January 27, 2013

Rum Shrub

Tony and I had a party this weekend, and as happens at most parties the guests brought bottles of wine to share. But unlike most parties, a lot of the wine remained unopened at the end of the night.

We mentioned this to a friend who attended and he said, "Oh, that's because instead of wine everyone drank the punch. You know, the rum shrub."

Oh, right the rum shrub!

No, it's not a bush. A shrub is an alcoholic drink that was popular in the colonial era. It seems to come in two forms: either a cordial made from liquor and fruit, or a punch-like concoction made from liquor, sugar and fruit juice. Unlike a traditional punch, a punch-like shrub is made days or weeks in advance to let the flavors mellow.

I made my rum shrub from a recipe I found in Yankee Magazine's Lost and Vintage Recipes. The authors say their recipe comes from Newport, Rhode Island, which was once the rum capital of the world. We'll revisit that fact in a minute.

Basically, the recipe involved twelve cups of rum, lemon and lime juice, sugar and some water. Stir it up in a big bowl and let it sit for at least a week. It was really good! I could definitely taste the rum but the citrus and the sugar mellowed out the alcohol flavor. One person at the party said, "It's like a Colonial margarita!"

Add ice. Drink.

Doesn't it seem odd that Newport was the rum capital of the world? Rum is made from sugar products, usually molasses, and even with global warming no one's growing sugar cane in New England. Molasses, despite its omnipresence in New England cookery, is imported from warmer climates like the Caribbean.

Rum was probably first discovered in the 1600s in the Caribbean by plantation slaves, who realized that molasses (which is a by-product of the sugar manufacturing process) could be distilled into a delicious liquor. The Caribbean islands lacked the skilled workforce and lumber needed for a large-scale rum industry, but New England had both. The first rum distillery in New England opened in Boston in 1667.

New England merchants engaged in what is known as the "triangle trade" to make and sell their rum. First, they would buy molasses in the Caribbean. Ships would carry the rum to New England where it was distilled into rum. Ships would then carry the rum to western Africa where it was sold for slaves. The slaves were shipped to the Caribbean where they were sold for more molasses. A profit was made on each point of the triangle, helping to make New England one of the wealthier regions in North America.

As a New Englander I don't usually think much about this region's role in the slave trade. After all, there weren't a lot of large plantations here, and the Abolitionist movement was very strong here, right?

Both true, but it doesn't change the fact that a lot of people in New England got very rich from the slave trade. So many of the historic dishes from this region, like baked beans, brown bread, Indian pudding, and Joe Froggers get their distinctive molasses flavor from human misery.

I'm not going to stop making these foods or enjoying molasses, but like every part of the world I need to remember that our region's history is very, very complicated.

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