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ON DRINKING VINEGAR

March 7, 2021

Note to readers: During these difficult days for many people, Clare and I have been considering what we might do to help those in need. We have decided to continue our support for the charitable nonprofit organizations that are serving our community. Each week in this space, I will ask you to consider helping one charity. This week, please volunteer or donate, as you are able, to The Spartanburg Science Center and Science Museum 200 East Saint John Street, Spartanburg, South Carolina  29306, (864) 583-2777, https://www.spartanburgsciencecenter.org.

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 a 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 which were already served.  My dad offered his usual table grace.

“Lord, make us thankful for these and all our many blessings. Amen”

Before he got to Amen, I was reaching 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, and it was certainly not sweet.  It was apple cider vinegar, intended for the turnip greens.  Mama came to the rescue with a large pitcher of freshly brewed sweet iced tea.  From that day to this, I have never enjoyed drinking vinegar. 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, an old apple tree in the yard of an abandoned farmhouse was down a dirt road beyond our home. 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 fruit’s health benefits: 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 John Chapman’s tradition. 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.

Our good friend, Jean Crossley, is the longtime owner of 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, are said to relieve or cure many 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 acidic unfiltered apple cider vinegar.

The wisdom of Hebrew Scripture says that vinegar sets a person’s teeth on edge. Through bitter experience – and I do mean bitter – I have found that to be true. I have not acquired a taste for sour apple cider. Still, Clare encourages me.  Sometimes, I pour a quarter cup of apple cider vinegar into 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,” Clare will say, “Mitch and Helen drank cider vinegar every day.”

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

For Christians observing the season of Lent, drinking vinegar can have a deeper meaning. All four of the Biblical Gospels record that while dying on the cross, Jesus of Nazareth requested something to drink. The Apostle John wrote, “Jesus said, ‘I am thirsty.’ A jar of wine vinegar was there, so they soaked a sponge in it, put the sponge on a stalk of the hyssop plant, and lifted it to Jesus’ lips. When he had received the drink, Jesus said, ‘It is finished.’ With that, he bowed his head and gave up his spirit.”

Reflecting on this passage, I ask, Was the offering of vinegar an act of mocking or an act of mercy? Was it insult added to unimaginable injury? Or was it compassion prompted by unmitigated suffering?

I have never been quite sure. Some Gospel writers make it seem one way, some the other. Either way, it may be something to ponder and pray about for Lenten observance. If you choose to do that, take a sip of apple cider vinegar before you decide.

Kirk H. Neely is a freelance writer, a teacher, a pastoral counselor, and a retired pastor. He can be reached at kirkhneely44@gmail.com

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