M.F.K. Fisher was not a drinks writer. She wrote wonderfully and extensively about food, but to the extent that she considered beverages at all, especially during her writing days in France and later, California, generally she preferred wine.
So when my husband found this 1963 copy of “A Cordiall Water” by Fisher, he sweetly thought he was buying for me a treasure — one of my favorite writers, writing about one of my favorite topics. It’s not hard to see why — doesn’t that drawing suggest a botanical gin, guzzled from a coupe glass?
Sadly, the book is almost entirely about health remedies, ranging from “useless quackery” to alarming and clearly dangerous. And frankly, I really could have done without the pontification on ways human excrement has been used through history to enhance one’s health and beauty.
That said, it’s fascinating to see how many times booze is invoked in health cures, including a couple of promising-sounding recipes for spirituous elixirs. For example, this unnamed one:
Take the flowers of at least 15 kinds of meadow plants, and the roots of at least five more, such as Peony, Licorice, and Hepatica. Clean and slice them finely, and cover them with white wine, to steep three days. Stir well, night and morning. Bring to the boil, and strain.
Mix with equal parts fine honey and with five parts of good fruit brandy. Store in a wooden cask for one year, and bottle. Drink cold or lukewarm on an empty stomach, to restore appetite, or a full one, to encourage it.
And here’s another tonic, which previously began “Take 12 quart bottles of the best bourbon whiskey…” but Fisher decoded “into a puny pint-size formula”:
Mrs. Lackner’s Mountain Bitters
Take Western sage blossoms, which must be gathered thoroughly dried and cured in the sun, and pack them into an empty pint bottle to the depth of two inches or more. Add to this the peel of one lemon which has been detached from its fruit and thoroughly dried in the sun. Fill the bottle to the top with good bourbon, and let stand for at least two weeks before using…the longer the better.”
Though I’d never make either of these for medicinal purposes, I’d still love to run these past people who are making bitters and infusions at home — are these viable recipes worth experimenting with today?