A Jar of Switchel – 11/25/20

In the early 1960’s, University of Florida football coach, Ray Graves, made a request for a power drink that would help replenish critical body fluids after hard exercise playing football in the Florida heat.  The response was the invention of “Gatorade” in 1965.  Today, that power drink has become the power drink of choice for all sports teams and can be found in any grocery or convenience stores in a variety of flavors.  However, the need for a refreshing drink that would quench thirst at the same time that it re-energizes the body after an extended period of hard physical labor existed long before Gatorade was invented.  

When I was growing up on our family dairy farm during those early years when Gatorade was being introduced, we drank volumes of ice-cold Kool-Aid for that very purpose.  After loading hundreds of hay bales onto a flat bed trailer and then stacking them in the loft of our barn on hot, humid summer days, we needed some liquid relief.  The heat in the hay loft would typically exceed 100 degrees on the hottest days, when haying work had to be done, and we would choke on the dust and hay chaff that swirled around in the steamy summer air as we stacked a seemingly endless parade of rectangular hay bales carried up to us by our elevator.  Our bodies and clothes would be soaked in sweat from all the intense work and we would be coated in the dust and chaff that clung to our exposed skin like dust from a coal mine.  Without the gallons of Kool Aid that my adoptive mother would make and refrigerate before each wagon load of hay arrived at the barn, I doubt we could have survived the work without succumbing to heat prostration.  However, even Kool Aid was not available for this prior to its invention in 1927.  So, what did farmers use before that?

Many of them relied on a much older home-made concoction that became popular in the American Colonies—especially in my native New England—in the late 1600’s.  In fact, this popular drink became known colloquially as “Haymaker’s Punch,” because it was the perfect energy drink for that specific and widespread purpose.  This drink was formally known as “Switchel,” and enjoyed wide popularity long before Gatorade or Kool Aid was manufactured and sold.  Switchel is a drink predominantly made from four basic components, water, apple cider vinegar, molasses, and ground ginger.  New Hampshire and Vermont farmers would add some dried oatmeal to the mix.

I don’t recall drinking Switchel as a child.  I was born after Kool Aid was invented and just before the introduction of Gatorade.  However, I do recall hearing it discussed by many of the oldest farmers who relied upon it exclusively.  I’m quite sure it was available at the summer family reunions that my adoptive father’s family conducted every year.  I also recall being prodded by my elders to “try” the old-fashioned foods and drinks that they routinely served, so I expect that I did at least tasted it during my childhood and my failing memory simply can’t recall it. I locked away so many of my childhood experiences on our family dairy farm during my transition into the modern outside world that I can’t recall it clearly and can’t be certain that I did taste it, but the odds are very good that I was persuaded to try it at one of those reunions.

During the past week, I reread one of my books on traditional folkways from my childhood farming home communities in the upper Connecticut River Valley of New Hampshire and Vermont.  The book, Goodbye Highland Yankee, was written by Scott Hasting, Jr. in 1988, and I realized it had a whole chapter dedicated to the subject of Switchel.  It was that treatise that reawakened my memory of Switchel and its popularity as a haymaker’s preferred energy drink.  In fact, the book contained a simple Switchel Recipe, which I decided to use in making a batch earlier this morning.  I wanted to try it today to see if I could remember having tasted it before.  We cut the recipe down by one-quarter to avoid making more than we wanted to drink.  It took about 15 minutes to make our first reduced batch of Switchel.  A picture of it in a half-gallon canning jar appears with this post.  Barb and I tasted it and we can report to you that it has a very tart taste, probably due to the apple cider vinegar.  However, it is palatable, and I presume that it served its purpose quite well.  We added some dried Quaker Oats Oatmeal and placed the jar in the refrigerator to sit and chill.  Barb believes that the ground ginger will help cure the strong taste after it has had a chance to stand for a while.  We’ll try it again later to see if that occurs.

In the event that you might like to try this time-honored drink for yourself, I am including the recipe that Scott Hastings incorporated into his book.  Since it was a recipe used by farmers in New Hampshire and Vermont, it includes the dried oatmeal that many recipes from other areas may omit.  However, I do find it interesting to note that Gatorade, the most current replacement for Switchel, was acquired by the Quaker Oats company many years ago, which manufactures the oatmeal we used to make our first batch of Switchel.  Is that a mere coincidence?  Perhaps–maybe it’s revenge.  I’ll never know for sure.  We hope you will enjoy making your own batch of Switchel.

Switchel Recipe from Goodbye Highland Yankee by Scott Hastings, Junior:

1 gallon of spring water

1 quart of Apple Cider Vinegar

2 cups of molasses

4 tablespoons of ground ginger

2-3 handfuls of raw oatmeal scattered on top