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Drink Like a Forefather: Lebanon Woman’s Book Recalls “Forgotten Drinks of Colonial New England”

  • A few selections from Corin Hirsch's collection of local spirits share a shelf in her Lebanon kitchen with cook books. Sunday, March 16, 2014. <br/>(Valley News - James M. Patterson)

    A few selections from Corin Hirsch's collection of local spirits share a shelf in her Lebanon kitchen with cook books. Sunday, March 16, 2014.
    (Valley News - James M. Patterson)

  • Corin Hirsch of Lebanon is the author of Forgotten Drinks of Colonial New England. Sunday, March 16, 2014. The book explores the history of pre-Revolutionary drink in the north east states.<br/>(Valley News - James M. Patterson)

    Corin Hirsch of Lebanon is the author of Forgotten Drinks of Colonial New England. Sunday, March 16, 2014. The book explores the history of pre-Revolutionary drink in the north east states.
    (Valley News - James M. Patterson)

  • A rattle-skull, one of several colonial drink recipes in Corin Hirsch's Forgotten Drinks of Colonial New England, contains a bottle of porter, lime juice, rum and nutmeg. Sunday, March 16, 2014. <br/>(Valley News - James M. Patterson)

    A rattle-skull, one of several colonial drink recipes in Corin Hirsch's Forgotten Drinks of Colonial New England, contains a bottle of porter, lime juice, rum and nutmeg. Sunday, March 16, 2014.
    (Valley News - James M. Patterson)

  • A few selections from Corin Hirsch's collection of local spirits share a shelf in her Lebanon kitchen with cook books. Sunday, March 16, 2014. <br/>(Valley News - James M. Patterson)
  • Corin Hirsch of Lebanon is the author of Forgotten Drinks of Colonial New England. Sunday, March 16, 2014. The book explores the history of pre-Revolutionary drink in the north east states.<br/>(Valley News - James M. Patterson)
  • A rattle-skull, one of several colonial drink recipes in Corin Hirsch's Forgotten Drinks of Colonial New England, contains a bottle of porter, lime juice, rum and nutmeg. Sunday, March 16, 2014. <br/>(Valley News - James M. Patterson)

Rattle Skull isn’t for the faint of heart, or liver.

Take a pint of porter, ¾ of an ounce each of rum and brandy, 3 ounces of sherry, or sack, a splash of fresh lime juice, and some shavings of fresh nutmeg. Mix. Taste. Ponder. Experience pleasant warming sensation. Drink some more. Wait for the hammer to fall.

Corin Hirsch, who writes about food and drink for the Vermont weekly Seven Days, is blending a remarkably smooth version of Rattle Skull in the kitchen of her home in Lebanon. She pours a little of this and a little of that into a cocktail shaker, and strains the drink into a glass. Rattle Skull has an almost chocolatey look and flavor, with subtle undertones of lime, nutmeg, maple and brandy, and it goes down like a malted milkshake.

The drink is one of dozens of alcoholic, Colonial-era concoctions that Hirsch includes in her book Forgotten Drinks of Colonial New England (American Palate, an imprint of History Press), a witty, well-researched study of what the English settlers and Founding Fathers liked to imbibe. Hirsch examines American drinking habits from the early 1600s through the Revolution, a period that, she said, has been comparatively less explored than the 19th and 20th centuries.

The book is part cultural history, part mixology, with recipes for such evocatively-named drinks as calibogus, mimbo and bombo, stone-fence, switchel, ratafia and Whistle-Belly Vengeance, a liquid meal of sorts that combined sour beer, molasses and crumbled browned corn bread, and was served hot. To gather material Hirsch traveled to old taverns in New England and researched in archives online and at Dartmouth College.

The aim of the book is to open a window onto people’s daily lives in a way that lectures about Colonial life can’t always achieve. “You’re trying to reach them through history to find what something smelled or tasted like,” Hirsch said.

The English settlers were not timid about drink. Far from it. Contrary to their reputation as joyless prudes, the Puritans liked to quaff beer and hard cider. Harvard College had its own brewery, to meet student demand. Taverns were an integral part of town life then, the place where people went to talk about politics and the events of the day, although, as Hirsch notes, white men made up the majority of customers. Women, servants and slaves “weren’t welcomed,” she writes in the book.

In a period in which existence could be nasty, brutish and short, with perilously low life expectancy and rampant disease, Hirsch said, “you can see why people would find joy in something like food and drink.”

The facts of harsh living conditions and, for some, a stern religiosity made alcohol a tempting outlet. Drinking was a way “to soften the edges,” she said. “I felt they were always wanting to bust loose.” And bust loose they often did.

On average, the European settlers drank up to the equivalent of seven shots a day, Hirsch said. Hard cider and beer were early staples, and when the rum trade began to flourish in the late 1600s, it worked its way rapidly into the diet. The abuse of alcohol by some, including children who had relatively freer access to drink, led unsurprisingly to a temperance movement.

Alcohol seeped into all aspects of daily life, and played a role in the struggle between the Britsh and the Americans, Hirsch writes. In the hours before the chaotic skirmish between the British Redcoats and the Minute Men on April 19, 1775 at Lexington, Mass., some 80 men in the Lexington Training Band drifted into the Buckman Tavern, the local watering hole on the town green. (It still stands, and its front door still bears the mark of a musket ball fired during the fight.)

Warned that the Redcoats were on the march, some of the men whiled away the hours before the expected engagement by knocking back flips, a potent, satiny blend of beer, rum, a sweetener such as molasses, sugar or dried pumpkin, and sometimes eggs and cream. Once the drink was mixed by the bar tender, he would plunge a hot poker into the brew, turning it into a warm, irresistible froth with a charred flavor. When the men went out at dawn to meet the British, they had fire in the belly, in more ways than one.

Hirsch grew up on Long Island, studied journalism as an undergraduate at the University of Arizona and got her M.F.A in non fiction writing at Goucher College in Maryland. She worked as an art director and designer in New York City before deciding to return to journalism. She also lived in England, covering labor unions throughout the British Isles for union publications, and worked as a bar maid in a rural pub dating from the 1500s, where she met her future husband Nicholas Sayer.

She moved to the Upper Valley in 2001 with Sayer but when he died unexpectedly in 2011, she returned to New York. She moved back to the Upper Valley in the winter of 2006, and began doing freelance work, and then worked for the Eagle T imes in Claremont, where eventually, at the suggestion of an editor, she started a column about food.

“It was kind of an a-ha moment; it was a good fit,” she said. (She has also taught journalism at Lebanon College.)

Writing about food and drink didn’t come out of the blue: growing up on Long Island, much of Hirsch’s family life centered on food and drink, and what was on the menu for this meal and the one after. She’d always loved food and cooking, but writing about it professionally has given her added insights into how food and drink, and their presence or absence, shape people’s lives in fundamental ways.

“Clearly food is central to everyone’s daily life and an immensely personal thing,” she said. “It’s a prism and a way into learning about ... history and the land and the way people cultivate food. It’s a glimpse into someone’s culture.”

Nicola Smith can be reached at nsmith@vnews.com.