately named "Rattle-Skull" consisted of a pint of porter or other dark beer, along with rum, brandy, sherry, and (optional) lime juice and nutmeg. As Ms. Hirsch noted, you probably wouldn't want to drive home after one of these, which go down with surprising ease.

Boozing peaked around 1825, and the high point of the drinking culture also marked the birth of the temperance movement. Perhaps we have always oscillated between unhealthy extremes. As Ms. Hirsch writes in her book, "That American society could reach a nadir of drunkenness only a few decades before outlawing drinking altogether speaks to an all-or-naught national psychology."

After the lecture, many members of the audience adjourned to the neighboring c. 1750 Simeon Strong House, site of the Amherst History Museum, for hors d'oeuvres and a sampling of representative historical beverages:  Flip, made with ale, rum, molasses, a beaten egg and nutmeg; Syllabub, made with white wine, lemon juice, heavy cream, sugar, and nutmeg; a mulled wine, and hard cider from All Things Local.

Ms. Hirsch prepared and served some of the more complex beverages. Among the highlights: making flip the traditional way by plunging a red-hot poker into the pitcher of liquid. Admittedly, not all traditions can be observed due to the modern preservation policy and safety regulations in historic structures: we used a propane-fired barbecue a safe distance away from the house.

the final product: Corin Hirsch serves the flip
As guests sampled a half-dozen drinks, Hampshire College students Emma John and Deidre Kelly performed traditional songs. I happened to walk in as they were singing "The Bonnie Banks of Loch Lomond." First published in 1841, it seems to refer to the events of the Jacobite Rebellion of 1745. It's a personal favorite of mine because I grew up with it: my father learned it while in the military in Scotland during World War II.

Appropriately enough, the portrait beneath which they are seated at the historic piano, on loan from the Heath Historical Society, reflects the shared musical interest of the Emerson family of Amherst (which owned this house) and their relatives to the east. Records describe the painting as "a family group which Dr. Emerson allowed a deaf and dumb travelling man to paint, out of pity for him." Scholars surmise that the painter was Augustus Fuller (b. 1812, Deerfield, d. 1872) and that the portrait was painted circa 1837.

The proverbial (to cite that awkward and oft-parodied phrase) "good time was had by all." So much so, in fact, that we hope to repeat the event in the future.

In the meantime, if you're tempted, you will enjoy Corin's essay on "5 Colonial-Era Drinks You Should Know" (from Seriouseats). But this is one of the few occasions on which it is wiser to give in to temptation. So, just buy the book: you know you want to. It will make a great holiday present.

Update: article link

No comments: