Sunday, January 11, 2009

A taste of my own medicine

This is one I started in September but never posted. One last gust from the winds of 2008.

Missing the people at Diner Journal, thinking of turning to drinking, I tried my hand at making bitters. I had written a post for the blog there on their house-made bitters, and it was one of the best things about my summer. Josh and Peter sharing so generously what they knew, their obvious relish in the experiments behind the counter. The process involved infusing distilled spirits with something - bark, herbs, seeds, fruits - and then waiting while the ingredients took their own time and course. I loved the idea of this. Learning about bitters, like the mixtures themselves, left me hot under the tongue.

Their mystery seemed destined from their origins. Today bitters are considered the backbone of the cocktail, but they were long used as "patent" medicines, which verged on the miraculous. The issue of Harper's Weekly from June 6, 1863 hailed Hostetter's Celebrated Stomach Bitters as, "at once the best of correctives, the gentlest and most genial of aperients, an infallible regulator and a powerful restorative." Morally upright, no doubt, but kind of boring. Yet, elsewhere, in The New York Times just two months before, an ad had claimed that the very same brew, "fortifie[d] the system against miasmas and the evil effects of unwholesome water." Well good. There was something I could use.

Anyway, the little amber bottles that Josh sold in the store really did look like they had fallen off the wagon of some traveling doctor in the 19th century. Or else they were straight out The Phantom Tollbooth, the hubbub tonic of "Kakophonous A. Dischord, DOCTOR OF DISSONANCE." Do you remember the amazing drawing on that page? And Milo and company ask, what does the A. stand for? And the doctor replies, "AS LOUD AS POSSIBLE." Yes, yes, and yes. Somewhere in-between the hard facts of science and the mirages of con-men, there was a medicine of crossed lines and clattering voids. I, too, was "suffering from a severe lack of noise," I thought. Bitters would cure me. I wanted to make my own.

I did. I have a hard time explaining what they taste like. Unlike the fine bitters I sampled this summer, the batch I've made falls sort of flat on the palate. I can't tell if it needs something as a base in the mix, or is the base for something else I haven't thought of yet. I think it could have infused for longer. Honestly, I'm totally perplexed by what I've made. It is, however, very smooth, nicely spicy and just a little sweet. I don't think it would do very much in a cocktail where one would have used, say, Angostura. But whatever, I like a little of it with ginger ale, or club soda. This is how I did it.

I bought very strong vodka from the Polish liquor store around the corner from where I lived in Greenpoint this summer. (I have not seen vodka like that in Middletown, but I'm looking.) I peeled and cut up the horseradish root that I had used to make ketchup, and which had spent an entire summer in the back of the fridge looking like a hairy archaeology project gone wrong, like it might send shoots out at any moment, knocking away innocent radishes and the Ronnybrook milk bottle, sucking up life so it could burst through the refrigerator and eat the entire apartment building. Anyway, then I did the same with fresh ginger - rough chop. I added some peppercorns of different colors that I got at Marlow & Sons, lemon peel, fennel seeds, one star anise and some other things I can't remember. Into a large mason jar they all went, with the vodka, to rest.

I was away from the tincture for almost a month. Ideally, over the course of this time, you watch it, pass it while making this or that in the kitchen and look longingly at its quiet progress -- periodically, of course, allowing yourself to shake it or, even more rarely, to open the crusting lid and dip a fingertip into its suspect operation, only then to shake your head, no, not yet, and screw the top back on. When it is time, whenever that is, you strain and finish with a little caramelized sugar. Then I found my own glass dropper bottles, just for fun. And for a minute there, I felt it: I was totally a medicine woman. A righteous specialist in noise, an enemy of illnesses that don't exist.


Jil Nelson said...

Hi Leah,

Looks like a fun project. I just gave you a shout out on Twitter.

anna wiener said...


Do you want me to pick you up a little Polish polish this weekend?

your innocent radish

Leah said...

dear innocent radish,

yes please. or maybe just bagels as usual. your call, whichever is more necessary for project survive connecticut winter.

also, thanks so much, jil!