April 27, 2014

Switchel: An Old New England Beverage Back in Style

A hip and trendy nouveau-Chinese restaurant is an unlikely place to find an old New England beverage, so you can imagine how surprised and delighted I was when I found one at Mei-Mei, a nice new restaurant in Boston.

The food at Mei-Mei is described as "Chinese street food made with locally sourced items" (or something to that effect - I can't find the exact quote). The restaurant (which grew from a food truck) is best known for a sandwich called the Double Awesome, which is basically a poached egg and pesto served between two scallion pancakes. I had one and it was really delicious. Apparently everyone in Boston agrees because they've sold over 40,000 of them since they started their truck a few years ago. The eggs in their sandwiches are local, and they use a lot of other locally produced items like winter squash, cabbage, potatoes, oats, and cheeses.

Now, before you scream out "What does this have to do with New England folklore!" let me add that Mei-Mei serves something called haymakers punch. Also known as haymakers switchel, or just plain switchel, this drink has roots deep in New England history.

Made with water, sugar, molasses and vinegar, switchel originated in the Caribbean but soon became a favorite summer beverage for 17th century New England farmers and field hands. The vinegar and molasses may seem a little strange to the modern palate, but just think of it as lemonade from an era when lemons were hard to get but vinegar was plentiful. It was something refreshing to drink on a hot summer day.

A big cup of switchel glowing in the sun!

I've known about switchel for many years but had never tasted it until I ordered the haymakers punch at Mei-Mei. The first time I tried it my taste buds were a little overwhelmed by the tartness of the vinegar. I remember coughing a little bit, but I still finished the drink. The second time I had it I couldn't get enough. Maybe the molasses/vinegar combination is addictive...

Apparently switchel experienced a revival last summer. Why didn't anyone tell me? This article discusses the beverage's origins, and also profiles two hipsters who opened a switchel brewery in Brooklyn. A switchel brewery in Brooklyn!? It sounds like switchel's time has arrived.

I have an old switchel recipe in my recipe folder. It doesn't date back to the 17th century, but I did clip it from the Boston Globe in the early 1990s. It's attached to a yellowing index card so by digital standards it seems almost ancient. Here's the recipe:


1 gallon water
1 cup sugar (or to taste)
1 cup molasses
1/2 cup cider vinegar (or to taste)
1 teaspoon ground ginger

Combine everything in a pitcher and whisk until well-combined.

The recipe notes that "the vinegar may be off-putting to some modern palates; lemon or lime juice can be used in its place." That may be true but I recommend trying it with the vinegar first. You may acquire a taste for it.

April 20, 2014

Another Mystery in the Bridgewater Triangle: A Giant Flying Egg?

Down in southeastern Massachusetts there's a 200-square mile area called the "Bridgewater Triangle." The term was popularized by Loren Coleman, a Maine resident and famous cryptozoologist.

In his book Mysterious America, Coleman writes

The Hockomock Swamp area claims its own share of strange occurrences. Because of its long history of evil, bedeviled, and ominous occurrences, residents have recognized this area of the state for its strange and often sinister character and have, over the years, dubbed it "The Bridgewater Triangle." This Hockomock Swamp region covers an area of approximately 200 square miles and includes the towns of Abington, Freetown, and Rehoboth at the angles of the triangle, and Brockton, Taunton, the Bridgewaters, Raynham, Mansfield, Norton, and Easton within the triangle. 

My friend Ed grew up in Taunton, and said he was always warned not to pick berries in the Hockomock Swamp. Was it just because his parents were afraid he'd get lost in some quicksand, or perhaps something else? A couple years ago Tony and I went down to Raynham for a birthday party Ed organized. We drove through the swamp to get there, and I remember noticing the road was particularly dark, and that wisps of mist drifted across it. It was a little creepy.

Residents of the Bridgewater Triangle have encountered a wide variety of strange creatures, including gigantic birds, mysterious black dogs, enormous snakes, and of course Bigfoot. The area is also host to many different ghosts, including those who haunt Anawan Rock and the maniacal red-headed hitchhiker of Route 44.

Paranormal phenomena tend to cluster together, so naturally a lot of UFOs have been seen in the Bridgewater Triangle. Mysterious flying objects have been seen since at least 1908, and my friend Ed's parents told him they had once seen something strange in the sky.

The most recent UFO was seen just last week, on April 12. A resident of Rehoboth and their daughter were outside raking leaves during the day when they saw something overhead: a gigantic, flying egg.

"It was an egg-shaped object, white in color. Not sure if it was glowing or if reflecting, but it was definitely white. It seemed to slow a little before slightly curving its course and staying straight after doing so, ascending upward and then not visible anymore."

Is an egg-shaped UFO "evil, bedeviled, and ominous," like some of the other Bridgewater phenomena? I suppose maybe it could be ominous, but it definitely doesn't seem evil or bedeviled. Mostly, it just sounds puzzling and kind of cool, and also seasonally appropriate. After all, what better time to see a giant flying egg than the week before Easter!

I got my information about the UFO from this report by Roger Marsh, who writes about UFOs for MUFON, the Mutual UFO Network. 

April 13, 2014

Don't Be A Jonah: Bad Luck On Ships and Boats

I am not a sailor.

My brother loves to sail. My father loves to sail. I come from a long line of Nova Scotia fishermen, but somehow I didn't get the sailing gene. Instead I got the "I get seasick even riding a bus" gene. Maybe I inherited that one from my mother's side.

I'm still interested in nautical lore, even if I'm not a sailor. There is quite a bit of it in New England, naturally, and much of it concerns what might bring bad luck to a ship.

