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SXFC: South by Fire Cider
Marking the start of spring with a different kind of activation.
I didn’t think I’d see it again.
South by Southwest was the first cultural casualty of COVID-19, but it wasn’t a fatality.
Over the last two weeks, Austin transformed into the city-within-a-city that is SXSW. It’s really more of a university-within-a-city, where attendees come for the educational enrichment and stay for the socializing (and day parties).
Was SXSW going to come back? Would festivalgoers?
For much of the past two years, I thought SXSW might not come back. The organization that runs the event — which started as a music showcase in 1987 and now includes a conference, speakers and hundreds of events focusing on technology, film, education, video games and even politics — laid off a third of its staff in the days following the 2020 cancellation.
(I’ll never forget that anxious Friday afternoon in the newsroom when we held our collective breath about whether SXSW officials were going to cancel the event, an unprecedented move that — for Austinites — became the official start of the pandemic.)
Last year’s SXSW took place entirely virtually — I interviewed Rachael Ray for one of the keynotes — but even as a participant, I could tell that the online-only experience was a big “meh.”
As this year’s festival approached, I was busy doing other things. I didn’t have a badge. I didn’t have any assignments. I didn’t have a schedule filled with 50 events over 10 days.
What I did have was something else: My mom.
YaYa visited during the kids’ spring break, a time of year she usually avoids because of the business of SXSW. But this year, I wasn’t required to work a single day of the festival, so we relaxed and enjoyed Austin at our own pace.
We strolled down South Congress to catch some free showcases at Lucy’s Fried Chicken, the SoCo Hotel and the San Jose Hotel.
It was just a few hours, but it was just the taste of SXSW familiarity that I was craving. I don’t know if I’ll ever go back to “doing SX” at full throttle, but seeing Tommy McClain and CC Adcock reminded me that — for all of the commercialization and over-the-top capitalism we’ve seen at this event — a heart of creativity and community still beats inside the machine.
But the best activation of the week happened far from downtown Austin.
As I mentioned a few weeks ago, I’ve been fully consumed by this herbalism program I started in February, learning the Latin binomials and functions of dozens of plants. It’s also the start of spring, so we’ve been busy planting the raised beds and reviving the herb gardens at Frank’s house, where we now count more than 30 medicinal plants under our care.
We did a little wildcrafting ourselves while my mom was here, foraging for agarita branches to make a tea and chopping a whole bunch of ingredients for my first batch of fire cider.
Fire cider is the umbrella term for apple cider vinegar concoctions, usually made with onion, horseradish, ginger and sometimes peppers, prickly pears or other ingredients specific to your area.
I’d heard about it before taking this class, but I didn’t realize that it had been the source of a lawsuit in 2015 that involved my herb teacher, the Cedar Creek-based Nicole Telkes, founder of Wildflower School of Botanical Medicine, who was one of three herbalists who was sued by a company that owned the trademark for using the term “fire cider” in their products and lobbying a boycott of the company’s products.
The Massachusetts-based CPG company called Shire City Herbals had successfully trademarked the term in 2012, even though its roots go back to the late 1970s kitchen of California herbalist Rosemary Gladstar.
A judge eventually ruled that the term is generic, a big win in the herbalism world, but that verdict hasn’t stopped other companies from trademarking similar terms, including “four thieves,” whose history (well, lore) goes back to the bubonic plague of the 14th century.
Nicole told us about her experience defending this potent potion in court in some of our early classes, and it’s a story Gladstar herself tells in a 2019 cookbook called “Fire Cider!: 101 Zesty Recipes for Health-Boosting Remedies Made with Apple Cider Vinegar,” which includes dozens of variations on fire cider and other vinegar-based tonics, as well as recipe for how to use them in salad dressings, hummus and other food preparations.
After poring through that book, I decided to make mine with the core ingredients plus what I had in my kitchen: the last of the winter grapefruit, a lemon and a lime, ginger and orange peels. We also included a few eggshells so that the calcium would dissolve in the vinegar and add minerals to this magic elixir.
I’ve been what you might call a hippie cook for a long time — fermenting kombucha, baking homemade bread, stuffing fresh sausage into casings — but this might have been the hippiest thing I’ve ever made. The punchy smell of horseradish, combined with the alliums, isn’t the most appealing scent to come from my kitchen, but I have faith that when I add honey at the end, it will be at least a little more palatable.
