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?

First Snow

An occasion for reflection and gratitude

Over the twenty-eight years that I’ve been a naturalized New Englander, I’ve developed a personal tradition: every year, I must artisanally hand-shovel the first snowfall. In fact, I try to avoid using a gasoline-powered snowblower for as long as I can into the season. This ceases to be practical after the second or third foot of snow has fallen in as many weeks, which eventually does happen.

This year the first real snowfall came pretty late—December 28th. (I’m not counting the flurries that flew early in October.) We didn’t get a deep accumulation—it was only three or four inches. But what little fell was wet, heavy as bricks, and covered with a brittle crust of ice, leading me to question the wisdom of shoveling the whole driveway by hand (and by back). But I forged ahead and did my work, and in the process reminded myself of why I had concocted my silly tradition in the first place.

It had something to do with being rugged and stoic in the face of daunting odds and conditions, which I’ve romanticized as a New England trait. It also puts me in touch with an earlier, more thoughtful, less mechanized way of doing things. We live in such a privileged, materialistic society that makes it so easy to step on a pedal and end up miles from where we were half an hour ago. In this light, I think it is so important to maintain a perspective that honors the laws of physics and the idea that what goes up must come down. Whatever seems easy (like pushing a button and starting an orange robot that makes easy work of snow removal) must be paid for somewhere else in the universe, probably by some innocent butterfly whose only crime was flapping its wings.

So I return to my shoveling, thinking these deep thoughts, fancying myself some kind of modern-day Thoreau, “wishing to speak a word for Nature.” But I burst my own bubble when I catch myself grumbling about how hard it is to live in a place that experiences extreme winters. (I’m sure that my friends in Wisconsin, Minnesota, and Manitoba will chuckle at this characterization of Massachusetts.) There’s always a five-to-ten-foot strip where the driveway meets the road, where big plow trucks throw salty slush, adding the snow from the road to the snow already on your driveway, gluing everything together into a giant block of concrete, and turning your evening into a major excavation project.

But the complaining reflex doesn’t last for long, as I snap back to the perspective of how fortunate and grateful I am. After so many years of struggling and wanting, I finally have a driveway TO shovel. And I think about people in Missouri and Louisiana whose homes are being flooded, and worry about them. I think about people who are being held captive, even if it’s a prison of their own making—a mental scaffolding of religious fanaticism, political fervor, or lust for attention. And my heart goes out to them, and hopes that one day they will find peace within themselves. I think a lot about people who face health challenges, and all the associated pain. My heart goes out to everyone in the world who is suffering, and it makes my little mountain of ice seem so inconsequential.

And I return to my shoveling.

Back in the Rink

I’ve come out of retirement. I’m playing hockey again, and loving it.

In an earlier post, I announced my retirement from the hockey league I’d been playing in for several years. Well, that didn’t last very long. No sooner had my equipment dried than I’d developed a hankering to skate again. I’ll stop short of saying that hockey is an addiction. But I will say that I had sorely underestimated its importance in my life.

Previously I had adopted the view that I was getting older, my body was becoming more frail, and I needed to protect myself from physical harm. While this may be true, it’s even more important that I work hard to counteract the perils of a sedentary desk job, and exercise intensely so that my heart stays strong. Playing hockey does this. I would argue that hockey also teaches virtues that can be applied in life outside the rink: balance, patience, sacrifice, teamwork, humility, effort, effort, and more effort.

The key for me has been to find an independent group less rough and competitive than the league I had been playing in previously. Thankfully, I have found such a group.

We all dress together, and teams are formed anew every time we skate. There is greater variety, and more camaraderie than competitiveness. The level of play is as high as I’ve ever known, but the stakes are lower. We don’t keep score, and there are no penalties or referees. We’re simply a bunch of adults who are out to have fun, and prove nothing.

Divining

A painting I made about the subconscious realm

I am fascinated by the relationship between the subconscious and the conscious mind. It seems infinitely possible to train the conscious mind to let go of a hang up, a habit, or some earlier formed conditioning or prejudice.

But what of the subconscious? Try as I might to change it, I am forever having dreams that involve frustrations. In my dream I will be at a bookstore about to buy a magazine when I realize that I have left my wallet in the car. I go out to the car but it is locked and I realize that I have left my keys in a jacket pocket. But where is my jacket? And so on, ad infinitum.

When I wake up I want to shake myself by the shoulders and say, “This is Dreamland, Sweetie! You don’t need magazines or wallets or keys or jackets. Just pick the damn fruit right off the tree!” But it rarely happens this way. Oh sure, there have been flying dreams and “I am in paradise; completely at home” dreams, but these are more the exception than the rule.

I wonder what would happen if I could train my subconscious to be a little less frustrated when I dream? Would it have a beneficent effect upon my waking life? Would I be more creative? More successful in my career, my studio life, and my relationships?

Or is the subconscious meant to be inaccessible? Does it work on a deep, hidden level similar to that of DNA? Is the subconscious the spiritual equivalent of DNA’s physical blueprint? If so, can we inherit the dreams of our ancestors in much the same way as we inherit their eyes, hands, and smells? What would those dreams tell us about the life lessons already learned by those who have lived before us?

Technical Details

Divining is a painting that I made in 1994-95, around the time that I graduated from UMass Amherst. Its dimensions are 44 inches by 55 inches, and it is painted with oil paint on canvas that I stretched over handmade spruce stretchers. This painting has been sold. Photographed by John Polak.