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.


sooze said...

Check out www.vtswitchel.com for the original!

Linda said...

Looks great. Greetings from Montreal, Canada.