A person or thing that brings bad luck to a ship is called a "Jonah." The term of course comes from the Biblical prophet of the same name. Jonah is best remembered for being swallowed by a whale, but that's only part of his story, which goes something like this: Jonah was commanded by God to go preach in the Assyrian city of Nineveh, but refused to go. Instead he boarded a ship sailing in the opposite direction. He wanted to put as much mileage between himself and Nineveh as possible. God wasn't buying it, though, and sent a terrible storm which threatened to sink the ship. The sailors on board determined that Jonah was to blame for the bad weather and tossed him overboard. The storm abated and the ship reached its destination safely. (Jonah meanwhile was swallowed by a whale and eventually went to Nineveh).

"Sorry Jonah, but you gotta go!"
Similar stories appear throughout European literature and folklore. For example, in Shakespeare's play Pericles, the hero's wife dies in childbirth while at sea. A huge storm threatens to sink the ship, but the sailors calm it by throwing her body into the ocean. Don't be sad - since Pericles is one of Shakespeare's late romances there's still a happy ending. In folklore, mermaids often cause storms to delay or sink ships carrying handsome sailors they want to marry. The storm can only be stopped if the sailor throws himself overboard into the mermaid's waiting arms.

So apparently if you're on a ship carrying a reluctant prophet, the corpse of someone who died in childbirth, or a handsome sailor you will experience bad weather. If it's carrying all three just swim back to shore right away!

Here in New England, the following were considered bad luck:

  • A man carrying a black valise on board will bring bad luck and should be shunned.
  • Anyone carrying an umbrella on board brings bad luck.
  • It is unlucky to pound nails on a ship on Sunday.
  • Hawks, owls and crows will bring bad luck it they land on a ship.
  • Dropping the hatch into the hold is bad luck.
  • Never watch a ship sail out of sight, because it's the last time you'll see it.

Some men were also just considered naturally unlucky. A new crew member on a fishing boat will be blamed and labeled a Jonah if the boat brings in a small catch on his first trip. Stories are told of men who hexed three ships in a row with their bad luck. Time to pursue a new profession!

All is not grim, though, and there is light at the end of the voyage. Here are some things that bring good luck:

  • Dropping a cake of ice overboard before leaving port
  • Bees or small birds bring good luck if they land on the ship.
  • A horseshoe nailed into the mast will protect the ship from witches.

Now I just need something to prevent motion sickness on the MBTA bus!

April 06, 2014

A Haunted Country Store, and Mountain Lions in the Smallest State

If you're up near Lake Winnipesaukee this summer,  you might want to stop by the Ellacoya Country Store in Gilford, New Hampshire. Or maybe you won't, depending on how spooked you are by ghosts. The owners claim the store is haunted.

According to manager Lisa Giles, the store has been haunted since it opened. Employees have glimpsed the ghostly shape of a man standing in the doorway, while others have heard a man whistling while there was no one else in the room. Some people have feven elt a hand touching their shoulder. The Ellacoya Country Store is in a building that dates from 1745, so I suppose a lot can happen to attract a ghost over 269 years.

The spooky shenanigans reached a crescendo on March 10. Employee Hedi Boyd was alone in the store and went into one of the side rooms. She heard a crash, and came out to find the lid of a glass cake dish had fallen on the floor. She didn't think much of it until she saw the surveillance video, which shows the lid being thrown onto the floor by unseen forces.

The video caused quite a stir when it was released, and was featured on New Hampshire's WMUR-TV and the Huffington Post. Debunkers have argued the lid could have been pulled over by a string drawn through a window behind the cash register, but it turns out the window doesn't open.

A psychic medium and a parapsychologist investigated the store on March 27. The medium said she felt a heavy presence, possibly that of an older woman. The parapsychologist was more noncommittal, saying only that something mysterious was going on. They plan to investigate further.

If this had happened in the 17th or 18th century people would blame it on a witch. If it happened in the 1970s and there was an unhappy adolescent around, we'd call it poltergeist activity. Our current explanatory framework is focused on ghosts. For myself, I'll just agree with the parapsychologist that something mysterious is happening!

On a different note, my post about the Winchester mountain lion generated a lot of conversation, and several people people mentioned mountain lion sightings in Rhode Island. It's a small state, but apparently not so small it can't hide a big cat. Here's an email I got from Karen, who lives in Mantunuck, Rhode Island.
On Saturday, July 30, 2011 at about 7:15 p.m., I was working in the vegetable garden in my front yard when I looked up and saw an animal looking at me. It was no more than 50 feet away. It had come into the yard from behind some overgrown vegetation. It looked straight at me for five or ten seconds, and then turned and ran back where it had come from…

The animal I saw was the height of a very large dog. It had a cat-like face. It was light tan in color. I got the impression that it was not an adult. It had the sort of heavy, blocky legs you see on a puppy. I have seen coyotes and I am sure it was not a coyote. I looked at photographs of bobcats, coyotes, and mountain lions on the National Geographic website and I am sure what I saw was a juvenile mountain lion. I later learned that a number of other people in Matunuck, the area of South Kingstown where I live, also have seen mountain lions, have seen mountain lion tracks, and have found hidden caches of mountain lion meals. At least one person photographed a mountain lion. The year after my sighting, my next door neighbor and her son saw an adult mountain lion in front of their house. Again, there was no question about what it was.

Another mountain lion was sighted in Mantunuck just a few weeks ago, but local officials say the proof (scat and footprints) are inconclusive. Thanks for the tip, Karen! Now I know not to go hiking around Mantunuck. I'm a vegetarian and I bet the mountain lion would find me tasty.