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March 6, 2016

From the time I was twelve years old until I graduated from high school, I worked at the family lumberyard every summer.  Dad and I would go to work at 6:00 in the morning and stay until 6:00 at night.  Those twelve-hour days were interrupted by one-half hour at noon for a meal that we never called lunch.  It was always dinner, and we always went home to Mama’s cooking.

One sweltering hot day Dad and I came home to a meal of roast beef, mashed potatoes, English peas, and turnip greens.  We washed our hands at the kitchen sink and sat down to our plates already served.  After my dad’s usual blessing, I reached for a large jar of amber liquid, pouring it over a tall glass of ice.  Hardly anything was better in the summertime than Mama’s sweet tea.  I put the glass to my lips and took a big swig.  The liquid was not iced tea.  It was apple cider vinegar, intended for the turnip greens.  Mama came to the rescue with a large pitcher of freshly brewed iced tea.  From that day to this, I have never enjoyed drinking vinegar.

I am in good company. During these days of Lent Christians might meditate on the crucifixion of Jesus. All four gospels mention the fact that just before he died Jesus was offered a vinegar-soaked sponge lifted to his lips on a stalk of hyssop. However, each Gospel understands that moment differently.

The Gospel of John indicates that this was presented to Jesus in response to his saying, “I am thirsty.” The fourth Gospel indicates that Jesus accepted the offer.

The Gospel of Mark has a different view. “Then they offered him wine mixed with myrrh, but he did not take it.”  The mixture of vinegar with myrrh was thought to deaden pain so it was refused by Jesus.

I don’t usually employ what is commonly known as proof-texting, which is, misappropriating scripture to prove a point. When it comes to drinking vinegar, I am tempted. In fact, apple cider vinegar seems like a waste of good apples to me.

My grandmother, Mammy, knew what to do with apples. I grew up on apple sauce, apple juice, apple cobbler, and apple butter. Mammy could take the ugliest, knottiest apples and make the best lattice-crust pies ever. For a long time after Mammy’s death my Aunt Ann made sugar-free apple pies for me using apple juice as the sweetener. I contend that apples were meant to be sweet. That’s why they are associated with love.

According to Irish folklore, an apple peel, pared into one long continuous ribbon and thrown behind a woman’s shoulder, will land in the shape of her future husband’s initials. Both my grandfather and Clare’s grandfather could peel an apple in this way. The long strip of apple peel was presented as a gift to a grandchild.  I now find myself doing this for our grandchildren.

When I was a boy, there was an old apple tree in the yard of an abandoned farm house down a dirt road beyond our house. In the autumn of the year, the ground was littered with rotten apples. Apple fights, spontaneous frays, were great fun. Late one September afternoon, beneath the old apple tree, the battle was joined. All went well until a buddy of mine threw a rotten apple at me. I ducked.

The apple sailed over my head and toward his girlfriend. The rotten apple hit her in the face! He was no longer the apple of her eye! She ditched him.

Beyond romance, apples have also been linked to good health. An old proverb attests to the health benefits of the fruit: an apple a day keeps the doctor away.

Research suggests that apples may reduce the risk of colon cancer, prostate cancer, and lung cancer. Like many fruits, apples contain vitamin C, as well as a host of other antioxidant compounds. They may also assist with heart health, weight loss, and cholesterol control. The chemicals in apples may protect us from the brain damage that results in Alzheimer’s disease and Parkinson’s disease.

Clare and I enjoy driving to the mountains in the fall to buy fresh apples from our favorite roadside stand. The display features more than thirty varieties of the fruit and other apple products – bread, jellies, and beverages. Juice made from sweet apples is filtered and pasteurized. Apple cider is unfiltered, unpasteurized juice. Apple wine is fermented sweet apple juice. Apple brandy is a distilled derivative.

Many old apple cultivars have excellent flavor and are still grown by home gardeners and farmers whose conservation efforts continue in the tradition of John Chapman. An American pioneer, he roamed the Midwest for more than fifty years. He earned his nickname, Johnny Appleseed, by planting apple trees across Ohio, Indiana, and Illinois.

The apples planted by Johnny Appleseed were the bitter variety. Henry David Thoreau wrote that the apples were “sour enough to set a squirrel’s teeth on edge and make a jay scream.” John Chapman provided a source for the most easily produced alcoholic beverage of early American times. Hard cider is fermented sour juice. Apple Jack is concentrated hard cider. President John Adams held that a tankard of cider a day kept the doctor away.

Jean Crossley operates the New Method Laundry and Dry Cleaning business in Spartanburg. One day we took clothes by to be laundered and pressed. In the course of the conversation, Clare said, “Whenever I do my own ironing, my shoulder hurts.”

Jean asked, “Do you take cider vinegar?”

Clare said, “No! I tried it, but I stopped.”

Jean explained that she takes cider vinegar every day. Jean is so energetic, even given her strenuous job and her long work hours, that Clare became a convert. She mixes a generous splash of cider vinegar in a tall glass of water and sips on it all day long.

Unfiltered apple cider vinegar has long been regarded as a home remedy. Check the label. The vinegar must be unfiltered! Two tablespoons of the sour elixir in a glass of water, taken as a daily tonic, is said to relieve or cure a number of ailments. The long list includes allergies, sinus infections, acne, high cholesterol, flu, chronic fatigue, acid reflux, sore throats, contact dermatitis, arthritis, and gout. Apple cider vinegar breaks down fat and promotes weight loss.  A daily dose is said to reduce high blood pressure and help control diabetes.

Clare’s aunt and uncle were true believers in the powers of apple cider vinegar. Mitch and Helen imbibed the remedy every day. They were traveling on a nostalgic steam locomotive trip. Box lunches were served to all the passengers. Every person aboard the train developed food poisoning except for Mitch and Helen. To this day, family lore holds that the apple cider vinegar protected them.

Members of Clare’s family are so enamored with the medicinal effects of drinking sour cider vinegar that it frequently becomes the topic of conversation at family gatherings. Clare is convinced that we, too, should drink our daily ration of sour unfiltered apple cider vinegar.

I have not acquired a taste for sour apple cider. Still, Clare encourages me.  Every single day I pour a quarter cup of apple cider vinegar in a glass. I mix mine with vegetable juice and chug it as fast as I can.

“I am drinking it because I love you,” I say.

So, I guess it does have something to do with love and maybe with good health. It certainly has something to do with family lore.

“You know,” she will say, “Mitch and Helen drank cider vinegar every day.”

“Yes, I know, and Mitch and Helen are dead.”

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