The health benefits of these kinds of infusions is what makes me interested to make them, and all of the recipes in this book give me faith that I’ll find my own favorite fire cider that I can share with anyone who wants.
Until I come up with my own spin, I’ll share Gladstar’s master recipe and recommend that book if you want to put a jar of it together yourself.
Rosemary’s Original Fire Cider
1/2 cup grated fresh horseradish root
1/2 cup or more fresh chopped onions
1/4 cup or more chopped garlic
1/4 cup or more grated ginger
Chopped fresh or dried cayenne pepper ‘to taste’. Can be whole or powdered. (‘To Taste’ means should be hot, but not so hot you can’t tolerate it. Better to make it a little milder than to hot; you can always add more pepper later if necessary.)
Optional ingredients; Turmeric, Echinacea, cinnamon, etc.
Place herbs in a half-gallon canning jar and cover with enough raw unpasteurized apple cider vinegar to cover the herbs by at least three to four inches. Cover tightly with a tight fitting lid.
Place jar in a warm place and let for three to four weeks. Best to shake every day to help in the maceration process.
After three to four weeks, strain out the herbs, and reserve the liquid.
Add honey ‘to taste’. Warm the honey first so it mixes in well. “To Taste’ means your Fire Cider should taste hot, spicy, and sweet. “A little bit of honey helps the medicine go down……”
Rebottle and enjoy! Fire Cider will keep for several months unrefrigerated if stored in a cool pantry. But it’s better to store in the refrigerator if you’ve room.
A small shot glass daily serves as an excellent tonic Or take teaspoons if you feel a cold coming on.
Take it more frequently if necessary to help your immune system do battle.
— Rosemary Gladstar, “Fire Cider!: 101 Zesty Recipes for Health-Boosting Remedies Made with Apple Cider Vinegar” (2019, Storey)
A few last little tidbits before I sign off:
I sat in on exactly one official SXSW event, a free afternoon of panels at Huston-Tillotson University organized by the Food Tank, where I got to hear about labor rights, land use and equity in the food system.
I’m not writing as much about these issues as I once did, but I’m still paying attention to them, and I can tell you this: For all of the injustice that remains in the food world, many justice-oriented people within the food system are finding opportunity in the chaos. From farmworkers in the Rio Grande Valley to chicken processing workers in Northwest Arkansas and Starbucks baristas in Buffalo, there’s a lot of righteous movements happening right now.
A culinary highlight of my mom’s trip was visiting Beerburg, the Dripping Springs-area brewery Beerburg that specializes in wildcraft beers made with the same plants I’m studying in this herb class. (I wrote about founder Trevor Nearburg’s passion for foraging in my very last story to run in the Statesman, and it turns out he’s a graduate of another herbalism program in Austin.)
This was my third visit to Beerburg, but this time, the food at Taqueria La Violeta is what stood out: Fresh masa for the tortillas, a trio of meats in the birria and the best papas bravas (with chipotle mayonnaise!) that I’ve had in a long time. Chef Ricardo Gutierrez is making some of the best Mexican food in Austin. Go visit him.
And lastly, I hope all of you are doing OK after that wave of tornados rushed through the Austin area on Monday night. We were right in the crosshairs of a tornado cell that passed through South Austin, but it disappeared before it hit us. We were prepared to hunker down in the hallway, which is likely what saved hundreds of lives in Williamson County that evening.
If you’re looking for ways to support those folks, here’s a list from the Statesman about how to help folks in Round Rock, Elgin and other nearby towns.
After the line of storms passed, my mom and I went outside and danced in the sunshine. It was a scary 30 minutes.
Thanks for your patience while I took last week off to be with my mom. Regularly scheduled Substacks will be arriving weekly, so stay tuned! Your subscriptions mean so much to me, so thank you for supporting my indie journalism project.
During these uncertain times, knowing that I have a platform to share my writing directly with readers means so much.
My heart feels the same pang that yours does every Wednesday when I get the newspaper and don’t see my column in it, but if you are enjoying receiving these digital missives from me, tell your friends. Being a freelancer is a marathon, not a sprint, and I’m grateful to play the long game.
P.S. I’m still doing tarot readings and parties! This month has been busy with both, including this sweet little gathering a few Fridays ago. A girlfriend of mine was having some of her friends over, and she invited me to teach a private Tarot 101 class and then do readings with each of the guests. It was such a special night, and I hope to do many more of these in the future. Curious? Check out dontfearthedeathcard.com or follow me on Instagram: @dontfearthedeathcard