For two summers in a row now, my younger sister has come to visit me in New York City. She arrives at my apartment, tanned, in dusty work boots and always, always, some kind of frayed denim. We hug and kiss, and almost immediately she’s pulling from her backpack: firm, jubilant green beans; tight and waxy oblong tomatoes; small perky peaches that fit in our palms. I reach greedily for everything she hands me, already slathering mayonnaise on toast and slicing the tomatoes. They leak across my countertop.
It’s become tacit tradition that in the place of souvenirs, my sister delivers to me fresh produce from the farms she works on. In the fall, she saves space in her suitcase for a butternut squash, sweet as maple. And in the summer, her backpack bulges with tender summer treats. Her luggage is heavy at first, yet she always returns to her home with a much lighter load, a gourd-shaped silhouette in her clothes where produce once lay.
Our personalities don’t clash — quite the opposite, actually — but our ideas of a perfect environment most definitely do. Where I find promise in the hum of a crowded New York sidewalk, she finds anxiety. She winces at the exhaust from a tailpipe as we careen around Brooklyn on bikes.
I learn a lot from my sister who, three years ago, eschewed any whisper of a city life and made her way to a farm in North Carolina where she tends to pigs and chickens and knobby-kneed lambs. I now know what the process of giving birth to a calf looks like or can vaguely understand the tectonic hum of a tractor marching through a field of dry wheat.
A farmer’s schedule is decidedly different from that of a food site staff writer who commutes into Manhattan on a stuffy subway car. Her afternoons are spent sitting in the shade of a tree waiting out the sun’s harshest hours, while I spend mine deflecting the oily waves of heat that emanate off the concrete.
Each time she comes, she’s surprised by the city’s heat. We grew up in Texas, yet a heat compounded by exhaust — minus any trace of sky for it to dissipate into ― is alien for us. It suffocates her. As we trudge across Brooklyn, our socks heavy with what seems like sand, she pulls out her water bottle. “Here, taste this,” she offers.
I’m thirsty, so I concede. And I love water, so I take a big gulp. But what I taste, it isn’t water. At least, not by itself. It’s sharp and tangy and a little sweet, and tastes like a sports drink but doesn’t numb your taste buds with sugar. It’s good — I think — but it’s not water.
“Huh?!” I eke out. “What is this?”
“Switchel,” she counters.
“Sw-what?!” Now I’m confused. What weird concoction is she feeding me?
“It’s switchel. We drink it on the farm. It helps beat the heat, it’s more exciting than water, and it’s refreshing. Chill.” She’s three years younger than me, but really has never had a problem telling me to chill. “It’s water with a splash of apple cider vinegar and some maple syrup. It’s like farmers' Gatorade.” I’m hooked. I spend the rest of the afternoon draining her water bottle and it actually keeps me quite at ease. I like this stuff, I think; I could get used to it.
Plus, the drink's surrounded by all sort of talk touting its benefits. Some claim that the drink can help restore electrolytes, or that the apple cider vinegar (I use Bragg's brand) aids the absorption of water. Every time I have a sip, I feel a bit of a boost in my energy — a tiny acidic shock to my system.
A few days later, she leaves again. Back to the farm, back to long hours, back to the cool Carolina breeze. We part ways with a hug and I send her off in a taxi as she speeds to the airport, leaving me to toil in the cement oven we call a city. I go back into my apartment and fill a tall glass with cold water, a drop or two of apple cider vinegar, and a spoonful of honey (the only sweetener I’ve got), and suddenly I feel a lot more chill.
4 teaspoons apple cider vinegar (I like the unfiltered stuff best, like Bragg’s)
4 tablespoons pure maple syrup
Fresh ginger, peeled and thinly sliced — as much as you want. I usually slice up a piece the size of my thumb.
4 cups water
1. Combine all ingredients in a large jar. Shake to combine thoroughly, then refrigerate at least 12 hours. To serve, strain into glasses filled with ice — or heat it and drink as a tea.
Click here for the full recipe.