A Toast to a Poet

There’s something kind of wonderful about a place that celebrates a long-dead and, frankly, difficult to understand poet with a feast. But that’s Scotland for you.

It’s true that I’m a bit of a Scotland obsessive (sorry to those who have endured my carrying on) so perhaps my accolades mean little. But seriously, a poet?! And one who died in 1796? I just can’t get over it. But celebrate people do. And not just in Scotland.

Every January, people around the world pay tribute to Scotsman Robert Burns through the Burns’ Night Supper on or around his birthday of January 25th. Among his many works are that old New Years’ chestnut “Auld Lang Syne so even if you don’t think you know the name, you probably know his work.

You can find Burns’ Night Suppers everywhere. We went to one here in Wisconsin. And there’s one in Vancouver that combines Burns’ Night with Chinese New Year to make probably the most amazing food event ever: Gung Haggis Fat Choy.

The centerpiece of a Burns’ Night meal is haggis (or the veggie haggis that I made), or as Burns called it the ‘great chieftain o’the puddin’-race.’ The haggis isn’t just set on the table. No, it is “piped in” on a platter to the music of bagpipes during a procession. Then someone reads “Address to a Haggis” followed by a toast to the haggis. Seriously, everyone keeps a straight face (well, mostly).

Besides haggis, there’s neeps and tatties, soup, and dessert. This year for dessert, I made a clootie dumpling, a fruit-studded pudding boiled in a cloth. Sound strange? It is but it tastes delicious.

clootie dumpling

clootie dumpling

The whole thing is delicious really. Food, prose, and piping, and all in tribute to a poet.



Applejack Season

Source: Wikipedia

Source: Wikipedia

A few months back, the editor of a new drinks magazine out of Scotland called Hot Rum Cow contacted me to talk applejack for the next issue of his magazine. How could I refuse him? Apples? Scotland? I’m in. We had a great chat and the issue is now out (preview here).

Seeing the story (in an issue dedicated to cider) reminded me that winter is prime applejack season. Applejack is hard cider’s burly cousin, the one with an edge that breathes fire, particularly in its colonial American incarnation.

Early Americans made applejack at home. In the winter. They would fill a barrel with cider in the fall and then leave the barrel outside to freeze. As the water froze, they would skim off the slush leaving the alcohol behind. A few times through this freezing process yielded a highly potent and potentially dangerously impure drink behind. How dangerous? Some referred to applejack as “the essence of lockjaw.”

Applejack like hard cider was vital to colonial life. Apples grew where grains and grapes did not. Everyone had an orchard, and turning apples into alcohol was an efficient and easy way to preserve a harvest too large to consume as whole fruit. Applejack even helped to fuel revolution as Laird (the oldest commercial distillery in the U.S.) supplied George Washington and his troops with applejack.

Today, of course, distillers use more controlled methods of making applejack so we can drink without fear. And thankfully, there’s more of it to drink as applejack seems to be benefiting from the cocktail boom.

There are so many places that brag that George Washington rested his ponytail on their beds – it seems far cooler to me to say you drank what George drank.


Snake oil

You’ve heard of snake oil, right? It’s one of those phrases I heard and read for years without giving much thought. Snake oil means fake, fraudulent, bad – I took it in without really taking it in. I mean, what is snake oil exactly? And why snakes? Why not pig or frog oil? Fish oil? Now that’s a good oil. But snakes? That’s just bad medicine.

Popular lore equates patent medicines with snake oil. Most patent medicines did not literally contain this reptilian liquid. But some did.

Stanley's snake oilSource: Wikipedia

Stanley’s snake oil
Source: Wikipedia

Clark Stanley, better known as “The Rattlesnake King,” likely inspired the association with his “Snake Oil Liniment,” which cured everything from rheumatism and sciatica to lumbago, frostbite, and sore throat. Stanley claimed to have learned of snake oil’s healing powers from his years as a cowboy out west with the Hopi Indians in the 1870s and 1880s. He shared his discovery with the public at the 1893 World’s Columbian Exposition in Chicago where he pulled live snakes out of a sack, slit them open, and plunged their bodies into boiling water. As the fat from the snakes rose to the top of the pot, Stanley skimmed it off, mixed it with his previously prepared oils, and sold his liniment freshly prepared to the crowd that gathered to watch the spectacle.

A few years later, in 1897, he published The Life and Adventures of the American Cowboy: True Life in the Far West by Clark Stanley, Better Known as the Rattlesnake King, which explained cowboy life, contained lyrics to cowboy songs, and of course, promoted the healing wonders of his snake oil liniment. Stanley’s liniment became so successful that a reporter who visited his office in Beverly, Massachusetts, found it filled with snakes, some more than seven feet long. He claimed to have killed 3,000 snakes in 1901 alone to meet demand for his product.

Stanley’s was not the only snake oil remedy on the market. Consumers could also find Tex Bailey’s Rattle Snake Oil, Tex Allen’s Rattlesnake Essential Oil Compound, and Monster Brand Snake Oil, among others, that capitalized on American fascination with cowboys, the Wild West, and Indians.

Snake oil itself had an even longer history in Chinese medicine where people had rubbed the fat of the Erabu sea snake, not rattlesnakes, on aching joints for centuries. Stanley may actually have learned about snake oil from Chinese laborers in the West rather than the Indians as he professed. [1]

Either way, Stanley (and others like him) made snake oil a popular fixture in both the pharmacy and our language.


[1] James Frank Dobie, Rattlesnakes (Austin: University of Texas Press, 1982), 75-76; Dan Hurley, Natural Causes: Death, Lies and Politics in America’s Vitamin and Herbal Supplement Industry (New York: Broadway Books, 2006), 1-2; Gene Fowler, Mavericks: A Gallery of Texas Characters (Austin: University of Texas Press, 2008), 97-100; Joe Schwarcz, “Why are snake-oil remedies so-called?” The Gazette [Montreal] (23 February 2008), http://tinyurl.com/d7tcfbc