THROUGH THE WOODS: Switchel

EVERY PERSON SHOULD HAVE THE OPPORTUNITY to work in a mid-August, old time, blazing hot hayfield. I thought I had it bad stacking hay bales in a wagon behind a tractor and hay baler as a kid until my maternal grandfather, Frank Wambach, showed me something worse. He and his four brothers had to mow hay by hand with a scythe. He tried to teach me to sharpen and use a scythe, and I did it poorly. There is a rhythm to swinging a scythe and an art to sharpening the blade with a handheld whetstone. I butchered the grass and often my fingers too.

The Grim Reaper carries a scythe, and he might have harvested some of his victims in fields where they were dying of heat stroke. To stay hydrated and keep working, people have used various liquid concoctions. One used by our early settlers was switchel.

The origin of the drink may have been New England or the Caribbean and there is something similar from early times in Persia. Various recipes for switchel consist of water, vinegar, and a sweetener like molasses, sugar, honey, or maple syrup. It might have spices, hard cider or rum added. Our early Congress drank a switchel containing rum, and members purportedly drank often and deeply during sessions and oratory.

Frank Wambach and Gypsy working in a hayfield circa 1940. Photo contributed

My maternal grandmother came from a New England English background. She had her own drink for the men, it was non-alcoholic tea, and she taught me how to make it. She used a heavy gallon Stanley Thermos jug to hold it. In an old quart milk pitcher, she added boiling water and steeped 5 tea bags and a teaspoon of powdered ginger until it cooled and formed a dark brown liquid. A tray of ice went into the wide mouthed thermos, then the tea, a can of concentrated frozen lemonade containing sugar, and she filled it to the top with water. We sat it in the shade at the edge of a field, and all drank from the same cup.

My mother made my father a large glass jar of iced coffee with lots of our good milk and some sugar. She provided extra cups for others. Sometimes my grandfather used hand-dug springs near different fields for a drink, and there would be a tin cup hung on a branch nearby. Periodically he would dig them out and clean them up. We all drank from these flowing springs, the water was cold and clear, and no one got sick from it. We were lucky to have plenty of water on our farms.

Until recently the term switchel was unknown in this area. There is a revival of the drink, like the booming cider market, and there are two companies in Canada making it as well as the Vermont Switchel Company. The other name for switchel is “haymakers punch,” which certainly should appear on their labels.

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