Of Switchel and Shrub

Let’s talk about beverages. Water is life. It’s wonderful, but sometimes it’s a little plain and boring. Commercial soda is full of high-fructose corn syrup and who knows what other poisonous chemicals and preservatives. Coffee is sumptuous, but I don’t want to be constantly wired. Something like a cocktail might be nice, but I don’t drink alcohol. Fruit juices are tasty, but I’m trying to limit the amount of sugar I consume. What is a seeker of taste to do?

I’m on a quest to create modern versions of old-world tonic beverages—switchel, shrub, amuse bouche, tonic. My guiding principle is to use natural, minimally-processed, and healthful ingredients.

Water
Cold water is nice, but…

Start with the basics

I’ve been juicing a lot of lemons lately. The vitamin C they contain is beneficial, and they taste so good.

Fresh Lemons
Fresh lemons

I’m also a big fan of these three roots: ginger, onions, and garlic. Turmeric (not pictured) is nice, too.

Back to My Roots
Getting back to my roots

Put it all together

Here is some gingerade I made by boiling some chopped fresh ginger in water, then straining it through a coffee filter and sweetening it lightly with honey. It’s refreshing either hot or cold. Sometimes I’ll make a brew using various combinations of the aforementioned roots.

Fresh Gingerade
Fresh gingerade

Every week I juice about six or seven lemons, add the juice to a glass jar, top it off with apple cider vinegar, shake it up, and put it in the refrigerator. Both of these liquids are surprisingly sweet on their own, so no extra sweetener is required. I start my day by downing a few sips right from the jar. Occasionally I’ll cut it with a little bit of water or plain seltzer.

Vinegar and Lemon
Apple cider vinegar and fresh lemon juice

Commercial alternatives

My initial inspiration for this flavor-quest came from the discovery of a few products I liked, that I found at my local greengrocer. Fire Cider is not for the weak of stomach. It’s hot! It contains the juices of peppers, lemons, garlic, onions, and other spices in a base of apple cider vinegar. It’s also not cheap, so I figured it would be more economical to make something comparable on my own.

Fire Cider
Fire Cider

Switchel—which contains apple cider vinegar and ginger—is a tasty treat. But there’s a fair amount of sugar added, so I don’t indulge in this very often.

Cide Road Blueberry Switchel
Cide Road organic switchel

And then there’s coffee

This doesn’t need much elaboration. It’s a daily staple, but the older I get, the more I find that I want just one really good cup in the morning, before moving on to tea and other drinks throughout the day. Neither my stomach nor my nerves can handle office-grade swill any more. I buy green coffee beans (seeds of the coffee cherry, technically) and roast them myself at home.

Of all the variables in coffee making (freshness of roast, bean origin, preparation technique, darkness of roast), I’ve found freshness of roast to be the most important in terms of the flavor and “aliveness” of the coffee.

Personally I like to mix half Ethiopian Yirgacheffe beans and half Columbian beans. I roast them just shy of the oily stage. Pretty dark, but still “dry.”

How about you? What are your favorite homemade beverages?

Historical Portraits at Rao’s Café

Portraits I painted of Paul Revere, W.E.B. Du Bois, Emily Dickinson, and Robert Frost

In the mid-1990s, I painted and installed three portraits—Paul Revere, W.E.B. Du Bois, and Emily Dickinson—in the outdoor seating area at Rao’s Café in Amherst, MA. (Which has since been rebranded as Share.) In 2010, I added Robert Frost to the lineup. Each of these people was associated in some way with Massachusetts.

Emily Dickinson

Emily Dickinson

Emily Dickinson (1830–1886), colloquially known as the Belle of Amherst, was a poet known for her reclusiveness. I once lived in a house directly across the street from where she had lived. I was inspired by her mystique, and by the fact that the magnitude of her work wasn’t discovered and published until after her death.

W.E.B. Du Bois

W.E.B. Du BoisW.E.B. Du Bois (1868–1963) was an author, peace- and civil rights activist, and educator from Great Barrington, MA. He attended Harvard, where he became the first African American to earn a doctorate. Among other accomplishments, he co-founded the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) in 1909.

Paul Revere

Paul ReverePaul Revere (1734–1818) was a silversmith and patriot from Boston, Massachusetts. He famously rode his horse from Boston out to Lexington and Concord to alert his fellow American militiamen that the British forces were invading, prior to the battles of Lexington and Concord. When I visit Boston, I enjoy walking around in the North End, where his house has been preserved.

Robert Frost

Robert FrostRobert Frost (1874–1963) was a poet and educator from San Francisco, California. When he was eleven, he and his family moved to Massachusetts. Eventually he ended up teaching English at Amherst College, where I lived for many years. Of the four historical heroes, Robert Frost was from a more “modern” era, so I decided to give his portrait a more colorful treatment than the others.

As an aside, when I was in fourth grade, I memorized and recited his poem, The Road Not Taken.

The Making of a Painting

A time-lapse movie documenting a year’s work

In the summer of 2010 I started to work on a large painting commissioned by the owner of Rao’s Café in Amherst, Massachusetts. (Which has since been rebranded as Share.) Several of my earlier paintings had already been on display at the café, so I knew that this new one needed to fit stylistically and thematically. I settled on the subject of a carnival at twilight, inspired by the traveling carnival that visits the Amherst Town Common every spring. The format is the largest stand-alone painting I’ve ever made: 5 feet by 8 feet (I’ve painted murals directly onto larger walls).

Never before had I so deliberately documented my process of making a painting, so I thought it would be an interesting side project to set up a video camera in my studio, film the process from start to finish, and put together a time-lapse movie showing how the painting developed. What you see here is about fourteen months’ worth of intermittent work (nights, weekends, and holidays) condensed into a two minute video. This is whittled down from tons of original footage. Highlights of the movie include a fair amount of non-painting “prep work” (a.k.a, “getting into character”), a significant composition change (around 00:53) in order to situate the painting on the Amherst Common, and the fact that I wear nutty outfits while I work. Most notably, I showed my sartorial support of the Boston Bruins, who went on to win the Stanley Cup in 2011 for the first time since 1972. I’d like to think I helped with that!

Update: as of November 2016, this painting moved to Bueno y Sano in Northampton, Massachusetts. Check it out, when you’re in the mood for a great burrito.

Update: on February 20th, 2017, I replaced the previously-silent video with one featuring original music composed and recorded by yours truly. I hope you enjoy the movie with its new soundtrack.

The finished painting: Carnival

Carnival painting by Trace Meek