One of the challenges of writing about things on the internet is having the discipline to contain yourself, for the sake of being able to call an item of work finished instead of knitting it into some mammoth all-encompassing rant about, like, American culture or capitalism or the human condition or whatever that will take you the rest of your life to finish, even though nominally it is about cheese-fries or the Knicks or a weird dude you saw on the bus or some other bit of ephemera. Striking a balance between saying everything about a thing and saying nothing about it, you know?—sometimes this is hard.
Ideally, you find some discrete kernel of truth about a thing, that can suffice as its own critique; you can present this kernel, contained unto itself, and have said Something About Something, have accomplished a Unit of Work, and then you can move onto the next thing, and if in the end in some panoramic perspective all the kernels you presented fit together coherently, then you have made your grand argument about American culture or capitalism or the human condition or whatever, without ever sitting down and trying to do it all at once, in a dumb blog post about, say, Peter King. And the belief that this is possible—that you can work one kernel at a time, so long as you can find the next kernel—is a comfort when you find the limits of time and mental bandwidth and your own skill in conflict with your urge to wring Everything That Is Wrong With The World out of some trivial thing you saw on the internet.
The point here is that I am biting down on this comfort measure like a leather belt in a Civil War surgery tent, after reading the following quote in a Modern Farmer article about the growing trendiness, in Brooklyn (where else?), of an olde-thymey beverage called switchel:
"Without even meaning to, we revitalized a culture, really."
That's Ely Key talking, there. Ely is the co-founder of Up Mountain Switchel, a Brooklyn-based switchel brewer.
Switchel, also known as haymaker's punch (because of its popularity during the hay harvesting seasons of Yore), is a "colonial farm drink" made, in Up Mountain's formulation, of water, cider vinegar, ginger, and maple syrup. Farm types in, like, buckle-hat times would carry a mason jar of this stuff out into the field to refresh themselves while they did farm work: it's sweet and spicy and tart and healthful; presumably it takes the edge off of hay farming, which, like most other types of farming, probably is pretty miserable.
So now Ely and his buddy Garrett Riffle make switchel, in Brooklyn, which is fine, very good for them, surely their switchel is delicious and artisanal and heritage and all the other good food-words. Cool beverage, guys! I'll drink a bottle of that stuff any time.
The thing about switchel, though, is that switchel—thirst-quenching and lovely though it assuredly must be!—is not a culture. There is no switchel culture to revitalize. The culture to which switchel originally belonged is the culture of colonial farming in the Northeast. That culture is very gone. Switchel brewing will not revitalize it.
Listen, young white people of a certain very narrow part of the incomprehensibly vast and various borough of Brooklyn! Wearing a flannel shirt does not make you a lumberjack. Wearing a bushy beard does not make you Herman Melville. Mixing water and vinegar and maple syrup and ginger and drinking it out of a cutesy anachronistic glass vessel does not make you a rustic 18th-century Vermont farmer. Playing dress-up is fun; people like to do it, and that's mostly OK. But, the cultures of other places and times and ways of life do not reside in their ginger drinks and shirts and facial hair; when you port these things to Brooklyn, you are not revitalizing a culture—you are just cosplaying.
We are close to Halloween, now. This is a good time of year to be mindful of the difference between a culture and a costume. Let us ruminate on this, as we drink our twee farm beverages out of rustic jars.
Photo of a millennial Brooklyn type via Shutterstock.