I promptly put some chopped vegetables in water on the stove and went outside to play, setting the pattern of curiosity, creativity, and carelessness that I've applied to my hobbies ever since. I have, for example, tried a number of things with alcoholic drinks over the years, not all of which could be fairly described as seeming like a good idea even at the time. A few of these I've chronicled on this blog.
So of course I was keen to read Corin Hirsch's Forgotten Drinks of Colonial New England: From Flips & Rattle-Skulls to Switchel & Spruce Beer and pleased when a review copy arrived in the mail.
On colonial beer, Hirsch contrasts the Swedish Lutheran minister Israel Acrelius's opinion of the beer drunk by the common people as "brown, thick, and unpalatable" to French immigrant Hector Crevecoeur's description of his use of "pine chips, pine buds, hemlock, fir leaves, roasted corn, dried apple-skins, sassafras roots, and bran... to which we add some hops and a little malt [to] compose a sort of beverage that's very pleasant." I don't know how brown or thick Crevecouer's sort of beverage was, but it sure sounds unpalatable to me.
Cider became more popular than beer in colonial New England.
By the mid-1770s, the average New England family might consume a barrel of cider a week, putting up dozens of barrels for the winter...By 1775, one out of every ten New England farms had its own cider mill.
Hirsch says cider's popularity was due in part because it was cheaper and easier to make than beer, but I'd bet not having pine trees in it must have helped. It seems like they did get the taste right; Brillat-Savarin of The Physiology of Taste fame reported an encounter with a Connecticut cider "so excellent that I could have gone on drinking it forever."
As for rum, I knew it was the spirit of choice in colonial New England, but I didn't realize quite how often they chose it.143 New England distilleries produced five million gallons of rum in 1765, and at some point the output accounted for 80 percent of all exports from the colonies. As for the rum that wasn't exported, the colonists
drank it straight (a dram); watered down (grog and sling); blended with pepper (pepper rum), cider (Stone-Fence), ale and cream (flip) or brandy (Rattle-Skull); or glugged into a bowl with citrus juices and sugar (punch). By the time Increase [Mather]'s son, Cotton, railed, "Would it not be a surprise to hear of a Country destroy'd by a Bottle of RUM?" his countrymen were fairly soaked in the stuff.If you haven't heard of the delightful wines made in the colonies... well, neither did the Englishmen who spent a great deal of money trying to make delightful wines in the colonies.
As for whiskey, that was more of a post-colonial phenomenon, led by the Scotch-Irish settling the western frontier and helped by a strong hit to the rum industry during the War when the supply of molasses was largely cut off.
There were definitely social consequences of the ubiquity of alcoholic beverages at the time; even children might drink a low-alcohol ciderkin (drinking water was looked on with suspicion, for good reason in the days of dumping sewage into rivers). Hirsch quotes a passage from Benjamin Franklin (writing as Silence Dogood in 1720), indicating the creativity of language sparked by all the drinking:
They are seldom known to be drunk, tho' they are very often boozey, cogey, tipsey, fox'd, merry, mellow, fuddl'd, groatable, Confoundedly cut, See two Moons, are Among the Philistines, In a very good Humour, See the Sun, or, The Sun has shone upon them; they Clip the King's English, are Almost froze, Feavourish, In their Altitudes, Pretty well enter'd, &c. In short, every Day produces some new Word or Phrase which might be added to the Vocabulary of the Tiplers.There were also economic and political consequences -- a lot of the taxation without representation that was going on in those days involved alcoholic beverages and their ingredients.
Corin Hirsch writes about all these things in an instructive but light voice. The first line of the introduction -- quoting someone who overhears a conversation about colonial drinking -- gives an idea of her take on the subject, as an amateur who's done the studying for the rest of us: "'Did they really drink that much?'"
The book doesn't give a scholarly answer -- there's not much attention to chronology or orderly presentation of data, and the social commentaries are essentially anecdotal. I noticed a few errors of fact -- it's uisce beatha, not uisce breatha, and it doesn't mean "breath of life," nor is perry pear brandy. And it could have benefited from one more editorial pass to sand down some of the writing tics; Hirsch is perhaps too fond of drinks being "swilled" and hot places being "sticky."
Still, I learned a lot about colonial drinks and the colonists who drank them, and I still haven't said anything about the recipes. Given the length of this post, I think I'll make that part 2.