Lowcountry already switched on to switchel

Michael Twitty (Hanna Raskin)

One of the Daniel Jenkins Creative Learning Center students recently herded into a classroom for a short presentation by Michael Twitty, a food writer who has turned antebellum cooking demonstrations and concurrent investigation of his ancestry into a kind of permanent performance project, told Twitty he had “the ultimate question” for him.

“Did you ever serve a dish that someone didn’t like?,” he asked.

Twitty serves plenty of different dishes. In addition to his forays into historical African-American foodways, he also toys with the traditional dishes of Orthodox Judaism, his adopted faith. And in keeping with his “Kosher Soul” brand, he’s not averse to fusing the two: At the Jewish Museum of Maryland, near his hometown, he served black-eyed pea hummus; collard green pastrami rolls and sesame hamantaschen. According to Twitty, those items are reliable crowd pleasers.

But what’s less popular with his audiences is switchel. “I wish I’d made it today, but you’d spit it out,” Twitty told the students.

As Twitty explained it, “In slavery times, a lemon was something special.” Since enslaved people couldn’t make lemonade, they mixed up batches of apple cider vinegar and molasses. “It’s not great tasting stuff,” Twitty said.

Perhaps not, but the tart rustic beverage is suddenly the rage with consumers who could presumably afford hand-muddled meyer lemonade scented with fresh-plucked basil. The Guardian this fall described the contender for kombucha’s throne as “the new drink hipsters can’t get enough of.”

“Are you cool enough to drink switchel?,” Modern Farmer asked in a headline for a story profiling an artisan switchel company. (I’ll give you three guesses where it’s based, and every one of them ought to be Brooklyn.)

Contemporary coverage of switchel tends to reference the beverage’s hazy or murky origins, which is another way of saying that the idea to stir together cider vinegar and sweetener, whether molasses, honey or maple syrup, probably wasn’t a lone visionary’s creation. In pre-soda pop days, it was glugged all over the Caribbean and the U.S., where it sometimes went by the name haymaker’s punch. “I will give a traveler a cup of switchel,” one of Herman Melville’s characters vowed.

And in some places, the drink never fell out of favor. Twitty -- who reminded his audience that “there’s a lot of people out there who don’t know where they came from; you do” -- clearly anticipated boggling preteen minds with his switchel recipe. But it resonated immediately with the student who posed the ultimate question.

“My mom makes that stuff,” he said. “That stuff’s nasty.”