A few years ago we went to visit my mother, who informed us that she had gotten into the habit of drinking vinegar. We told her she was out of her mind and she insisted she was not, that she bought special cider vinegar that is meant to be used in drinks, and that we were wrong.
Well, I don’t know about “special cider vinegar,” but I want to say formally that my mother was right, I am wrong, and not only is vinegar in drinks really good, it is in fact a time-honored beverage, not exclusively the province of fermented food trend whackadoos; and I would urge anyone who is very thirsty on a hot summer day to dose their seltzer (or glass of ice water) with a little carefully selected vinegar.
It was after I had mocked my mother for a while that I remembered that back in the colonial era, people used vinegar in drinks all the time: they were called shrubs. I pulled out some of my cookbooks and started reading and thought, “Ok, I’m wrong, this isn’t merely a stupid food trend, this has been a thing for a long time. I just wasn’t thinking about it.” I decided to try drinking vinegar for myself. The thing to remember is, despite the way it sounds, it’s not that you’re going to pour yourself a tall glass of white vinegar and drink it. It’s that you will be adding a very small amount of vinegar to a large glass of water or seltzer. If you think of it as a variant on adding a spike of bitters to your Manhattan, it makes sense.
So I took a little bit of cider vinegar and added it to a glass of seltzer. And lo: it was delicious. It sharpened the drink, truly making it more refreshing. The astringent quality of the vinegar was delicious. Then I kept reading, and realized that if so inclined, one could really go to town with this. As it happened, in the freezer, I had half a bag of frozen raspberries, which had originally been purchased at my daughter’s request for making smoothies (a fad she tired of after one smoothie, thank god). I got out the bag of totally freezer-burned raspberries and set to work. It was easy to cook up the raspberries with white vinegar and let it sit around for a few days. The resulting vinegar was bright pink. I put some of it into an old jam jar plain, and to a second jar of it I added a little sugar, just for the hell of it. Both of these things were excellent additions to tall glasses of seltzer — the unsugared one was also useful in making salad dressings. “Fruit vinegar is good to have around,” was the moral of the story.
Over the past winter, we happened to be in Madison, Connecticut one awful, sleety afternoon, and I noticed that there seemed to be a twee little shop that sold only vinegar. Because I’ve been having a hard time locating bottles of Mutti tomato vinegar (about which more some other time), I said to my family, “I wanna go in there, they might have tomato vinegar.” Everyone rolled their eyes at me but we dragged ourselves into the shop. I went directly to the man behind the desk and asked, “Do you sell tomato vinegar?” He had probably fifty different vinegars for sale, but he had no idea what I was talking about. I felt bad for having stymied the guy, and so when he offered to let me sample other vinegars he did have in stock, I said, “Sure.” The three of us walked around with the shopkeeper, dipping our tongues into these tiny plastic shot glasses; he’d put maybe a teaspoon of vinegar into each one. And though I thought the place was silly…. well, it was really interesting how different the vinegars tasted. And there were a couple where I immediately thought, “This would be really, really good on [fill in the blank].” I decided I would buy two vinegars, not because I needed them really, but because I felt bad that the guy was spending so much time leading us around the store; if he didn’t make a sale, he would be pissed, and I would feel terrible. Furthermore, I genuinely thought, “This stuff will make our food better.” It was a somewhat affordable luxury. I prepared myself mentally to spend about $20 on bottles of ludicrous vinegar.
My daughter wanted me to buy the chocolate vinegar, but I selected a fig vinegar, which is very dark and thick and looks almost like chocolate syrup, and a peach vinegar, which is white and thick, very different in character from the fig. We took our bottles home and almost immediately, I began to use the fig vinegar in the kitchen, all the time. I used it in salad dressings, I used it in marinades, I used it mixed with sweet vermouth to deglaze the pot I was searing a pot roast in. It was so good in winter cooking, I (once again) conceded that I had been wrong to make fun of the stuff.
The peach vinegar, however, sat in its bottle all but untouched. I had this idea that I would use it in chicken marinades in the summer. But it was my daughter who recently insisted I pull it out and use it. I’d walked her home from school, late in the afternoon. She’d had a long day at school, and then we’d been on the playground for an hour, and the temperature had climbed to almost eighty degrees — unusually warm for May. Her face was pink from running around. “How about when we get home I’ll fix you a glass of ice water,” I said. She nodded, but asked me if I’d add some peach vinegar to the water.
I thought, “My daughter is a genius.”
We went home and I poured her a glass of ice water with maybe half a teaspoon of peach vinegar in it, and then I made myself a tall one using seltzer. “How is it?” I asked her, as she guzzled hers down; I was still adding ice to my glass. “Perfect,” she said, gasping. I took a long sip from my glass, and said, “Oh my god, that is GOOD.” “More, please,” she asked, putting her glass on the counter next to me.
Since then, with dinner every night, I have consumed a beer stein filled with seltzer and ice with a teaspoon of peach vinegar mixed in. It is, right now, almost the only thing I want to drink at all. If I were just slightly more obsessed, I would start working on making my own peach vinegar (I am not going to do this, I have to draw lines somewhere). Instead, I think we may all decide it’s worth it to go back to Madison and hit up the twee little vinegar store for another bottle of peach vinegar. And maybe this time we’ll try the chocolate vinegar, too.