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Switch Things Up with Switchel

August 22, 2011

By Pat Tanner

As you may have heard, Jose Andres – one of the hottest chefs in the U.S. – recently took one of his hallmark D.C. restaurants, Café Atlantico, offline, transforming it into a six-month pop-up restaurant called America Eats Tavern. Created to run in conjunction with a concurrent exhibit at the National Archives called “What’s Cooking, Uncle Sam?”, its menu consists of traditional (and sometimes lost or forgotten) gems of American cooking over the centuries, each extensively researched and masterfully realized for our time. Both the exhibit and the fare are far more enjoyable than their names may imply, and both will disappear early in January 2012.

I had the immense pleasure of dining at America Eats recently and could not have been more captivated. The menu gives brief histories of each dish, and these are often fascinating – like the one for Lobster Newberg, a dish introduced at Delmonico’s in 1876. It seems the secret to the sauce came from one Ben Wenberg, a shipper of fruit from Latin America. After a dispute between Wenberg and the restaurant’s management, Delmonico’s simply rearranged a few letters and renamed the dish “Newberg.”

Not just the eats, but drinks at America Eats are equally thoroughly researched and satisfying. I was particularly taken with switchel, a cocktail with origins in Colonial America. On the menu it is described as “a field worker’s drink from New England, blending rum, cider vinegar, molasses, and ginger into a surprisingly refreshing beverage.” At the restaurant, the cocktail is served in a Mason-type jar.

Switchel is, I concur, surprisingly refreshing – so much so that when I returned home I decided to replicate it. My research uncovered that it is not, in its original state, an alcoholic beverage, but, rather surprisingly, an 18th and 19th century version of a sports drink. Because it was traditionally served to farm workers during the hay harvest, it developed the nickname “haymaker’s punch.” There is even an allusion to a version of switchel in Laura Ingalls Wilder’s Little House on the Prairie series. Some people claim – and again, I agree – that the vinegar-molasses-ginger-water tonic is better for your body than modern-day sports drinks and, in hot weather, more effective than plain water for keeping you hydrated.

It was easy for me to produce a delicious version of switchel at home – with one difference. At the restaurant the cocktail is a beautiful golden color. My version, while tasting very similar, is the color of Coke. Stymied, I emailed Owen Thomson, the lead bartender at America Eats, for advice. Here is what he very kindly replied:

“Glad you enjoyed the drink; this is one of my favorites as well. I found a lot of old recipes for Switchel in some books I had, and one that I found to be my favorite actually blended a little honey in with the molasses – so that may have something to do with the color. We also use fresh juiced ginger root as opposed to just macerating cut ginger root. Below is our recipe which we then mix with 5-year El Dorado rum.”

So, take your pick: dark brown switchel or golden yellow switchel. Either way, I reckon it will surprise, delight, and refresh.

 

Pat’s Homemade Switchel

Stir together:

½ cup cider vinegar

¼ cup molasses

Scant ½ teaspoon ground ginger

4 cups cold water

Serves 6.

 

America Eats Tavern’s Switchel

Stir together:

¼ cup molasses

¼ cup honey

2 teaspoons ginger juice

½ cup cider vinegar

3 cups water

Serves 4.

 

Switchel Cocktails: Divide switchel among highball glasses or Mason jars. Stir 1-1/2 to 2 ounces of rum into each glass.

America Eats Tavern is at 405 8th Street NW, Washington DC.

“What’s Cooking, Uncle Sam?” runs through January 3, 2012, at the National Archives, Constitution Avenue NW between Seventh and Ninth Streets, Washington DC (About 1 block from America Eats)

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